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Reordering Our Priorities

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A new Homeland Security Strategy must match risks to threat levels, our level of vulnerability, and the consequences to our society and economy. Here are our top ten national security priorities, in order of importance.

1. Improvised Explosive Device

2. Industrial Chemicals

3. Information Technology/Cyber

4. Major Natural Disaster

5. Radiological Dispersal Devices

6. Infectious Pandemic

7. Biological Agent

8. Chemical Attack

9. Nuclear Bomb

10. Food Contamination and Animal Disease

 

Improvised Explosive Device

Threat Level: HIGH

  • Most likely weapon of choice
  • Bomb technology and supplies readily available
  • Within Al Qaeda’s existing capability

Vulnerability and Consequence: HIGH

  • Transportation Systems
  • Energy, Commercial, and Government Facilities
  • Sporting Events and National Icons

Potential for Mitigation: MEDIUM

  • Improved monitoring of bomb materials
  • Police and canine patrols
  • Better detection technology, particularly for liquid explosives

Industrial Chemicals

Threat Level: HIGH

  • Al Qaeda has experimented with chlorine tankers as weapons in Iraq
  • Wide range of industrial chemicals used across society and economy, easily accessible

Vulnerability and Consequence: HIGH

  • Roughly 450 chemical facilities. Each places at least 100,000 people at risk
  • Freight lines through major cities, adjacent to critical infrastructure
  • Major industrial and transportation accidents occur frequently

Potential for Mitigation: MEDIUM

  • Comprehensive chemical security regulation
  • More secure methods of manufacturing, storage, and use
  • Rail-rerouting away from major urban centers

 

Information Technology/Cyber

Threat Level: HIGH

  • Attacks on information systems occur every day
  • An estimated 40,000 hackers exist as hired guns waiting for a target
  • Terror networks becoming more technologically sophisticated

Vulnerability and Consequence: HIGH

  • All vital social, economic, and governmental functions rely on information networks
  • Frequent reports of system and data compromise
  • Cyber infrastructure, including cable landings and switching stations, lightly protected

Potential for Mitigation: MEDIUM

  • Stronger network security standards
  • Regular independent security audits
  • Strengthened infrastructure sector planning, common threat analysis, and best practices

 

Major Natural Disaster

Threat Level: HIGH

  • Intensity of weather-related disasters increasing due to global warming
  • Potential for increase in storms, more extreme weather patterns

Vulnerability and Consequence: HIGH

  • Roughly 50 percent of U.S. population now lives within 50 miles of a coast
  • Seven of 10 most costly hurricanes have occurred in past three years
  • Concentration of energy infrastructure in Gulf

Potential for Mitigation: LOW

  • Stronger zoning laws and improved building codes
  • Greater investment in pre-disaster planning and mitigation
  • Reduction of greenhouse gas emissions

 

Radiological Dispersal Devices

Threat Level: MEDIUM

  • Weapon probably within capabilities of al Qaeda
  • Wide range of radiological sources used in commercial and medical applications

Vulnerability and Consequence: MEDIUM

  • Radiological materials are loosely controlled
  • Attractive area denial weapon, would generate significant disruption, loss of access to key infrastructure and high remediation costs

Potential for Mitigation: MEDIUM

  • Export controls and strengthened accounting of radiological sources
  • Expanded CBRNE capabilities to operate in contaminated environment and perform rapid remediation

 

Infectious Pandemic

Threat Level: MEDIUM

  • Influenza pandemics have occurred every 24 years on average
  • Avian flu, SARS, and West Nile offer current warning signs

Vulnerability and Consequence: MEDIUM

  • Increased global mobility neutralizes natural boundaries
  • Major outbreak would greatly affect global trade
  • Limited global surveillance capabilities, questionable ability to contain outbreak

Potential for Mitigation: MEDIUM

  • Improvements in global public health surveillance and international cooperation
  • Greater investment in medical infrastructure, readiness, and planning

 

Biological Agent

Threat Level: MEDIUM

  • U.S. has suffered an anthrax attack in 2001 of unknown origin
  • Al Qaeda demonstrated an interest in biological weapons, but no evidence of actual production

Vulnerability and Consequence: MEDIUM

  • Despite letters to multiple recipients in several states, only five deaths resulted
  • As scientific knowledge dispersed, threat of malicious use could grow
  • Significant liability for institutions engaged in biological research

Potential for Mitigation: MEDIUM

  • Stockpiling of medical countermeasures
  • Laboratory surge capability
  • International protocols to monitor bioresearch

 

Chemical Attack

Threat Level: MEDIUM

  • Aum Shinrikyo attack in Tokyo in 1995
  • Some experimentation in Iraq
  • Limited al Qaeda research into chemical weapons, probably within capabilities

Vulnerability and Consequence: LOW

  • Extensive availability of dual-use technology
  • Substantial barriers exist to successful weaponization and dispersion
  • Air intake systems for transit, commercial buildings vulnerable

Potential for Mitigation: MEDIUM

  • Improved real-time detection capability in urban centers
  • Increased surveillance around critical infrastructure
  • Expanded HAZMAT response capabilities to contain impact

 

Nuclear Bomb

Threat Level: LOW

  • No evidence that al Qaeda has successfully obtained fissionable material
  • Considerable technological, financial, and logistical obstacles to acquisition and detonation

Vulnerability and Consequence: LOW

  • Complicity by state sponsor probably a requirement
  • Need to assemble components and import weapon allows multiple opportunities for disruption

Potential for Mitigation: HIGH

  • Detection equipment at border
  • Accelerated security and reduction of fissionable material
  • International nonproliferation agreements to improve monitoring and that reduce availability

 

Food Contamination and Animal Disease

Threat Level: LOW

  • Risk of deliberate contamination of food supply low
  • Risk of outbreak due to natural causes or negligence growing

Vulnerability and Consequence: MEDIUM

  • Increasing incidents of food-borne illnesses
  • Limited ability to contain outbreak due to lengthy supply chains
  • Increased reliance on foreign suppliers

Potential for Mitigation: LOW

  • Increased inspections by and resources for the FDA
  • Better government and private sector supply chain surveillance

 

To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

Print: Katie Peters (economy, education, poverty, Half in Ten Education Fund, women's issues)
202.741.6285 or kpeters@americanprogress.org

Print: Tom Caiazza (foreign policy, health care, LGBT issues, gun-violence prevention, the National Security Agency)
202.481.7141 or tcaiazza@americanprogress.org

Print: Chelsea Kiene (energy and environment, Legal Progress, higher education)
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org

Spanish-language and ethnic media: Tanya Arditi
202.741.6258 or tarditi@americanprogress.org

TV: Rachel Rosen
202.483.2675 or rrosen@americanprogress.org

Radio: Chelsea Kiene
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org