In-depth: Defending against Chemical Weapons

As the death toll continues to mount from Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons on the Syrian rebels, we thought it’s high time for a refresher on our own chemical weapons defense. What would the US do if a terrorist group released toxic gas on American soil? Before you dismiss it as unlikely, remember that nearly twenty years ago the Japanese cult and terrorist group Aum Skinrikyo released the chemical agent sarin on the Tokyo subway, killing thirteen, injuring nearly 50, and causing temporary symptoms in a thousand other rush-hour commuters. The Japanese health system successfully processed the 5,500 people who rushed hospitals on the day of the attack, and the contaminated subway line was up and running by the next morning. Would we be as well prepared?

Read our CBRN Policy Brief, “Is the US Prepared for a Chemical Attack” and understand our current mechanisms of response. The Brief is written by Dr. Alexander Garza, GMU Biodefense Affiliate Research Scientist and former Assistant Secretary for Health Affairs and Chief Medical Officer at the Department of Homeland Security. Dr. Garza’s Policy Brief analyzes federal government preparedness, in terms of prevention, detection, and response, to a chemical weapons attack on US soil.

Full brief available here

(image courtesy of Bernd Daub/Flickr)

In the News: GMU National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases

GMU Assistant Professor Dr. Kylene Kehn-Hall and others at George Mason University’s Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases were in the news yesterday, discussing their cutting-edge research on NanoTrap particles. The NanoTrap particles are capable of capturing and inactivating the virus in question, even when working with very low titers.  Use of the NanoParticles with Rift Valley Fever virus (RVFV), which is considered a potential bioterrorist agent, resulted in a 100-fold increase in sensitivity.

Excerpt of the study’s conclusion (published in PLOS): “This study demonstrates NanoTrap particles are capable of capturing, enriching, and protecting RVFV virions. Furthermore, the use of NanoTrap particles can be extended to a variety of viruses, including VEEV and HIV.”

Read the full article here.

(image credit: CDC/USG)

Blair on Recent Radiological Plot

FAS Senior Fellow on State and Non-State Threats and GMU Adjunct Faculty member Charles Blair published a piece yesterday on the recent plot by suspected white supremacists to construct and use a radiological device. Discussing the seriousness of the threat, Blair states,

“However, much like this year’s troika of ricin-laced letters addressed to government facilities (including one to the CIA) and public officials (all three incidents targeted President Obama at his White House address), this most recent plot reveals the historical rarity and non-lethality of non-state actors and their behaviors with radiological weapons and agents. While the potential for catastrophe posed by terrorist use of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons deserves ongoing and serious attention, recent events remind us how public apprehension is sometimes founded more in fear than reality; indeed, reactions based on fear are capable of far more disruption than the physical reality of the event itself. The role of science-based organizations such as the Federation of American Scientists is to educate the public about the real risks.”

Read the full piece, “Radiological Ray Gun: More Buck Rogers Fantasy than Risk to Real People”, here.

(image via Freedom House)

Dr. Koblentz interviewed by CFR on Syria

Dr. Gregory Koblentz, GMU Biodefense Deputy Director and Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow  was interviewed by the Council on Foreign Relations regarding the most recent developments in Syria. Last week, US intelligence confirmed Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s use of chemical weapons on the Syrian rebels. Speaking on the differences between prior claims of chemical weapons use and these most recent assessments, Dr. Koblentz stated,

“There are two major differences between this intelligence assessment and the one released back in April. In the earlier assessment, the Obama administration reported that the intelligence community had “varying degrees of confidence” that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons, indicating disagreement within agencies on the reliability of the evidence. In this updated version, the intelligence community now reports that it has a ‘high confidence’ that the Assad regime used chemical weapons.

The second difference is that this report provides more details on the types of evidence underlying this new assessment: ‘multiple, independent streams of information,’ including ‘reporting regarding Syrian officials planning and executing regime chemical weapons attacks; reporting that includes descriptions of the time, location, and means of attack; and descriptions of physiological symptoms that are consistent with exposure to a chemical weapons agent.'”

The detailed and timely interview also discusses the next steps for the UN, as well as implications and possible courses of action available to the United States. Read the full interview on the CFR website here.

GMU PhD recent grad publishes paper in Bioterrorism & Biodefense

Dr. Steve Medley, recent GMU Biodefense PhD graduate, has co-authored his first paper with GMU professor Dr. Monique Van Hoek and others, entitled “Transfer and Reaerosolization of Biological Contaminant following Field Technician Servicing of an Aerosol Sampler”. The paper was published in the journal Bioterrorism and Biodefense. Dr. Medley is working on two other papers with Dr. Van Hoek.

The entire paper is available through open access, but here’s an excerpt:

“Aerosol contaminants deposited on a surface are transferred by two primary means–direct surface contact and reaerosolization. When a surface contaminated with deposited aerosol is contacted, a portion of the particulate material will be transferred. The amount transferred is dependent upon several factors, with amount of pressure applied, static charge, moisture levels, contact frequency, contact motion, particle size and surface roughness being among the most significant [1]. Once particles are transferred to the clothing and/or gloves of a person, deposited particles may reaerosolize by several mechanisms, such as vibration and air flow [2]. As mentioned, physical characteristics of the surface and particles, as well as the environmental conditions, will affect reaerosolization potential. With the multitude of variables, it is difficult to predict the amount (or fraction) of contaminant that will be transferred.”

Download the full paper here!

GMU Biodefense Policy Brief Series

The CBRN Policy Brief Series provides the Program’s faculty and affiliated research scientists a platform for providing expert analysis on current issues in domestic and international security.

CBRN Policy Brief #1, Is the US Prepared for a Chemical Attack, is written by Dr. Alexander Garza, GMU Biodefense Affiliate Research Scientist and former Assistant Secretary for Health Affairs and Chief Medical Officer at the Department of Homeland Security. Dr. Garza’s policy brief analyzes federal government preparedness, in terms of prevention, detection, and response, to a chemical weapons attack on US soil.

Read the full brief here.

Dr. Gregory Koblentz on Syria

While Syria has taken a bit of a back seat to the domestic developments of last week, the questions surrounding the use of chemical weapons there remain as pressing as ever. Last Tuesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a landslide 15-3 vote, to arm the Syrian rebels.

Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Council on Foreign Relations Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow and GMU Biodefense Deputy Director, has discussed the implications of this vote and the ongoing situation in Syria in numerous news pieces and interviews. In a recent Reuters piece on the decision to arm the rebels, Dr. Koblentz argued that while it would be possible for the United States to selectively choose which groups to arm, doing so requires a thorough, US-conducted assessment of the situation on the ground.

Dr. Koblentz also recently published a piece in the Atlantic, America’s Best Options in Syria, from which our favorite excerpt is below:

“In combination, however, they could have a significant impact on the conflict over the longer term. Combining stronger efforts to train and equip the rebels with sanctions that cut off Damascus from importing more weapons would help level the playing field between rebel and government forces. As better-armed rebels make gains on the battlefield against increasingly stretched government forces, the prospect of a negotiated settlement that provides amnesty for lower-ranking Baath Party officials and officers in the military might gain more traction. If even after adopting these measures, the stalemate between the rebels and regime forces continue, political efforts to halt the conflict are stymied, and the government continues using chemical weapons, then the United States and international community will be better able to argue that they have exhausted all non-military means of halting the conflict. At that point, it might be necessary to turn to the ultimate game changer — the United States military.”

In addition to this numerous contributions to various news pieces on Syria (VOA, Radio Free Europe, DPA, and USA Today), Dr. Koblentz has also appeared in a number of television  interviews with international news organizations, including a recent interview with CCTV:

FAS Expert and GMU adjunct Charles Blair on Syria

Charles Blair,  the Senior Fellow on State and Non-State Threats at the Federation of American Scientists and GMU Adjunct faculty member has been quoted extensively in the news on the unfolding situation in Syria. With President Obama discussing the  possibility of US military intervention at this morning’s press conference, the implications of the use of chemical weapons by Assad are starting to ripple across the international community.

(Image credit: Freedom House)

In the last couple weeks Mr. Blair has been quoted, appeared, or penned pieces in CNN, the BBC, Reuters, the New Scientists, Russia TV Cross Talk, Voice of America, NPR, Foreign Policy, and the Christian Science Monitor (all available here). Here’s our favorite excerpt, from a CNN piece published today:

“The Obama administration’s distressing use of a ‘red line’ for tripping unspecified significant action contradicts its long-held belief that intervention in Syria would only make matters worse. In the context of ensuring Syria’s chemical arsenal remains in the custody of responsible parties, the limits to outside intervention are obvious. Absent a massive and prompt invasion by capable foreign forces to secure the hundreds or, more likely, thousands of tons of chemical warfare agents and armed chemical munitions scattered around the al-Assad regime’s shrinking areas of control, the West (including Israel) has limited military options.”

(read the full piece here)

GMU Faculty in the News: Dr. Gregory Koblentz on Syria, Iran

Dr. Greg Koblentz, the Council on Foreign Relations Stanton Nuclear Fellow and GMU Biodefense’s Deputy Director, was recently featured in a number of pieces on Syria and Iran.

Dr. Koblentz was quoted in the French periodical, Le Point, in which he discussed the degree of independent confirmation needed to determine the use of chemical weapons, and the unique difficulties for doing so in Syria, due to the ongoing hostilities. Read the full article here (in French). He echoed these sentiments in a USA Today piece on Israeli intelligence regarding Syrian use of chemical weapons (available here).

Dr. Koblentz was also quoted in an Executive Magazine article on Iranian sanctions –

“‘The size of Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent [highly enriched uranium] is worrisome because it is much easier to enrich 20 percent to 90 percent than five percent to 20 percent,’ says Gregory Koblentz, a nuclear security expert at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations. ‘So if Iran decided to build a bomb, it would be able to do so much more quickly if it is sitting on a large quantity of 20 percent than five percent Uranium-235.'”

Biodefense Faculty Member Charles Blair on Syria

(originally published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)

The thin red line

By Charles P. Blair and Mila Johns| 26 March 2013

Article Highlights

  • An attack on the village of Khan al-Assal is the latest in a number of incidents during which the use of chemical weapons has been claimed by either, or both, sides of the Syrian civil war.
  • In reporting chemical attacks, citizen journalists have apparently conflated lethal and non-lethal chemical agents, creating the perception that the United States has failed to act, even though President Obama’s “red line” warning against chemical weapons use has been crossed.
  • US policy toward Syria may unintentionally have helped erode the international taboo against chemical weapons use; to buttress that taboo, the United States now must make clear what would and would not constitute crossing the chemical warfare red line, in Syria and elsewhere.

Both opposition forces and the Syrian government have alleged that chemical weapons were used in last Tuesday’s attack on the village of Khan al-Assal, bringing to the fore one of the most potentially far-reaching of the many dangers that have arisen during Syria’s civil war. Now entering its third year, the Syrian revolt — by far the longest uprising of the Arab Spring — is the first in history that threatens to violently topple a government armed with weapons of mass destruction (WMD). This unique case naturally precipitates profound concerns that elements of Syria’s large stockpiles of chemical agents and munitions will find themselves in the hands of insurgents or terrorist groups. To date, however, the West has largely ignored the threat of non-state acquisition of such arms, instead focusing its concern around the use of chemical weapons by the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

With more than 70,000 dead and over one million Syrians displaced by civil war, international pressure mounts for more substantive intervention by Western powers. Even absent confirmed use of WMD, France and the United Kingdom are moving toward greater support of the disparate forces fighting the Assad regime.

In contrast, the United States has refrained from direct military support of the opposition. At the same time, President Obama has clearly, directly declared the use of chemical weapons in Syria as the red line that would call for substantive action from the United States. While avoiding any carte blanche backing of opposition forces that include significant numbers of jihadists and other terrorists, the US policy places significant emphasis on reinforcing the international moral norm against the use of weaponry that is considered “beyond the pale.” But recent allegations highlight the potential unintended consequences of this strategy: Khan al-Assal is the latest in a growing series of incidents in the country during which the use of chemical weapons has been claimed by either, or both, sides of the conflict.

Undoubtedly anticipating that violation of this boundary will spur American intervention, the Syrian rebels have significant motivation to charge the Assad regime with the use of chemical weapons. Conversely, the Syrian government has a vested interest in casting the rebels as a fringe element willing to use any means necessary to overthrow the regime, including violating the opprobrium against chemical weapons use. The extreme stakes created by the American red line make it is incumbent upon the United States to articulate precisely what is meant by the term chemical weapon — which, under international law, includes non-lethal agents as well as more well-known and lethal agents such as sarin and VX.

Given the general absence of foreign media from the conflict, reports of chemical attacks increasingly are based on citizen journalism. As Western news standards evolve with the growth of social media, the nuances that differentiate classes of chemical weapons appear to be dissolving. The public conflation of lethal and non-lethal chemical agents increasingly creates the perception that the United States has failed to act, despite evidence that President Obama’s red line has been crossed. In short, US policy may unintentionally have created a situation in which the public is desensitized to chemical weapons use, eroding the international taboo against them. To buttress and even strengthen that taboo, the United States now must make crystal clear to the international community what would and would not constitute crossing the chemical warfare red line, in Syria and elsewhere.

Many chemical weapons, no proven use. Most experts assume that the Assad regime possesses a vast and sophisticated chemical arsenal. Chemical agents most frequently cited as components of the Syrian arsenal include mustard gas, a blistering agent with properties that historically have generated large numbers of casualties, the vast majority requiring long-term medical care. A persistent chemical, mustard agent also creates long-term battlefield contamination. Vastly more toxic and lethal than mustard agent, sarin nerve agent is reportedly easily readied for use by the Syrian military for delivery via aircraft, artillery, and the country’s 100 to 200 Scud missiles. Syria likely also possesses VX nerve agents; several hundred times more lethal than sarin, VX is the most deadly of all chemical agents. Apart from these three agents, some experts expand their assessment of Syrian’s probable chemical arsenal to include choking agents such as chlorine gas and phosgene, which, according to a 1997 report by the US Surgeon General and US Army, was last used militarily in 1918. The latter agent, the effects of which appear only after a delay, was responsible for 80 percent of those killed by chemicals during World War I.

Last week’s incident in Khan al-Assal, the most dramatic to date, is the latest in a series of accusations of chemical weapons use by the Syrian opposition, with counterclaims by the Syrian regime. The attack is reported to have killed at least 31 people and injured more than 100; US and other Western officials place responsibility for the attack with the Syrian government. Still, among the dead were 16 pro-Assad soldiers, and Damascus blames opposition forces for the incident, claiming they used a rocket laden with chemicals. Government officials have requested a UN investigation into chemical weapons use in Tuesday’s incident “by the terrorists groups operating in Syria.” The same day, opposition forces reportedly claimed that Syrian “chemical rockets” had also struck the village of Ataibah near Damascus.

Before recent events, two purported chemical attacks in Homs in December 2012 generated unprecedented allegations of chemical weapons use, with some observers concluding that the American red line had been crossed. In the first instance, on December 6, victims were allegedly targeted with white phosphorus munitions fired by Syrian military helicopters. Two weeks later, on December 23, another incident occurred in Homs, killing at least seven and reportedly wounding more than 70; opposition forces assert that the attack used poisonous gases. Despite some journalistic assertions that nerve agents were responsible, a US State Department investigation concluded that no chemical weapons were used. Demonstrating the need to differentiate lethal and non-lethal chemical agents, US officials reportedly believe that casualties from the December 23 Homs incident are linked to Syrian military “misuse [of] a riot-control gas.”

No internationally sanctioned investigation has yet confirmed the use of chemical agents in any of these incidents. Unverified accounts and video footage of casualties purportedly caused by chemical weapons offer virtually no evidence that lethal chemical agents, including those agents likely constituting the Syrian arsenal, were used. Mustard agent, for example, dramatically affects the victim’s skin, eyes, and internal tracks. None of the filmed victims of last week’s Khan al-Assal attack evidenced the effects of such a blistering agent. Moreover, given its low volatility and high level of persistence, its presence would require victims to be handled with extreme care to avoid secondary contamination. Actions by medical staff treating the victims of the Khan al-Assal attack are incongruous with concerns about secondary contamination, and there are no known reports of subsequent negative health effects on first responders or hospital personnel. Similarly, the effects of sarin or VX nerve agents — manifest, for example, by a victim’s twitching — are absent from video of the Khan al-Assal incident. Like mustard agent, VX also is extremely persistent. Even sarin, which evaporates at a rate similar to water, is persistent enough to cause secondary contamination during transport and treatment in ambulances and hospitals, as evidenced during the response to a 1995 terror attack on the Tokyo subway. Doctors and civilians filmed at the Aleppo hospital treating the victims of the Khan al-Assal incident spoke of the agent emanating from the rocket, post-detonation, as being a powder. But choking agents, including chlorine (the smell of which reportedly was present at the Khan al-Assal attack), are delivered in a gaseous state.

No evidence yet exists to support the accusation that the Assad regime had used traditional chemical warfare agents — that is, those substances posing danger to humans and marked by exceptional lethality.

Evidence does point toward Syrian use of chemical agents designed to be non-lethal — those that are not entirely banned under the international law. With regard to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), certain agents for purposes of “[l]aw enforcement including domestic riot-control purposes” are permitted. Riot-control agents, commonly lumped together in the public consciousness as tear gas or mace, cause rapid, short-lived irritation of the eyes, skin, and respiratory system, producing symptoms such as shortness of breath, choking, rashes, and temporary blindness due to swelling of the eyes. Riot-control agents are not banned under the CWC and are used by governments throughout the world, including the United States.

Loopholes in the CWC allow for use of other non-lethal agents, including so-called incapacitants, for domestic law enforcement and, in other interpretations, counterterrorism activities. In contrast to riot-control agents, the effects of incapacitants can last for days after exposure. Moreover, their effects are psychological or mental, designed to leave the victim confused, disabled, or, in general, ineffective. (Although Syria is not generally thought to possess such agents, some have theorized that the Assad regime may use incapacitants to test the waters of international reaction.) Also not addressed by the CWC is white phosphorus, an incendiary chemical agent that has been traditionally utilized by militaries to provide ground cover for operations as well as to illuminate targets. Its use as an offensive weapon lies in a legal gray area vis-a-vis chemical weapons law; it can produce severe chemical burns, irritation of mucus membranes (particularly of the eyes), and even death. From Homs forward to last week’s attack in Khan al-Assal, the symptoms displayed by victims of alleged chemical weapons are not of a severity that would evince white phosphorus use, though the mere mention of white phosphorus by a doctor treating victims of the Khan-al-Assad incident adds to the growing scrutiny of that chemical. Also, US responses to reports of Syrian use of white phosphorus are complicated by past American and Israeli military operations in which white phosphorus was used.

Strengthening the taboo. A disturbing pattern is emerging in Syria. Each purported use of chemical weapons — instantly communicated by the opposition, citizen journalists, or the Syrian government — is left unresolved, as demonstrated most recently with the Khan al-Assal attack. If chemicals were used in any of incidents to date, they were agents — white phosphorus, riot-control agents, and incapacitants — that the CWC either conditionally allows, addresses in a manner that creates a legal gray zone, or ignores altogether. Atop these realities, the nature of the Syrian conflict has severely curtailed the ability of traditional authorities to verify or refute allegations of chemical weapons use, regardless of type, often leaving international audiences uncertain at best as to whether the United States’ red line has been crossed. This dynamic likely contributes to the number of instances in which the use of chemical weapons has been alleged. More important, repeated unresolved claims of chemical weapons use slowly normalizes the concept that chemical weapons can be used, eroding the taboo against chemical warfare and desensitizing the public to its horrors.

The undermining of this moral prohibition relates directly to the discourse surrounding “non-lethal” chemical agents such as riot-control agents, incapacitants, and white phosphorus. While the technical and legal classifications of these agents are, one assumes, crucial to international leaders, the distinctions are lost on the layperson. With the United States’ casus belli inextricably predicated on Syria’s use of chemical weapons, and the future of the chemical warfare taboo in the balance, it is incumbent on the Obama administration to clearly articulate what definitions are being used in determining whether its red line has been breached, and to make a compelling case for why the use of certain chemical agents is not grounds for another US military foray into the Middle East.