Identifying the Vulnerabilities
Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate Marks 10 Years
WMD training during a Nuclear Weapon Accident/Incident (NUWAIX) exercise in Seattle in 2015.
If you can imagine a disaster involving explosives or the release of nuclear, biological, chemical, or radioactive material, there’s a pretty good chance a group of subject-matter experts within the FBI has built an elaborate scenario around it and tested how well emergency responders face up to it.
It’s one of the main jobs of the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Directorate—to imagine worst-case scenarios and then devise ways to prevent and prepare for them. The Directorate was created 10 years ago this month, on July 26, 2006. John Perren, who has served as the WMD Directorate’s assistant director since 2012 and was instrumental in its creation, said his team’s job is to find gaps and vulnerabilities in the system and work to fix them.
“Countermeasures is the capital P-for-Prevention in the WMD Directorate,” said Perren, who retires this month after nearly 30 years as an FBI agent. “That’s where we sit down with academia, we sit down with the private sector, we sit down with the scientific community, and we describe to them what we view as the threat. Then together we decide: What are the gaps, what are the vulnerabilities, and how do we mitigate them?”
Given the nature of his job, Perren is often asked what his biggest worries are. “What keeps me up at night is not what I know. It’s what I don't know,” he has said in speeches, in testimony, and in briefings to members of Congress.
The FBI has long had a role in preventing and investigating weapons of mass destruction. In 2005, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller recognized the need to elevate WMD matters with a focus on a more cohesive and coordinated approach. The WMD Directorate was officially established a year later. And Mueller tapped Dr. Vajid Majidi, the Department of Justice’s chief science advisor, to serve as assistant director.
“The Directorate integrates and links all the necessary intelligence, scientific, and operational components to detect and disrupt the acquisition of WMD capabilities and technologies for use against the U.S. homeland by terrorists and other adversaries,” Mueller said in testimony before Congress just six months after the WMD Directorate’s formation.
The Directorate has three sections (see below): countermeasures, investigations and operations, and intelligence. In its first five years, the Directorate established itself as a central hub for WMD subject-matter expertise. Over the past five years, Perren said, it has assumed a more operational posture, investigating hundreds of cases, providing scenario training for emergency responders, and establishing contacts and relationships in the communities where the FBI operates.
“We are intelligence driven,” Perren said of today’s WMD Directorate. “We have analysts embedded within different cells, but we also have tactical analysts with our operators in our investigations unit. We’ve done great things when it comes to investigations. We’ve been very proactive. We have undercover platforms. We have intelligence platforms. We work on the Dark Web. We work in all areas of the world.”
“Together we decide: What are the gaps, what are the vulnerabilities, and how do we mitigate them?”
John Perren, assistant director, WMD Directorate
Defining Weapons of Mass Destruction
WMDs are defined as materials, weapons, or devices that are intended to cause or capable of causing death or serious bodily injury to a significant number of people through the release, dissemination, or impact of toxic or poisonous chemicals or precursors, a disease organism, or radiation or radioactivity, to include, but not limited to, biological devices, chemical devices, improvised nuclear devices, radiological dispersion devices, or radiological exposure devices.
The WMD Directorate
The Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate (WMDD) exists to ensure the FBI and partners are prepared to anticipate, mitigate, disrupt, or respond to WMD threats. With the continued evolution of the WMD threat and the possibility of an overseas origin or nexus, the Directorate advances WMD prevention activities by supporting international WMD capacity building, developing plans and policies at strategic and operational levels, and developing partnerships, training, and outreach endeavors. By improving WMD security on a global level, the WMDD protects U.S. interests abroad and keeps WMD threats outside our borders. Today, the Directorate has three sections:
Countermeasures: The WMDD conducts prevention and outreach activities through FBI agents who serve as WMD coordinators in each of the FBI’s 56 field offices and in select overseas regional offices. Through these representatives, the Directorate heightens awareness of WMD threats, develops liaison relationships to mitigate these threats, and uses those relationships to identify evolving WMD threats. These liaison relationships are particularly critical in keeping the FBI abreast of new WMD threats and potential security vulnerabilities associated with technological advances. Tripwires are one example of a specialized, coordinated type of outreach where the FBI develops a network of experts—in law enforcement, public health, and industry, for instance—to assist if a threat emerges.
Investigations and Operations: The WMDD investigates violations of WMD-related statutes and is responsible for coordinating, planning, training, and leading the FBI’s response to the use or threatened use of WMD threats and incidents as a means of terrorism. The Investigations and Operations Section (IOS) within the WMDD is composed of six units that provide strategic management and oversight of the FBI's WMD program. The IOS is also responsible for operational response planning and coordination in support of field investigations and the mitigation of WMD threats and incidents. The IOS fields three regional WMD assistant legal attachés who address WMD and counterproliferation situations by providing training at host government’s request and ensuring a timely response for assistance to legal attachés and WMD events if pertinent.
Intelligence: The WMDD is staffed with a cadre of analysts who develop relevant, timely, actionable intelligence to identify, understand, and articulate WMD threats and vulnerabilities. The Directorate’s intelligence analysts provide WMD subject-matter expertise and apply it to advise investigations and the U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) regarding international and domestic terrorism, criminal/lone actors, critical infrastructure, and counterproliferation. WMDD analysts are involved in all aspects of the WMDD mission by providing strategic, domain, collection, and tactical analysis to WMD investigations and responses to WMD critical incidents. WMDD analysts collaborate with their counterparts in the FBI’s Counterterrorism, Counterintelligence, and Laboratory Divisions. They serve on working groups providing subject-matter expertise with our intelligence community, other government agency, law enforcement, and private sector partners. Over the years WMDD analysts have provided briefings on various WMD topics to the FBI Director, Office of the Director National Intelligence, National Security Council, National Intelligence Council, U.S. congressional committees, our private sector partners, and many others.