Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Terrorism Threat

There is an interesting article over on HomelandSecurityNewswire.com that addresses the overall threat of a terrorist attack in the United States and whether that threat is being overblown for political reasons. It is hard to argue that the current terrorism risk picture presents a threat to the existence of the United States. Some people argue that the overhyped response to the relatively low level threat provides a greater existential risk to the country than the risk of an actual terrorist attack.

This is an argument that can be appreciated by the managers of high-risk chemical facilities. There is no question that the implementation of security measures to respond to the Risk-Based Performance Measures outline in the CFATS program will cost a great deal of money for all covered facilities. If managers cannot control these security costs it could certainly pose an existential threat to that facility.

Determining the Threat

I don’t think that anyone has made any claims that there is a high probability for a terrorist attack on a high-risk chemical facility. Based solely on past history there is no threat of an attack on a US chemical plant. Of course, based upon past history, on September 10th, 2001 there was no chance that someone would fly airliners into the Twin Towers in New York.

This is the reason that CFATS program bases the threat calculation for determining what facilities are covered not on past history but on the potential consequences of an attack. For facilities with release COI this is a fairly straightforward calculation. Tools exist to calculate the area at risk in the event of a catastrophic release. Once that is known it is a relatively simple matter to count the number of people in that affected area. The hard part, politically speaking, is setting the threshold numbers that put a facility into the high-risk category and the tier rankings. It is slightly more complicated for theft-diversion COI, but a consequence based calculation is still used to determine the risk.

Low Probability – High Costs

So, at high-risk chemical facilities we have a classic case of low-probability high-consequence event; the cost of the potential consequences is so high that it justifies the expenditures for preventing those low-probability consequences.

There is a savings grace here. Many of the security measures implemented to protect a facility from a release COI consequence would also serve to reduce the probability of an accidental release of those COI and to mitigate the potential consequences of such a release. That does nothing to reduce the costs, but it does provide further justification.

If We Identify a Specific Threat

If we reach a point in time where a specific threat against a specific high-risk chemical facility is identified, what will happen? First off, since a high-risk security program is already in, much of the hard work of protecting the facility will already have been done. Many security measures requiring long-lead times for designing, manufacturing and installing will have already been put into place. Without the CFATS program in place, many of these measures would never have been implemented.

Second, since the CFATS program requires each facility to have in place a plan for periods of elevated threats, the facility will have already done much of the planning necessary to increase their security profile.

Increased Security Decreases Threat

Finally, we must remember that increased security should also serve to deter potential attacks on the facility. Terrorist organizations, like any other political organization needs to appear to be effective to maintain a steady inflow of people and money. If facility security measures appear to be strong enough to cast doubts on possible mission success, the typical terrorist will move on to an alternative target.

Additionally, an effective security program raises security awareness of facility employees and contractors. This increased awareness would make it more likely that any pre-attack surveillance would be detected. This would increase the likelihood that attack can be pre-empted. Extending that security awareness to the surrounding community, including local law enforcement, increases the chances of attack detection even more.

Realistic Appraisal

A realistic appraisal of the current threat environment, from all of the unclassified information available to the intelligent public, makes it relatively clear (there are no absolutes in intelligence matters) that the probability of any given high-risk chemical facility being attacked by terrorists is very low, but not so low as to approach zero. Prudence and a realistic appraisal of the possible consequences of an attack on a high-risk facility require that precautions be taken to further reduce the possibility of a successful attack on one of these facilities.

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