CBRNE Threats

Sep 15, 2012

Where does Canada stand on the topic of CBRNE (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, explosive) threats – this less likely, most dangerous, and much discussed realm of security and safety threats to humanity? There are a myriad of international treaties and conventions on these matters.

The 50-plus year history of these agreements and conventions has been coloured and varied: one major success (no nuclear attack since Hiroshima), several accidents, and many localized breaches. The fact that humanity has steered relatively clear from military use is a testimony to that rare ­wisdom brought about in international relations by “Mutual Assured Destruction” (or even major incapacitating damage). In short, the unpredictable disastrous results outweigh the risk of use for a marginal benefit. This works well at this level when potential use is viewed through “Balance of Power and Cold War lenses”.

The burning questions today are: Will this remain the case in the coming years? What, if any, changes should lead us to pay more, or less, attention to these issues? In what way, and at what levels?

On the nuclear side, the results of major energy generator accidents such as Chernobyl and Tsushima still lead us to sober contemplation of the risk/benefit discussions of nuclear energy and the reasoned degree of protection and emergency preparedness to attenuate it and make it “acceptable”.

In the chemical and biological arenas, there have been some uses, such as the Iran/Iraq war or Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. However, there is major concern by serious international agencies about the increased risk and sources of their use. This concern relates to the fact that usage, and thus the security risk, will move away from major powers to use by international and local criminals, terrorists and even unethical private sector agencies in this more global economy.

For instance, in the matter of CBRNE, Interpol views the threat as follows:

“Even though CBRN attacks are considered to be low-incidence crimes, it is worth noting that – unlike radiological, nuclear and biological agents – chemical materials can be found and acquired almost anywhere in modern societies. In today’s world, it is relatively easy for terrorist groups to gain access to chemical materials in order to manufacture weapons such as Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) or Improvised Chemical Devices (ICDs). Incidents such as the Oklahoma bombing in 1995, the Madrid bombings in 2004, the London bombings in 2005, the Oslo bombing in 2011, as well as the sarin gas attacks in Tokyo in 1995, are all examples of horrific events where chemical or explosive materials were used to cause death and destruction at levels exceeding those of traditional criminal acts. Terrorist groups have a long history of favouring explosives as a popular weapon of choice to create an immediate large-scale effect with multiple casualties and thus terrorise an entire society. Even a small-scale attack using Toxic Industrial Chemicals (TICs) can inspire extreme fear among a civilian population and have a disproportionate psychological impact.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross shares similar concerns in this area and warn of other deadly options. The International Committee of the Red Cross Summary Report (2002) on Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity stated:

“… The warnings of what can go wrong are profoundly disturbing. The ICRC believes these merit reflection at every level of society. Testimony from governments, UN agencies, scientific circles, medical associations and industry provides a long list of existing and emerging capacities for misuse. These include:

  • Deliberate spread of existing diseases such as typhoid, anthrax and smallpox to cause death, disease and fear in a population.
  • Alteration of existing disease agents rendering them more virulent, as already occurred unintentionally in research on the “mousepox” virus.
  • Creation of viruses from synthetic materials, as occurred this year using a recipe from the Internet and gene sequences from a mail order supplier.
  • Possible future development of ethnically or racially specific biological agents. Creation of novel biological warfare agents for use in conjunction with corresponding vaccines for one’s own troops or population. This could increase the attractiveness of biological weapons.
  • New methods to covertly spread naturally occurring biological agents to alterphysiological or psychological processes of target populations such as consciousness, behaviour and fertility, in some cases over a period of years.
  • Production of biological agents that could attack agricultural or industrial infrastructure. Even unintended release of such agents could have uncontrollable and unknown effects on the natural environment.
  • Creation of biological agents that could affect the makeup of human genes, pur­suing people through generations and adversely affecting human evolution itself.”

In January 2011, Public Safety Canada released its Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives Resilience Action Plan for Canada. The document states that:

“This Action Plan is based on the five strategic objectives [that are] core to developing CBRNE resilience:   

  • Provide leadership for coordinated policy and program development;
  • Integrate CBRNE into an all-hazards risk management approach;
  • Use capability-based planning to inform policy, program and investment decisions;
  • Build an effective and interoperable workforce;
  • Optimize information and knowledge management.

Under each strategic objective, action items are identified according to broad themes. Action items, specific tasks towards those action items, and corresponding deliverables form the basis to meeting the strategic objectives.”

Similarly, the US National Science and Technology Council Committee on Homeland and National Security Subcommittee on Standards released “A National Strategy for CBRNE Standards”. This latter report of Aug 2011 stressed the breadth of participation and set goals and timelines for achieving necessary standards: “… this Strategy covers the need for CBRNE standards. In addition to specifying high-level goals, this Strategy identifies lead activities to accomplish these goals, and provides the foundation to bridge current gaps. As such, it ­establishes a structure to facilitate the coordination of CBRNE investments and activities among agency leaders, program managers, the research and testing community, and the private sector.”

Finally and most significantly, both of these initiatives were formally correlated and made part of one of the most important governance documents between the US and Canada since the Free Trade Agreement, when Prime Minister Harper and President Obama released the “Perimeter Security and Economic Competitiveness Action Plan in February” wherein it states the following, deemed pertinent to CBRN:

“Establish binational plans and capabilities for emergency management, with a focus on chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosives (CBRNE) events.

Next Steps: The first working group will focus on preventing, mitigating, preparing for, responding to and recovering from CBRNE events. It will:

  • Establish joint training opportunities and share lessons learned to enhance preparedness for, and response to, CBRNE events in both countries;
  • Establish bilateral information-exchange opportunities to share advancements in policies, plans, science and technology, and lessons learned;
  • Establish a strategy that can enhance bilateral interoperability for conducting CBRNE response; and
  • Develop a mutual-assistance CBRNE concept of operations.

The second working group will focus on cross-border interoperability as a means of harmonizing cross-border emergency communications efforts. It will pursue activities that promote the harmonization of the Canadian Multi-Agency Situational Awareness System with the U.S. Integrated Public Alert and Warning System to enable sharing of alert, warning and incident information to improve response coordination during binational disasters. Specifically, this working group will:

  • Coordinate national-level emergency communications plans and strategies;
  • Identify future trends and technologies related to communications interoperability;
  • Promote the use of standards in emergency communications;
  • Promote governance models and structures; and
  • Share best practices and lessons learned.

Measuring Progress: Public Safety Canada, the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will establish the working groups that will develop work plans and validation metrics by October 30, 2012. They will validate their bilateral efforts within a five-year period.”

On the 23 November Candice Bergen, Parliamentary Secretary to the Honourable Vic Toews, Minister of Public Safety, stated:

“Serious incidents involving hazardous materials can happen in Canada and the United States. Establishing the bi-national CBRNE Work Group demonstrates our commitment to preparedness with a common focus across the Canada-US border so that we can remain resilient in the event of a CBRNE situation. Given the prevalence of CBRNE materials for industrial and scientific use and the evolving nature of potential threats, cooperation and preparedness at all levels is crucial. Shared learning opportunities with our provincial and territorial counterparts support our collaboration with the U.S. It is in our national interest to ensure our shared border with the U.S. is as open, efficient and secure as possible.”

Monitor Accountability
(Also see: http://www.actionplan.gc.ca/en/page/bbg-tpf/perimeter-security-and-econo...)

All of these initiatives are indeed to be applauded. They must also be measured and followed as they progress. For instance, since the January 2011 CBRNE Action Plan was published, we are already entering into the second year (or level as indicated in the Plan), and many actions and designations will come due in 2013.

To keep the focus on achieving these will undoubtedly be important to the pertinence of these issues, as surrounding fiscal challenges hit every level of government and private enterprise. The all-encompassing nature of the CBRNE threats, like those of Emergency Response and Cyber Security, are better dealt with on a continental level and in depth throughout our public and private sectors for they know no boundaries when they appear. What we learn in one will affect the other.

Let us not end up two years from now with an Auditor General of Canada report on the Perimeter Security and Economic Competitiveness Action Plan like the one we just received in October of this year on Cyber Security for Critical Infrastructure, wherein the following criticisms, among others, were reported:

  • “we were unable to determine how much of the $780 million was specifically allocated to activities for the protection of critical infrastructure from cyber threats.”
  • “At the time of our audit, 11 years after the Government of Canada first committed to using partnerships to strengthen Canada’s critical infrastructure protection, we found uneven progress in establishing working sector networks.”
  • “Monitoring the cyber threat environment has not been complete or timely.”

Canada, we can do better.

Clive Addy, is the Executive Editor of Frontline Security.
© Frontline Security 2012