TESTIMONY OF BRIAN MICHAEL JENKINS
before the SUBCOMMITTEE on NATIONAL SECURITY, VETERANS
AFFAIRS, and INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS,
HOUSE COMMITTEE on GOVERNMENT REFORM
October 20, 1999
I have been given numerous opportunities to testify before Congress on the topic of
terrorism the first time more than 25 years ago when I thought I knew a lot more
than I do now. Different issues arose as terrorism evolved over the years. Often there
were differences as to how best to combat the latest terrorist tactics but the threats
were real. Extraordinary security precautions at airports were a necessary response
to hundreds of hijackings and attempts to sabotage commercial airliners. Hostage
situations and bombings dictated that we do more to protect American diplomats
abroad. The threat of truck bombs persuaded authorities to increase security around
government buildings and, eventually, to block traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue.
The question before us today is a more difficult one. It recently has become a new
orthodoxy that it is only a matter of time before terrorists use chemical or biological
weapons. How much should we prepare for events that, although perhaps unlikely,
if they were to occur, would have grave physical and psychological consequences for
the nation? The recent GAO report, Combating Terrorism: Need for Comprehensive
Threat and Risk Assessments of Chemical and Biological Attacks, underlines the
dilemma pointing out that "substantial investments are being made to counter an
uncertain threat." Does catastrophic terrorism involving chemical or biological
constitute a clear and present danger?
Let me begin by stating that there is ample cause for concern. Deteriorating security
and the growth of organized crime and corruption in Russia raise concerns that it
might become a source of material and know-how for states or groups seeking weapons
of mass destruction. A number of America's foes and potential foes are actively
conducting research on chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. As motives change
and their self-imposed constraints erode, today's terrorists seem more interested in
running up high body counts than in advancing a political agenda. The nerve gas
attack in Tokyo's subways may inspire repetition. Even the fact that we are publicly
devoting so much attention to the topic may awaken terrorist interest.
At the same time, we cannot conclude that catastrophic terrorist attacks involving
weapons of mass destruction are imminent or inevitable. Historical analysis provides
no basis for forecasting such incidents. There is no inexorable progression from truck
bombs to weapons of mass destruction. With one possible exception, it is not clear that
any organized terrorist group is planning to use chemical or biological weapons.
In the more than four years since the Tokyo attack, no group has attempted to do
anything like it. This fact gains significance when we note that past terrorist and
criminal innovations airline hijackings, political kidnappings, malicious product
tampering were promptly imitated. And terrorist attacks involving chemical or
biological agents, if they do occur, are likely to remain rare events they will not
become the truck bomb of the next decade.
Even if it is correct, however, this assessment offers no comfort. Every tentative
conclusion must be followed by a caveat. Historical analysis may not always alert us
to future developments, unprecedented events do occur. We cannot be confident that
intelligence efforts will detect preparations. Even when we have identified terrorist
foes, we cannot always forecast and foil their attacks.
Probabilistic predictions are simply not possible. The most one can do is offer
assessments of comparative likelihood. Mentions of Sarin and anthrax in the press
increased twenty-fold during the 1990s and, not surprisingly, we have suffered a spate
of anthrax hoaxes. Hoaxes involving the threatened or alleged use of chemical or
biological substances will remain our most common problem.
Attacks involving chemical agents seem more likely than biological attacks. Readily-
available substances are more likely to be used than exotic, difficult-to-manufacture
substances. Attacks involving crude dispersal techniques in contained environments
seem more likely than poisoning cities. Wholesale slaughter is not easy. Attacks
involving ten to hundreds of fatalities are more likely than catastrophic attacks of more
than a thousand deaths. But again, there are no guarantees.
Uncertainty regarding the identity, intentions and capabilities of potential terrorist
adversaries the traditional components of threat assessment has not reduced
the sense of urgency in current programs to meet the threat. The intentions of
terrorists are considered a given. There is a tendency to brush aside terrorists' self-
imposed constraints and the technical difficulties they face. Part of the momentum
comes from the method used to assess the risk.
Today's risk assessments begin with identifying vulnerabilities, positing a foe, and
creating a hypothetical scenario. While perfectly legitimate, this approach entails some
analytical risks. One problem is that vulnerabilities are infinite in modern society;
hypothetical foes can easily be conjured, and the scenarios are invariably worst cases.
This creates another analytical problem. Since risk equals the probability of an event
times its consequences, focusing on only the most horrendous events overwhelms any
estimate of their likelihood. The possibility of occurrence becomes irrelevant unless
the threat can be dismissed with a high degree of confidence which, of course, it
Yet another problem arises from the tendency to reify the scenarios from "what
to imminent realities, reinforced by admonitions that future generations will hold us
accountable for failure to protect them when a deadly attack does occur. This kind of
analysis can degenerate into a fact-free scaffold of anxieties and arguments
dramatic, emotionally powerful, but analytically feeble.
The approach indicated in the GAO report, in my view, offers a useful antidote. It can
help us allocate resources, but further analysis by itself is not enough, and some would
assert that it is irrelevant, that we cannot afford to wait for an attack that we must
prepare now. No one argues against preparedness. The issue is how much and how
to prepare. To compensate for the inevitable uncertainty, we may want to look for
opportunities to create capabilities that will have value even if no chemical or
biological attack occurs: improving intelligence about terrorism in general, creating
a more muscular public health service, and improving measures to ensure food safety
are some possible examples.
There is a further issue that is often ignored. Terrorism comprises two components:
the actual events and their psychological effects. Whether a chemical or biological
attack kills no more than 12 as in Tokyo or tens of thousands as in one of the recently
publicized fictitious scenarios, the psychological impact will be enormous.
Just as we must be able to respond effectively to any terrorist attack, we must also
address the terror it will create. The difference between an orderly response that saves
lives and national hysteria may be determined not only by how well emergency services
respond to the incident but by how well we communicate during the crisis.
Communications must be planned in advance. The Administration and members of
Congress, local public officials, non-government authorities, and the news media must
be brought into the picture. We must look for ways to educate the general public
through the Red Cross and other organizations with the objective of creating an
informed cadre who will be able to offer fellow citizens practical advice and reduce the
alarm caused by the inevitable misinformation and rumor.
These efforts will require legislative initiative and support, but as members of
Congress, I believe you will have the additional requirement to act as reasoned voices
communicating to your constituents and to the nation in a crisis situation where an ill-
considered remark could have disastrous consequences. It is a crucial role which I
hope each of you will prepare for with the same patriotism, energy, and skill that
brought you to Congress.