Protecting Hazardous Materials: A New Mission

Richard A. Falkenrath
Richard A. Falkenrath Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, The Brookings Institution

April 27, 2005


Good morning, Madam Chairman, Senator Lieberman, and Members of the Committee. I am grateful for the opportunity to be here today to provide my views on the vulnerability of toxic industrial chemicals to terrorist attack and the steps which could be taken to better protect this target set.

A New Mission: Critical Infrastructure Protection, Prioritization, and Protection

The basic strategy employed by Al Qaeda on September 11, 2001, was to strike a common, poorly secured commercial system in a manner that would cause catastrophic secondary effects. The terrorists did a better job identifying the particular vulnerability associated with the suicide hijacking of fully fueled commercial airliners than the government did, and then exploited this vulnerability to terrible effect. In the aftermath of the attack, the Administration and the Congress acted quickly and aggressively to reduce the vulnerability of U.S. commercial aircraft to suicide hijacking. I now think it is safe to say that our commercial aircraft are virtually impossible to hijack; only a very foolish terrorist would even try.

Suicide hijacking of commercial aviation is, of course, only one of many different tactic/target combinations available to a terrorist organization. Because terrorists are adaptive enemies, we must assume that they are continually searching out other catastrophic vulnerabilities in our society. One central question in homeland security is whether the terrorists will again locate another major vulnerability in American society, exploiting it to catastrophic effect just as they did on September 11, 2001.

Prior to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, no government department or agency was responsible for the broad-based strategic protection of the United States from high-consequence terrorism. Today, as a result of the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and Homeland Security Presidential Directive 7, the Secretary of Homeland Security is responsible for identifying and prioritizing potentially catastrophic vulnerabilities in the U.S. homeland, analyzing their present security schemes, and effecting appropriate security enhancement wherever the current security arrangement is deficient. Beneath the Secretary, lead responsibility for this mission has been assigned to the Under Secretary for Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection, though the successful implementation of this mission will require close collaboration with other parts of DHS, other federal departments and agencies, state and local government agencies, and the private sector.