The FBI had interrogated Mateen twice in the past, but never had cause to arrest him, or to keep him under constant surveillance. In the aftermath of attacks like those in Orlando and San Bernardino, some critics charge that Comey and his people were not aggressive enough in monitoring or arresting the perpetrators of those attacks before they occurred. Others argue that the FBI has overstepped constitutional boundaries in its drive to find out what people might be planning, often by entrapping suspected terrorists into actually creating attack plans they might otherwise never have thought of.
Bergen cites several cases in which defendants have argued that while they might have expressed hostile thoughts to someone who ended up informing on them, the FBI stepped in and, through informants or undercover agents, created an attack plan for them, encouraged them to try to carry it out—and then arrested them when they proceeded with the attempted attack. And someone tells us about it. What should we do? Or was he drunk?
In fact, an informant was assigned to sound out Mateen two years before the Orlando attack, after co-workers reported that he had allegedly made inflammatory comments about terrorists. But Mateen did not seem to be a threat. The FBI has charged approximately 90 individuals with plotting a terrorist attack since So far, no entrapment defense has been successful.
George Selim, the director of the Office for Community Partnerships, works with a staff of about 30—as well as with Jeh Johnson personally—to encourage leaders in Muslim communities to look for signs of trouble more subtle and further upstream than abandoned luggage, such as teenagers in schools or at mosques who appear disaffected.
Johnson, who has thrown himself into the CVE effort, says that when he goes into Muslim communities, he tells people that he understands profiling. In fact, most government agencies initially defied a presidential directive and refused to even install the much-derided Einstein. She has worked to professionalize the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center, which, although it has produced yet another mind-numbing acronym NCCIC , has the potential to be effective, according to one Silicon Valley star programmer who has advised the Obama White House on cyberissues.
Some sit at screens looking for trouble as they monitor the innards of dozens of federal agencies except the Defense Department, which has its own cybersecurity apparatus. For example, a dramatic upsurge in traffic at the IRS during tax time, in mid-April, would mean nothing, but the same spike on Commerce Department servers could spell trouble. Others monitor web traffic around the world, looking for similar regional or countrywide anomalies that could indicate attempted sabotage.
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I asked Schneck whether cyberattacks on the government would be impossible or nearly impossible anytime soon. The voluntary information-sharing process has been made easier by recent legislation that shields private companies from liability for sharing the information. What happens when they figure out how to use it to break into a chemical plant, or a blood bank and change the blood types?
We know they are trying. Last fall Ted Koppel, the former ABC News correspondent and Nightline anchor, published Lights Out , a short, alarming book that makes the case that the United States is unprepared for a cyberattack on its electric grid. Tens of millions of Americans could be left without power for weeks or even months—and, therefore, also without access to water, ATMs, the towers that transmit their cellphone messages, and other lifelines. Koppel argues that neither the power companies nor the government has sufficient protective measures or backup plans to avert or recover from this kind of disaster.
Because much has improved in the two years since Koppel began his research, the odds of us facing a sustained power outage are lower than Koppel calculates. Koppel writes that a smartly directed cyberattack could disable enough giant transformers to cause huge swaths of the country to lose power—and that it would take months to procure and ship replacements to get the grid back online. But according to Gerry Cauley, the president of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, an industry trade group, there are now reserves of these transformers placed strategically across the country.
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Moreover, Cauley told me, cyber-repair teams are prepared to spring into action much the way that power-line repair teams from across the country did in response to Hurricane Sandy. The energy-infrastructure team helps organize a biennial attack exercise, during which energy-company executives, along with relevant law-enforcement and other officials, convene for two days to simulate how they would work together in the event of an attack.
In all, more than 4, people participated in the exercise. Along with executives and officials in Washington, local law-enforcement and power-company personnel across the country helped defend and recover from simulated cyberattacks, bomb blasts, and gunfire at multiple facilities.
Exploiting some of our vulnerabilities requires more expertise and planning than a one-off shooting spree in a mall.
And, of course, they could be homegrown. Many such threats remain, including the bioterror attack that the Libby panel warned of last year. The potential for sabotaging a freight train carrying oil or toxic chemicals, which could kill thousands, would also be on my list. But my reporting leads me to conclude that the most ominous terrorist threat—based on the relative ease of pulling off such an attack, the possible damage it could do, and, most of all, the danger of overreaction to it—is the dirty bomb.
In March , Joe Biden, who was then the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, held a hearing in which the president of the Federation of American Scientists used a study recently completed by his organization to describe a doomsday scenario unfolding a few blocks from Capitol Hill. Biden had convened the committee to hear testimony about the threat of dirty bombs—a conventional explosive mixed with commonly available radiological material, such as that used in hospitals and industrial facilities.
Henry Kelly, then the president of the federation, which was formed by scientists in to study ways to prevent nuclear catastrophes, described for the committee what would happen if a small conventional bomb mixed with a small amount of cesium—which can be found in everything from nuclear reactors to radiation therapy for cancer patients—were set off at the National Gallery of Art. The contaminated area would cover 40 city blocks that include the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, and the Capitol. According to Kelly, an extra one in 10, people would die of cancer if people were not evacuated and if the area were not completely scrubbed.
The decontamination process could take years and cost billions, because radioactive material adheres stubbornly to cement, which means that many roads, sidewalks, and buildings would have to be replaced. However, that prospective death toll is worse than it sounds. Indeed, as the hearing proceeded, it became clear that dirty bombs present less a safety challenge than a perception challenge. In a city of ,, the contamination level Kelly cited would mean an extra 50 cancer deaths over a period of years—an incremental casualty rate that could probably be offset by an antismoking campaign in one or two D.
Even concentrations of radiation higher than what Kelly posited would still not endanger masses of people. But because of popular perception, an explosion would unleash panic—which is why many experts are surprised that a dirty-bomb attack has not happened. The ingredients are readily available. And those are just the publicly reported losses and thefts. This was the last of a series of meetings of world leaders that Obama had initiated in to address nuclear proliferation. But if only 23 countries have committed to securing their radioactive material, that leaves most of the world uncommitted to securing widely dispersed ingredients for dirty bombs.
Last October, DHS officials testified before a House transportation subcommittee on whether someone from one of those countries could ship such material through an American port. They tried to put the best gloss on a scary reality. Todd Owen, a Customs official, said that all 11 million containers arriving at U.
Scanning every container—which is what that Customs supervisor at the New Jersey port wanted to do on the afternoon of September 11—at least with X-rays, if not by hand-searching them, was mandated by Congress in Only about 3 percent of containers those that register high on the threat matrix are now X-rayed. One hundred percent do pass through some kind of radiation monitor, Owen said—but those monitors cannot detect radiological material wrapped in lead or other protective covering.
This is why the thousands of small radiation monitors that police in cities like New York now carry may be an important tool for detecting unshielded illicit material, but are unlikely to detect a dirty bomb, because the low levels of radiation necessary for such a device are not difficult to shield.
Moreover, hundreds of thousands of a different kind of potential container—cars coming into American ports from factories abroad—are never X-rayed at all or subject to any kind of actual threat-matrix analysis. I asked John P. The material is used for everything from testing the ground for oil drilling to irradiating food in order to kill germs. In addition, some 1, hospitals and other medical facilities use high-risk radiological material. The NRC regulates all entities that use radiological material and imposes security requirements on them.
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The NNSA is responsible for maintaining the safety of the American nuclear arsenal and also for providing expertise related to counterproliferation. In that context, it conducts security surveys and encourages facilities to enforce standards that are much tighter than those required by the NRC. But the NNSA itself can impose no security requirements. If a dirty bomb goes off in Washington or on Wall Street, the question of why the standards that one federal agency the NNSA believes are necessary are higher than those of the federal agency the NRC that can actually regulate toxic material will no doubt be the subject of another blue-ribbon commission.
What this new commission will find is that once the adrenaline flowing from the September 11 attacks receded, the industries licensed by the NRC began to push back against those sounding the terror alarm. That is a major improvement; in , the GAO noted that only hospitals had made these upgrades. Other hospitals and medical facilities have been persuaded to make the transition from high-risk material to newer, safer substitutes. But that still leaves hundreds of medical facilities with threadbare security, many in highly populated urban areas.
Nonmedical industrial users remain an even bigger threat. In , the GAO issued a report that will be another proverbial smoking gun if something catastrophic happens. Some trucks carrying radiological devices used by oil-drilling companies, for example, were found to have cheap padlocks to secure the equipment. Background checks of drivers and warehouse employees were not standardized. GPS devices for the trucks, which could track them down if they were stolen, were not required.
Storerooms containing material that could be used to turn Disney World into a ghost town had no entry alarms and were protected by simple padlocks—if they were locked at all. Even when storerooms and trucks did have alarms, many were found to be inoperable or shut off. The TSA spends about 98 percent of its budget on one transportation sector, aviation.
Why does it make sense to screen airplane passengers and not the millions more people getting on trains and subways every day?
And why place all those resources at our big freight ports when a pleasure boat carrying a dirty bomb can arrive in Florida from the Bahamas with no inspection? What about the ferries that each haul thousands of people through the waters off New York City and Seattle? A well-placed explosive could kill many more people on a train or boat than on a jetliner. In May, the inspector general of DHS sharply criticized the TSA for failing to implement legislation passed in requiring a variety of security measures for Amtrak, including checking to see if railroad employees were on terrorist watch lists.
Why not? The New York City subway system has about as many entrances as there are checkpoints at all the airports in the country. Imagine: shoes off before boarding the subway. In fact, despite our best efforts, terror is destined to become, yes, routine—a three- or four-times-a-year headline event, perhaps almost as routine in this country as people with mental-health problems buying a semiautomatic and going hunting at a school or movie theater. But if, as seems to be the case, Americans have come to accept mass killings carried out by those who are mentally unstable as horrifying but not apocalyptic, why do they perceive an attack linked—even if just rhetorically by the perpetrator—to Islamist terrorism differently?
In contrast, when the perpetrators are Muslim and seem influenced by terrorist ideologies—as at Fort Hood, the Boston Marathon bombing, San Bernardino, and Orlando—the outrage and fear is much more palpable. And yet, the fact is that Americans are far more likely to be injured or killed by gun violence than a terrorist attack.
In that instance, the sheer ordinariness of the venue—a meeting room at a family-services center—exacerbated the anxiety. Iconic structures or those housing high-profile businesses should be the most fortified, as should those where an attack could cause inordinate damage. Imagine if just a few of these people got together and shot up a few malls the same day around the country. Then no one would feel safe. Yes, we can take steps to harden those softer targets a bit. We can improve surveillance technology and add guards. But there is a limit.
Then, when passengers arrive at the airport, undercover security agents look for suspicious people in the departure lobby. The third layer is at the security checkpoint, where passengers are screened for valid identity credentials and to make sure they are not carrying anything dangerous. Fourth, an air marshal might be on board the plane to interrupt a possible attack.
The fortified cockpit door offers a final security layer. The fact that we have all these layers is our tacit admission that no single layer of defense is perfect—but the odds of getting through all of them, while not zero, are pretty steep. Think of the process as a funnel, in which we start with a large population and whittle it down, layer by layer, to those allowed to board a plane.
That so many could pour into the top of the funnel—including those recruited online, at home in America, without having to cross any border—is as important in calculating our odds of avoiding an attack as assessing the remaining gaps in even our most porous layers. And they get little attention from the rest of us until something goes wrong. We go about our lives oblivious to the threats that are their obsession—until the next catastrophe produces headlines. Meantime, we often dismiss their work that is visible to us, such as at the airports, as excessive.
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Yet we remain so ready to be retroactively indignant if something goes wrong that political leaders, encouraged by a Beltway culture that tries to keep the spigot always turned on, are afraid to make any choices other than to declare everything a priority. In theory, a realistic approach should be uncontroversial. But when it comes to terrorism, the balance between prevention and accepting the reality that prevention will not always work is trickier.
In his report on DHS, Senator Coburn demonstrated how officials who make mitigation and recovery a priority can be political targets. We have to do both. In fact, to focus solely on prevention while ignoring response and recovery—or vice versa—would be irresponsible. Mitigation and recovery need to be about more than repairing physical damage. As a short-term measure, it was a sensible effort to calm a shocked nation.
When The Atlantic published this account, Obama was immediately attacked by Republicans in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail for not taking terrorism seriously and for admitting defeat. But when it comes to the weapon in the terrorist arsenal that is most about perception versus reality—the dirty bomb—he has recognized the problem yet fallen short of the challenge. Beyond forcing his Nuclear Regulatory Commission to promulgate security regulations at least as strict as the measures his National Nuclear Security Administration is stuck trying to persuade custodians of radiological material to adopt, the president ought to launch an education campaign about dirty bombs from his own bully pulpit.
President Obama and his administration obviously understand the perception problem. In , the Environmental Protection Agency, in a move coordinated by the National Security Council, softened its Protective Action Guides related to radiation incidents. These are the radiation metrics, originally published by the EPA in , that first responders would use to determine what area, if any, had to be evacuated in the event of a radiological-contamination event. With the change in these guidelines, the bomb hypothesized in the Senate testimony of the Federation of American Scientists president—which would have forced the abandonment of a block area around Capitol Hill—might now dictate the clearing of a smaller area or no area at all, depending on the type of bomb.
All of which makes sense—except that the Obama administration squandered an opportunity by flinching when it came to announcing the change. There was no press release. No public explanation at all. On any given day, more than half the world's population sees news from AP. Michael Jordan. Muhammad Ali. Robin Williams. Fishermen Slaves. In , the event changed irrevocably when two bombs exploded near the finish line, killing three people and injuring more than others.
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