Security Management interviews Assistant Director John Perron of the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate.
John Perren is the assistant director of the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate (WMDD). Established in 2006, the directorate is the principal organization within the FBI responsible for countering and investigating threats of terrorism or proliferation of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear materials. Security Management spoke with Perren at his office at FBI headquarters to learn more about the threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and how the WMDD works to ensure that terrorists don’t get their hands on WMDs.
What are the WMD director’s responsiblities?
Our mission is to lead efforts to deny state-and non-state-sponsored adversaries access to WMD materials and technologies, to detect and disrupt the use of WMDs, and to respond to WMD threats and incidents. The WMD Directorate integrates and links all the necessary counterterrorism, intelligence, counterintelligence, and scientific and technical components to accomplish the FBI’s overall WMD mission. The WMD Directorate handles—either directly or with the Laboratory Division and the FBI’s Critical Incident Response Group—everything that’s related to chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) materials being used illegally.
Prevention is our number one priority. The entire mission set is not to have a WMD incident happen, so we use intelligence to set up countermeasures and tripwire initiatives. And then respond and investigate if it does happen. However, we have a saying in the WMD Directorate: “If we’re responding to it, we didn’t do our jobs.
How do you define a WMD?
In the eyes of U.S. law, WMDs are generally explosive or incendiary devices that may use toxic or poisonous chemicals or radiation harmful to humans. It could be something you can’t even see. We’re talking about microscopic things and nanotechnology, but anything that’s in the chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear arena is what we investigate.
So the FBI already worries about potential abuses of nanotechnology?
Oh yeah, and not just nanotechnology but other new areas as well, like synthetic biology. Today, we have your do-it-yourselfers who can sit there and sequence DNA. While those people are not out to harm anyone, it’s viewed as an emerging threat because technology is moving so quickly. The impact of these new technologies is not yet known. We work with the scientific communities and academia and the private sector to give them a way to report strange behavior they notice and to join in other strategic partnerships as well. We look at what the vulnerabilities are out there. The Internet has really condensed the timeframe between conceptualization and execution of an operation. What used to be physical, on-site surveillance by the bad guys is now done over the Internet.
What groups worry the WMD Directorate?
Without getting into real specifics, there are international terrorist groups who want to acquire a WMD capability. Unfortunately we can’t discuss which groups without compromising ongoing investigations. We know there are groups out there who are very interested in chemical and biological weapons, which is why we build up these tripwires. Domestically, there are groups that would like to acquire a WMD capability, again chemical and biological come to mind first because they are easily accessible. Remember, the United States is one of the largest chemical producing countries in the world, and many of those chemicals can have dual uses. That is why we work with our partners in private industry to develop indicators and tripwires.
How much does the lone wolf threat scare the WMD Directorate?
It’s very concerning, because it’s someone who flies underneath the radar. The lone wolf is someone that we don’t have any prior criminal history or intelligence on. That is someone who could be living in his mother’s basement, harboring this hatred via the Internet and then planning to do something. The opportunity for prevention is slim, unless our tripwires are in place and this person has to purchase precursors or gain access to something that kicks off a tripwire.
How do you push down WMD intelligence to state and local partners?
We have over 100 Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF) across the country. Most of our WMD coordinators are either on the JTTF or assigned to a “sister-squad,” colocated with the JTTFs. If there is an event, it gets reported up from the JTTFs. Now as far as dissemination of intelligence, we put it out there through the intelligence community. Since all of the state and local officers on the JTTFs have security clearances, they see the exact same intelligence that the FBI agents see. We also have an unclassified version that goes to state, local, and federal partners not assigned to the JTTFs or without clearances.
There are also over 77 fusion centers in the country, so the JTTFs, the FBI Field Intelligence Groups, and the fusion centers integrate and collaborate and make sure we drive that message down. And again, a lot of it is through the FBI’s WMD coordinators. Part of a WMD coordinator’s job is to know what law enforcement and public safety entities are in their jurisdiction and make sure they know one another. Shame on us all if we meet for the very first time during a crisis.
State and local partners aren’t overwhelmed by the WMD mission?
They know that the FBI is a partner they can count on. But they also know that it’s the local first responder or uniformed officer who is going to be the first to come across something. They know their role; they train for it. Take Washington, D.C.: they do extensive training. They train with the JTTF and the WMD coordinators, everything from perimeter security to evidence collection to hazardous materials packaging to victim decontamination and evacuation. Each agency knows what its mission is during a WMD event. They train alongside us.
So, how proactive do you have to be with the private sector then?
Very proactive: that’s what our countermeasures section does. Again, we form these strategic partnerships, and we look for vulnerabilities. In the chemical industry, there are thousands of chemical plants out there. So we provide training and awareness to industry personnel: what are the indicators, what to look for, what does current threat intelligence tell us? We listen as well. Whether it is private industry or groups interested in harnessing new technologies in research, we listen to them. This helps us construct our countermeasures and tripwires.
What concerns me a lot is the insider threat—a person who has legal access to either a nuclear, biological, or chemical facility. So what we do is work with our private sector and academic partners, and talk to them about the insider threat and what to look out for. They, in turn, tell us what their vulnerabilities are.
During your outreach, have you been able to reach most of the major players?
With the chemical facilities, we’ve hit a lot of the CEOs and security folks, but you have to remember there are thousands and thousands of them out there. We start with the CEOs and find out how they network with each other, and we use that infrastructure to train on. It’s a collaborative effort.
We have to work really closely with these guys because there are literally thousands of facilities, plants, and research centers out there. Our WMD coordinators are the ones who knock on the door, provide the training, and liaise with these facilities and industrial sectors. We keep a database on who we have trained and how we’ve trained them and when we need to go back and tighten it up. Some of the larger offices—such as Washington, D.C.; New York; and Los Angeles—have entire squads that work the WMD mission-space and put out tripwires.
How receptive is the private sector to the FBI’s tripwire initiatives?
It’s all about how we advertise it. We make them realize how important it is. When we do our outreach with the chemical folks, we not only have discussions but we take them down to our facilities and show them just what impact their precursors have when mixed: what kind of boom they make. When they see that, it’s pretty riveting. It really catches their attention. It has a big impact because this is what their products can do when used for nefarious purposes. When they tell us their concerns, it becomes a conversation, and that leads to a true partnership.