February 21, 2012

On Guard Against WMD

Inside the Biological Countermeasures Unit, Part 1

Test Tube

In 2006, to counter the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the FBI established the WMD Directorate. The directorate combines law enforcement investigative authorities, intelligence analysis capabilities, and technical subject matter expertise in a coordinated approach to deal with incidents involving nuclear, radiological, biological, or chemical weapons. The organization places substantial emphasis on preventing such incidents.

FBI.gov recently spoke with Special Agent Edward You in the directorate’s Biological Countermeasures Unit (BCU).

Q: What is your unit’s primary mission?

Mr. You: Just like our partner units who also work in countermeasures dealing with chemicals, radiological and nuclear material, and infrastructure protection, our goal is to prevent acts of terrorism. In our case, that means bio-terrorism. But we must do that in a way that strikes a balance between security and supporting advances in scientific research and protecting public safety. Bio-security, from our standpoint, is preventing the illicit acquisition or misuse of the technologies, practices, and materials associated with biological sciences. We are also charged with protecting scientists and the institutions where they work.

Q: What are the primary biological WMD risks?

Mr. You: Laboratory techniques for biological materials are publicly available in scientific journals and elsewhere, which represent a ready source of knowledge for creating and manipulating these materials. Biological agents such as viruses, bacteria, and toxins are also widely available and used in companies, universities, and other institutions. These include materials that could have devastating effects on the public if released, such as avian influenza or Bacillus anthracis spores (anthrax). These things are also naturally occurring in the environment. Both the methods and the materials are critical for scientific research and the development of beneficial products. But we also recognize that the materials could be exploited or subverted for terrorist or criminal acts. We conduct outreach to try to make people aware of these risks.

Q: How important are partnerships between law enforcement and the medical and scientific community?

Mr. You: They are essential. We have a joint criminal-epidemiological investigation model, which is how law enforcement works together with public health entities to quickly assess an unusual disease outbreak to determine if it is naturally occurring or was started intentionally. The partnership is critical to ensure rapid sharing of information to guide the appropriate investigative steps and responses. All these efforts address the shared goal of protecting public health and safety—again, without hindering scientific progress.

Q: What is your primary means of conducting outreach?

Mr. You: We provide opportunities for the scientific community to meet directly with our law enforcement representatives—our WMD coordinators. These are the FBI’s subject matter experts, local points of contact, and really the keystone of the entire program. Each of our 56 field offices nationwide has at least one of these special agent coordinators trained in the various WMD modalities. They are the focal point for state and local law enforcement and public health officials. Coordinators conduct outreach and liaison development with academia, institutions, industry contacts, and other organizations. Our unit at FBI Headquarters manages the outreach program at the national level. We facilitate meetings between our coordinators and members of the biological sciences community, provide a mutual understanding of bio-security from a law enforcement perspective, and foster partnerships nationwide. We are also branching out internationally, with WMD personnel in Eastern Europe, Singapore, and at Interpol in France.

Next: Training, tripwires, and more.