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FBI's Response to WMD Threats

WMD Threats
How We Respond


Radar illustration with biohazard symbolIt was just another Monday—or so it seemed. On January 8, we were sent scrambling by two scares 1,700 miles apart.

In Austin, Texas, dozens of birds fell dead on the streets, causing the city to close its downtown. At the same time, thousands of New Yorkers were gagging on an unidentified smell.

Terrorist attacks in progress? No, it turned out. But the FBI responded immediately, just in case.

Today, it’s our standard operating procedure: to be on the scene anywhere and anytime we suspect the use of a weapon of mass destruction, or WMD—which includes biological, chemical, and radiological agents; nuclear devices; and conventional explosives above a certain size.

“If we get something unusual on the radar, we immediately jump on it to determine whether it’s WMD and possibly linked to terrorism,” says Special Agent Michael F. Varacalli, chief of our Weapons of Mass Destruction Operations Unit. “Constant vigilance is key.”

So what happens when we get word that something is amiss—like in Austin and New York?

…First, our local WMD coordinator (there’s one in each of our 56 field offices) works with authorities to quickly find out what’s going on. These coordinators, by the way, have built close relationships with local, state, and other officials to make sure the FBI is “in the loop” when something odd is reported.
…The coordinator alerts the new WMD Directorate at FBI Headquarters about the possibility of a WMD event.
…Then, a conference call is set up between the local coordinator and our WMD experts at Headquarters to evaluate the event. The call lets our experts get telling details from the local WMD coordinator about the scene. What does the coordinator see? Hear? Smell?
…Other federal and local agencies also take part in the conference call as necessary to coordinate the response and offer insight.
…The team of experts then determines what additional FBI resources—if any—should be deployed.

“The key for us is that conference call,” Varacalli says. “We can cover any WMD issue we need to quickly and thoroughly.”

If the threat is deemed serious, the following resources may then be tapped:

  • Our special agents would lead the investigation with the help of our intelligence analysts and other specialists.
  • Our disaster squad would help identify mass victims.
  • Our national level Hazardous Material Response Unit and the local Hazardous Material Response Team collect evidence in and around the scene (and additional teams could be moved to the site from around the country if needed).
  • An explosives team would get involved if a conventional bomb was used as the primary weapon or as a trigger to spread biological, radiological, or other toxic material.
  • Our photo operations personnel would take pictures using specialized aerial and infrared equipment.
  • Our Chemical and Biological Sciences unit would help analyze highly hazardous material.

“We’re not just sitting back waiting for the bell to ring—we’re constantly working here and nationwide to make sure a WMD attack never gets off the ground,” said Jeffrey S. Muller, chief of our WMD Countermeasures Unit. “But if something does happen, we’re ready.”

In the months ahead we’ll talk about how we work to prevent WMD attacks from ever happening.

Links: WMD Directorate | FBI Laboratory