By Paul Evancoe For USMilitary.com
Most think of special operations in terms of military special operations. Military units like the Navy SEAL Teams, the Army Rangers and Special Forces, or the Air Force Special Operations Squadrons are some of the more commonly known special operations assets. Seldom considered are those other government agency (OGA) assets that both support and conduct special operations; the assets of the interagency team.
Interagency assets are specialized in such things as intelligence collection, weapons of mass destruction (WMD) detection, emergency response and consequence management to name a few. They are ever present members of the interagency?s special operations community who reliably and unglamorously go about their mission. Along with the Department of Defense, the agencies composing the interagency community include select elements of the Departments of Homeland Security, State, Energy and Transportation as well as the, FBI, CIA, FEMA, Health and Human Services and the Public Health Service. However, this has not always been the case.
The ?interagency team? concept resulted from the Carter Administration?s 1980 failed ?Desert One? rescue attempt of the American hostages being held in Tehran. In 1985 President Ronald Reagan directed that a special committee, headed by then Vice President George Bush, be chartered to investigate better ways in which the U.S. government might coordinate the application of its significant interagency capability towards incident resolution. The committee found that interagency cooperation was severely lacking and that there was no overarching coordination toward deployment of the appropriate assets that could best do the job. Rather than fielding a focused, coordinated national response, composed of select assets from the interagency community, each agency tried to unilaterally field its own response. The consequences of this type of response redundancy routinely overwhelmed the problem, adding to its complexity rather than providing a solution. Mission failure was most often the result.
This finding led President Reagan to direct the development of the interagency team approach to incident resolution and it was formalized in National Security Decision Directive 207 signed in January, 1986. NSDD-207 was primarily focused on incidents involving terrorism overseas. It empowered an interagency sub-group of the National Security Council (NSC) with coordinating the national response, and designated lead federal agencies for coordinating the interagency responders on-scene for incident resolution. The Department of State was designated the lead for coordinating incident resolution overseas and the Federal Bureau of Investigation was designated as the lead domestically. The lead federal agency (LFA) responsibility has not changed and remains the same today.
In the decade that followed, the terrorist threat remained relatively constant and the capabilities of the interagency program continued to be enhanced. Nonetheless, the interagency team continued to believe that time was on their side when responding to terrorist threats. This led to an interagency exercise program with large dollar, large-scale deployments of personnel and equipment. Such exercises became cost-prohibitive, and digressed from field exercises with challenging scenarios, to grand scale training evolutions. Nonetheless, this organization worked, and worked well, for a number of years up through the 1992 Gulf War. But times had changed along with the world order and the need for revision of NSDD-207 was obvious.
In early 1992, based on intelligence estimates, interagency operational planners re-evaluated the terrorist threat scenarios. While the threats of aircraft hijacking, bombing and murder did not go away the community perceived that the possibilities for a new threat had grown- terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction, or WMD. Based on real-world attacks, it was obvious that terrorists were willing to use large explosive devices without warning. With the demise of the Soviet Union and the many nuclear weapons, nuclear materials, and chemical and biological agents and materials available in the emerging republics of the Former Soviet Union, logic dictated that nuclear, chemical and biological materials or devices could be procured and detonated without warning as well. State supporters of terrorism like Iraq, Iran and North Korea were likewise believed to either possess indigenous WMD weapons development programs, or avidly soliciting the black market with the intention of buying stockpile weapons or the special materials needed to build them.
In June of 1995 President Clinton responded to the need for a more streamlined interagency response to terrorism and WMD related incidents by signing a Presidential Decision Directive which specified responsibilities and readiness requirements to the interagency team in response to acts of terrorism both overseas and domestically. Building upon NSDD-207 and the many lessons learned over nearly a decade, this PDD became landmark guidance to the interagency community and the bible for cooperative special operations to counter terrorism and the rogue use of weapons of mass destruction. As a result, the national counterterrorism response program was fully aligned with the president’s directive and the American public was well served by its government.
Current counterterrorism strategy is to tailor the interagency operational assets, as necessary, to respond where nonproliferation measures fail. This strategy employs a wide variety of interagency scientific and technical capabilities to neutralize weapons of mass destruction or improvised devices aimed at United States interests by proliferate states, extra-national entities, and terrorist groups. This substantial capability includes detecting, locating, identifying, diagnosing, and disabling such weapons. It also provides the capability to mitigate the effects of disablement activity or rogue detonation.
In conjunction with the FBI, State Department and DoD, the interagency community now conducts smaller and more focused terrorism related exercises more frequently than in the past. The interagency exercise program has re-focused its efforts to support rapid and customized deployment to a wide range of threats. Interagency teams, consisting of specifically tailored assets capable of successfully resolving otherwise unresolvable terrorist incidents, now practice long-range deployments to remote locations. These exercises have resulted in enhanced interagency coordination and streamlined command and control during an incident. It is commonplace for the interagency community to plan and execute no-notice deployments of their assets that both challenge them technically and exercise their ability to rapidly mobilize. These no-notice exercises are coordinated with other federal agencies to familiarize them with the national emergency response capabilities and procedures.
Today?s program consists of an all volunteer interagency community composed of engineers, technicians, scientists and incident managers with years of experience and expertise in a variety of disciplines. It is streamlined to provide rapid, disciplined and coordinated response to a variety of incidents both overseas and domestically. While the interagency community?s capabilities are substantial, they are not without limitations. Such limitations cannot be discussed specifically here but it can be assumed that some of the most challenging problems that might be confronted could be beyond the community?s operational capability because those problems exceed current technical capability or the laws of physics. Such technical limitations are continually addressed by an interagency technical support working group that identifies requirements and emerging technologies and drives research and development in those areas requiring additional capability.
This is, however, not the only area in which the interagency community interacts. The community is unique in several ways. It is small and tight-knit. It operates as a team without parochial interests in developing plans and procedures and is in daily contact with one another. As a result of the 9/11World Trade Center and Pentagon attack, a core team of experts has emerged that have studied the nation?s capability to respond to acts of terrorism and incidents involving weapons of mass destruction.
The most devastating weapon of mass destruction commonly known to the public is nuclear weapons. For example, should a nuclear terrorist incident occur in the U.S., the lead federal agency will be the FBI. The Department of Energy?s Nuclear Emergency Support Team, more commonly known as NEST, would provide technical expertise in support of the FBI. NEST personnel and equipment are configured to be quickly transported by military or commercial aircraft to any location. NEST would be technically responsible for search and identification of nuclear materials, diagnostics and assessment of suspected nuclear devices, and disablement and containment of effects. NEST also possesses the unique capability to render a rogue device safe and package it for transport to a secure location for follow-on disassembly operations.
In view of the potential threat of nuclear terrorism, NEST is perhaps one of the most important national technical capabilities available to counter this threat. However, just as the best bomb squad cannot guarantee success in every case, similar limitations apply to the NEST capability.
The operational capability deployed in response to a nuclear terrorism incident could vary in size from a small advisory team that supports specialized programs, to an interagency deployment with hundreds of searchers and scientists, complemented by technical and logistical equipment provided by other supporting agencies.
Even with the current national attention on WMD, the interagency team has not given up its capability to respond to a classic terrorist scenario not involving WMD. It has re-directed deployment readiness and training requirements to respond more rapidly to an act of terrorism where time is not an option. Deployment packages are continually tailored to meet the specific needs of the FBI and the Departments of State and Defense. The training program has been expanded to include exercising the interagency capabilities against a weapon of mass destruction that falls into terrorists? hands, or against a homemade disbursal device that employs chemical, biological or radiological agents.
The intelligence community has publicly stated that incidents involving weapons of mass destruction will likely occur in our lifetime and that it is a matter of when they will occur, not if they will occur. While most civilized people hope that such despicable acts will never be carried out it would be undeniably naive to not be prepared. The interagency team is more capable today than it ever has been before. It stands ready to rapidly deploy worldwide to counter or mitigate acts of terrorism that threaten American interests. It this little known national special operations capability that will continue to go quietly about the business of protecting American citizens from the unthinkable.
Paul Evancoe is a novelist and freelance writer. His action novels ?Own the Night,? ?Violent Peace? and ?Poison Promise,? deal with terrorism and weapons of mass destruction and are available at AmazonBooks.com