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Yes, al-Qaeda might build crude device to kill thousands, former CIA Senior Officer Charles Faddis told

On 6 November 2009, Former CIA operations officer Charles S. Faddis answered ISRIA's questions on current developments related to counter-terrorism and the threats of attacks using WMDs. Read on:

Q. What is, in your opinion, the current state of the U.S. Intelligence services in relation to the prevention of terrorist attacks, particularly regarding threats of using WMDs to conduct these attacks? Eight years after 9/11, are the intelligence agencies being successful in adapting to the threat posed by transnational terrorism?

U.S. intelligence agencies are doing a better job collecting against transnational terrorism today than they were before 9/11. They have more resources, and they have greater latitude to work. That said, they are still not doing enough. U.S. intelligence agencies remain wedded to a Cold War structure and a stiff, risk averse mentality that does not lend itself to successful counterterrorist operations. What is needed is not additional bureaucratic restructuring but a fundamental reshaping of how operations are conducted and how intelligence agencies operate.

Q. Given that States are still the only organizations with the resources necessary to develop nuclear weapons or radiological materials, and that currently there are only a few nuclear powers, do you believe that the threat of nuclear terrorism, although not inconceivable, is out of the reach of terrorist groups like al-Qaeda?

I do not believe that the threat of nuclear terrorism is out of the reach of terrorist groups like al-Qaeda. Will they be likely to build a sophisticated weapon on a par with that of nation states ? No. Might they, if they succeeded in acquiring nuclear material, build a crude device that would still kill thousands ? Yes, and it is against this threat that we must defend.

Q. In relation to the previous question, and given that the 9/11 attack was carried within the U.S. territory, would you agree that a terrorist attack using WMD might be more likely to occur by disrupting/destroying facilities inside the U.S. (such as nuclear power plants), rather than through an action carried from abroad?

I think that our enemies have shown that they are clever, adaptable and brutal. They are very good at finding ways to avoid our defenses and security measures and turn our perceived strengths against us. If a terrorist group can seize and meltdown a nuclear power plant on U.S. soil, it can avoid all of the technological hurdles inherent in building a nuclear weapon. A nuclear reactor will not explode like an atomic bomb, but the radiation produced by a meltdown could kill tens of thousands and render huge areas uninhabitable for generations. We need to pay considerably more attention to the security of our nuclear power plants in the United States and substantially enhance their defenses.

Q. Can one fear any CBRN attack in countries other than the U.S.? Is Western Europe facing the same threat?

Absolutely, Western Europe is facing the same threat. Look at French nuclear reactors. The British have expanded their bio lab infrastructure as well and already experienced at least one incident where microbes escaped a lab, even without terrorist action. How difficult would it be for someone working at such a facility to succeed in bringing out a small quantity of a pathogen and then grow it in a makeshift lab in an apartment or home? Unfortunately, not very difficult.

Q. The report recently issued by the bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism has sparked an intense debate over the alleged inadequacy of the current administration’s policies regarding biological terrorism. The report suggests the appointment of a senior official within the National Security Council whose sole responsibility is to improve America’s capabilities for biodefense. What is your perspective on the report’s emphasis on creating a new figure in the NSC? Wouldn’t this action just add another layer of bureaucracy to the intelligence agencies without a relevant improving of effectiveness?

If the appointment of a senior official on the NSC would have the effect of jumpstarting efforts to prevent bioterrorism, then it might be a good thing. In general, though, I am very skeptical of bureaucratic solutions which involve the creation of new offices and new process. We do not need more people thinking about fighting terrorism. We need more people actually doing something. Since the anthrax attacks several years ago, we have dramatically increased the number of labs in the US working with dangerous pathogens. Most of these labs sit in proximity to major population centers. In short, we are busily breeding the very diseases about which we worry most and prepositioning them in areas where if released they will do the most damage. Security at most of these labs is non-existent. We don’t need to talk about that problem. We need to do something about it.

Q. From a broad perspective, eight years after the beginning of the “war on terror”, what is your perspective on the militarization of antiterrorist operations that derived from the decision to wage war against Afghanistan and Iraq? Has the very notion of waging a “war” against terrorism being helpful for the more traditional antiterrorist efforts undertaken by the US intelligence agencies at home and abroad?

I think we are relying far too much on conventional military means in the war on terror. This is a multi-dimensional conflict. It will be won as much by economic, political and cultural means as it will be by force. When force is required, I think it should be applied most often by intelligence operatives and special forces, not by infantry brigades and attack aircraft.

Q. Finally, how would you qualify the current situation in Afghanistan?

I think the United States has to think very carefully about why it is in Afghanistan. We went there to drive out Al Qaeda. Somehow we now find ourselves trying to build an entire nation state on the Western model where no such entity has ever existed. Before we slide any further down that slope, I suggest we pause and reflect on the likely cost.

The interviewee

Charles S. Faddis is a former CIA operations officer. He retired as the chief of CIA’s WMD terrorism unit in May of 2008. He is the author of « Beyond Repair », an examination of the state of the CIA, which was recently released by Lyons Press. His next book, « Willful Neglect », a critique of homeland security, will be on shelves in early 2010. He lives near Annapolis, Maryland and is the President of Orion Strategic Services, a security consulting firm.

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