Are the United States' current intelligence and CBRN deterrence methods adequate to meet the current threat environment?

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A simple and logical answer to the question—are current United States intelligence capabilities and CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear) deterrence methods adequate to the current challenge or threat environment–is no.

Intelligence is, by nature, an uncertain process. Rarely is there absolute certainty regarding the existence or scale of military-related (specific to CBRN) activities in countries ruled by highly-secretive autocratic regimes. To read intelligence estimates such as those produced by the Central Intelligence Agency is to encounter a universe of uncertainty. “May” and “could” are used in the texts of such reports far more than “does,” “definitely,” or “absolutely.” Intelligence agencies tend to be very guarded in their use of language—a pattern greatly expanded following the failure of American intelligence collectors to locate CBRN weapons in Iraq following the 2003 American invasion.

Then-Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet had famously (or infamously) used the phrase “slam dunk” not once, but twice in the presence of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell when describing American intelligence pointing to active Iraqi programs to develop weapons of mass destruction. DCI Tenet was wrong, as were many other experts on Iraqi WMD. The U.S. Intelligence Community was badly scarred by the Iraq experience and has since been far more reserved in its estimates about other countries, mainly Iran.

It is generally not difficult to identify the elements of a nuclear weapons program or a radiological one for that matter, given the large “footprint” such programs entail. Large facilities housing hundreds of highly-sophisticated centrifuges, for example, provide intelligence analysts good clues as to what hostile regimes may be doing, as do nuclear reactors that produce plutonium, a key ingredient (a substitute for the highly-enriched uranium produced in centrifuge cascades) in the production of nuclear warheads. Chemical weapons similarly often have visible “signatures,” such as civilian chemical facilities that are surreptitiously used to develop weapons. History has shown, however, that terrorists and others are adept at developing chemical weapons in secret and dispersing them without immediate detection (see, for example, the 1995 sarin attack on the Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinrikyo cult). Similarly, biological weapons programs are relatively easy to conceal, as little is needed in terms of physical plant beyond a basement with samples of viruses and bacteria.

Whether the United States possesses adequate capabilities to detect CBRN programs in hostile, closed countries, consequently, is extremely difficult to determine, especially given the highly-classified nature of such capabilities (including the use human agents or spies, photoreconnaissance and electronic intercept satellites, etc.). The wildly incorrect estimates of Iraq’s programs, however, clearly illustrated the capacity for error. We simply do not, in many instances, know what or how much countries like Syria and North Korea may possess, let alone geographical and technological giants like China and Russia. One could conclude, therefore, that United States intelligence capabilities are inadequate.

The issue of deterrence is vastly different than that of intelligence capabilities. Intelligence assessments are scientific endeavors heavily laced with human variables, such as whatever biases individual analysts or groups of analysts might bring to the table. Deterrence, on the other hand, is an enormously uncertain concept in which the psychological profile of a foreign leader (like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, or Russia’s Vladimir Putin) is a key variable in the equation. What risk/profit calculations are involved? Do foreign heads of state or leaders of terrorist organizations think the way we hope they do so that we can better calculate the odds that a policy of deterrence will succeed? Is the threat of retaliation by American leaders sufficient to dissuade terrorist organizations from attacking?

Clearly, Hideki Tojo, Japan’s military leader, and Usama bin Laden believed that they could attack the United States and survive the inevitable conflicts that followed Pearl Harbor (1941) and the attacks of September 11, 2001. Both were ultimately proven wrong. Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev all calculated correctly, although Khrushchev’s decision to install nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba clearly represented a serious miscalculation that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

It is generally a given that deterring governments like those in the former Soviet Union, China, and Iran is easier than deterring terrorists. Governments are identifiable and locatable. They can be hit back. Terrorists, however, are more difficult to track and target. Fake passports and relatively small networks of contacts often suffice. Miscalculations, like Japan’s and like Nikita Khrushchev’s, however, do happen. Al Qaeda’s leaders, mainly bin Laden, knew the United States would respond militarily to their attacks on 9/11, but they clearly underestimated American resolve to invade and occupy Afghanistan, bin Laden having believed that the lessons of Vietnam suggested the United States would avoid such measures. With such human fallibility ever-present, conclusions regarding the efficacy of deterrence will remain forever subject to debate. President Barak Obama’s failure to enforce his own “red line” regarding Syria’s use of chemical weapons, in this context, remains an important lesson in the failure of deterrence in the modern era.

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