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Statement of John P. O'Neill, Section Chief, National Security Division, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Hearing on Terrorist Use of Nuclear/Biological/Chemical Agents

Before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations
United States Senate

November 1, 1995

Mr. Chairman,

Thank you for the opportunity to address your subcommittee on the threat caused by the proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) weapons. I'd also like to tell you about the measures which have been taken by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to detect, prevent, and respond to the use of NBC in the United States.

As you know, special weapons proliferation concerns the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and their delivery systems. The FBI is the primary agency for foreign counterintelligence and counterterrorism investigations within the United States. The FBI has developed and coordinates a special weapons proliferation program in order to prevent the malevolent use and/or proliferation of WMD, including nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons in the United States. The program relies on proactive domestic programs, foreign counterintelligence investigations in the United States, criminal investigations, counterterrorism investigations, close coordination with the intelligence community, and international cooperation. As we have seen in our recent investigations, the ramifications of a terrorist act committed in the United States are great. The potential for the loss of life and damaging psychological effects from a terrorist attack in the United States involving NBC are even greater. Simply put, we can't afford one such attack. Fortunately, to date, our investigations in the United States reveal no intelligence that rogue nations using terrorism, international terrorist groups, or domestic terrorist groups are planning to use these deadly weapons. We remain vigilant, however, to the possibility of NBC terrorism, by pursuing intelligence and countermeasures programs that are well coordinated and well exercised. Our first goal is to prevent such an incident from occurring. Secondly, we must ensure we have the capabilities to respond swiftly and decisively should an attack occur.

I'd like to speak about the threat of nuclear terrorism first.

Within the past few years, there have been hundreds of reports of international smuggling incidents involving nuclear material. The FBI has been involved in numerous nuclear smuggling investigations. In evaluating this threat to date, there are no known instances where such nuclear weapons or weapons-grade nuclear materials have actually existed or been purchased in the United States. However, the FBI continues to investigate vigorously all allegations related to nuclear threats within our jurisdiction.

One of our most recent successful initiatives in this area was the FBI-sponsored international law enforcement conference on nuclear smuggling, held from April 18 to April 20, 1995, at the FBI academy. Among the 150 participants were law enforcement representatives from 23 foreign countries, including the Russian Federation and the newly independent states. This conference displayed unparalleled cooperation between law enforcement and intelligence entities and culminated in an invaluable exchange, where participants examined the international criminal problem of nuclear smuggling and its counterintelligence and terrorism implications.

With regard to nuclear terrorism, it is acknowledged that the production of a nuclear weapon would entail considerable technical expertise and funding, thereby lessening the likelihood of such an incident at this time.

The ability of terrorists to obtain and employ C/B agents, however, is no longer subject to speculation. The sarin gas attacks in Japan earlier this year, allegedly carried out by Aum Shinrikyo, crossed the threshold with the use of a nerve agent to attack a civilian population. In response to the March 20, 1995 attack in the Tokyo subway system, the FBI opened a criminal investigation based upon a violation of Title 18, U.S. Code, Section 2331, which authorizes FBI extraterritorial investigation. As a result, we dispatched FBI agents to Japan. We have extraterritorial jurisdiction in this matter because two American citizens were victims of the sarin gas attack. Thankfully, both of them survived their injuries. The FBI is unable to confirm any additional investigations, if any, as this would be classified information.

Despite the fact that conventional methods of attack are the proven choice of terrorist organizations to date, the use of a C/B weapon or agent can no longer be ruled out, as the sarin gas attack in Tokyo demonstrated. Other groups may be inspired to employ C/B weapons for future terrorist attacks due to the worldwide attention the Japanese attacks received.

Low production cost, ease of concealment, and lethality make some C/B agents possible terrorist weapons. Due to the relative ease with which a C/B weapon could be acquired or constructed by a terrorist or terrorist group, the FBI remains vigilant to that possibility through our active investigations and close coordination with the intelligence community. In consideration of the magnitude and potential catastrophic consequences of the release of such a weapon, the FBI aggressively pursues countermeasures programs and the readiness to respond to and mitigate the consequences of such an attack.

However, the only documented C/B attack in the United States involves the use of a biological agent, which occurred in Oregon in 1984, when two members of a sect produced and dispensed salmonella bacteria in restaurants in order to affect the outcome of a local election. 715 persons were affected; fortunately there were no fatalities.

The FBI recently concluded a case involving subjects who had manufactured ricin, which is a deadly poison derived from castor bean seeds. This extremely toxic poison is easily prepared, and all of the materials necessary to produce it, as well as the instructions on its production, were acquired from publicly available sources. The four individuals investigated for producing the ricin espoused extremist antigovernment, anti-tax ideals, and advocated the violent overthrow of the government. For the ricin poisoning, they had specifically targeted a deputy U.S. marshal who had previously served papers on one of them for tax violations. To carry out the poisoning, the subjects mixed the ricin with a solvent which would allow its absorption into the bloodstream. They conspired to smear the ricin mixture on doorknobs or steering wheels in order to poison their victim.

The FBI intervened in time to prevent the attack. This case is the first biological weapons investigation brought to trial and successfully prosecuted under the biological weapons antiterrorism act of 1989. On Feb. 28, 1995, two defendants in the case were found guilty under Title 18, U.S. Code, Sections 175 and 2, naming them principals in the ricin poisoning conspiracy. Two additional subjects involved were recently convicted on Oct. 25, 1995, for violation of Title 18, U.S. Code, Sections 175 and 371, naming them co-conspirators.

There is a valid concern over the relative ease with which biological materials and chemical precursors can be obtained. For example, in May 1995 an individual is alleged to have acquired three vials of yersina pestis, the organism which causes bubonic plague, from a bio-medical supply company. The material was recovered, unopened, by law enforcement officials, and the individual was arrested and charged with fraud. On June 27, 1995, the individual was indicted by a federal grand jury on three counts of fraud by wire for opening the account by phone, faxing letterhead memo with an fraudulent environmental protection agency number and ordering the three vials, which had been shipped via federal express.

To date, these are the only cases involving the potential use of biological agents that the FBI has investigated where prosecution has been sought. On recent occasions, the FBI has responded to communicated threats of NBC terrorist attacks; to include the initiation of threat credibility assessments in accordance with guidelines set forth in our operational NBC contingency plans. The threat credibility assessment process entails coordination with other entities of the U.S. government to examine available information on the threat and determine its viability from a technical, operational, and behavioral standpoint. To date, all of these alleged threats have been determined to be hoaxes.

As the lead law enforcement agency in responding to acts of NBC terrorism or criminal related NBC incidents in the United States, the FBI has taken many actions in order to deal with this emerging threat. For example, we have developed and maintain crisis management plans to respond to a domestic NBC terrorist threat or incident, to include procedures for assessing threat credibility, operational federal law enforcement response, notifying pertinent agencies, and deploying the necessary technical resources to assist FBI field operations and local authorities in investigating, containing, and minimizing the consequences of the threat.

Operational plans for response to a C/B terrorist threat or incident are delineated in the FBI's C/B incident contingency plan; and, for a nuclear or radiological threat or incident, the nuclear incident response plan. These plans, which have been in effect since the late 1980s, are continually updated and revised, most recently, in June, 1995. The contingency plans have been constructed to provide a blueprint for a federal law enforcement crisis management response to an NBC incident. These plans outline and clarify the operational procedures that we will follow if faced with an NBC threat or incident.

The plans are also designed to marshall the appropriate federal tactical, technical, scientific, and medical support to bolster the FBI's investigative and crisis management abilities and to augment local and state resources in addressing the threat inherent in an NBC incident. The contingency plans emphasize coordination between all participants and are particularly concerned with the bridge between the law enforcement crisis management activities and the management of the consequences of the crisis.

The first priority of the plans are public safety and the preservation of life. In a terrorist or criminal-related NBC incident, the FBI will assume the lead investigative and crisis management role, in association with local law enforcement authorities, to successfully resolve the incident.

Based on the specific details of an incident, law enforcement responsibilities will be resolved or no longer a priority, and the federal emergency management agency (FEMA) will subsequently assume consequence management responsibility for the incident. The FBI's NBC incident contingency plans clarify and address this issue and provides guidance regarding the federal management transition from the FBI to FEMA in this context.

Earlier this year, FBI headquarters tasked the 56 domestic FBI field offices to conduct C/B terrorism exercises in each of their regions in accordance with guidelines set forth in the C/B incident contingency plan. This includes coordination and participation by other public safety agencies who would be involved in a C/B incident; including first responders, regional offices of supporting federal agencies, and state emergency management agencies who would be involved in consequence management at such an incident. Each of the 56 field offices has taken action in response to this tasking and are in the process of planning and conducting C/B exercises.

Through vigilance in our investigations and active cooperative exchanges with the intelligence community, we remain alert for terrorist intentions to acquire or employ weapons of mass destruction. We continue to improve our capabilities to respond to threats of NBC through active coordination with supporting federal agencies. We continue to develop, plan, and deliver NBC-related training for our personnel. We continue the analysis of exercises conducted to date, which have been devoted to crisis management of NBC threats and continue to develop new exercises.

In conclusion, the FBI continues to be vigilant both in its intelligence collection/analysis to prevent an NBC incident, and in our plan for a response should an NBC incident occur in the United States.

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