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WMD Central - Five Years and Building

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posted on Aug, 9 2011 @ 02:41 PM

WMD Central
Five Years and Building

Interview with Dr. Vahid Majidi - Head of the WMD Directorate

Five years ago this week, the FBI established its first Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Directorate to centralize and coordinate all WMD-related investigative activities, intelligence analysis capabilities, and technical expertise from across the Bureau. Recently, spoke with Dr. Vahid Majidi—the head of the WMD Directorate since its launch—on his office’s work over the past five years. Today, he talks about the current threat and specific focus of the directorate. Later this week, he’ll discuss case examples, lessons learned, and the future of the directorate.

Q. Why was the directorate created?

Dr. Majidi: The FBI has been in the WMD business for quite some time, more formally since 1995 when we created a program in our Counterterrorism Division to address the WMD threat. But obviously, a lot has happened in recent years. And it became clear that our WMD response crossed operational lines and also involved our counterintelligence, criminal, and cyber programs—not to mention the response and forensics expertise in the FBI Laboratory and the render-safe capabilities of our Critical Incident Response Group. We needed a single force to coordinate all of our WMD activities. The directorate gives us that.

Q. What does the WMD threat look like today?

Dr. Majidi: The nature of the threat hasn’t changed all that much over the past decade. International terrorist groups are still determined to get their hands on various forms of weapons of mass destruction—chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear. Organizations and nation states still want material and expertise for their own programs. And certain domestic groups are still trying to acquire materials needed for basic WMD applications—predominately chemical or biological in nature.

Q. What about all those white powder letters?
Dr. Majidi: Most turn out to be hoaxes, and they require a lot of investigative resources, but we have to investigate each and every incident. You never know when one of them will be real.

Q. Can you briefly explain how the WMD Directorate works?

Dr. Majidi: Absolutely. The main focus of our WMD Directorate—and the primary focus of our overall efforts—is prevention, to keep a WMD attack from ever taking place. To make that happen, we have several closely integrated activities that pull together resources from various parts of the FBI. Our countermeasures and preventions group includes a full spectrum of activities, from WMD training for domestic and international law enforcement partners…to outreach efforts to academia, industry, government, and retailers to help them spot indicators of potential WMD activity….to working with our government partners to formulate sound policies. The investigations and operations group addresses threatened or actual use of weapons of mass destruction, or the transfer of materials, knowledge, and technology needed to create a WMD. We also can and do collect evidence in contaminated areas, disarm hazardous devices, and provide command and control support in on-scene activities. Finally, our intelligence and analysis group serves as the foundation of our proactive approach to threats. Our analysts sort through data to identify relevant WMD information, and our agents work to identify sources of valuable intelligence. And because we are part of the intelligence community, we share information routinely with our partners. Through it all, we have a lot of activities and capabilities in play, and I think we’re making a real difference.

WMD Central
Part 2: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Our interview continues with Dr. Vahid Majidi, head of our Weapons of Mass Destruction, or WMD, Directorate, which marked its fifth anniversary on July 26.

Q. Can you provide a few examples of successful WMD investigations over the past five years?

Dr. Majidi: We’ve managed quite a few cases actually, including our first major counterproliferation investigation that involved two Iranian men and one Iranian-American who were charged in California with conspiring to export certain technologies from the U.S. to Iran. Other examples include a Texas man charged with possessing 62 pounds of sodium cyanide; a government contractor in Tennessee charged with trying to sell restricted U.S. Department of Energy materials; and a Nevada man charged with possessing deadly ricin. (Note: see the sidebar for more examples.)

Q. What has the FBI learned over the past five years?

Dr. Majidi: Quite a bit. For some time, we’ve had WMD coordinators in every one of our field offices. But we realize that for WMD prevention to be truly comprehensive, we need to think and act globally. So that’s why—in addition to our network of legal attaché offices and agents around the world—we’ve recently put our first WMD coordinators overseas, in our offices in Tbilsi and Singapore. We also have personnel assigned to Interpol to help it develop an international WMD training program like ours.

Q. What kind of work is done overseas?

Dr. Majidi: It runs the gamut. For instance, several years ago, after an interdiction of highly enriched uranium in Georgia in the former Soviet Union, our WMD experts performed a forensic analysis of the material and then testified in Georgian courts. And when the Russian defector in London was poisoned with a radioactive isotope in 2006, our WMD personnel shadowed London Metropolitan Police during the ensuing investigation to develop lessons learned to help us prepare for such a scenario here. Through it all, we’ve built some strong relationships with our global partners.

Q. What are the WMD Directorate’s plans for the next five years?

Dr. Majidi: The basic knowledge and material that go into making weapons of mass destruction is becoming more readily available to anyone, anywhere in the world as the Information Age matures. That’s why we’ll continue to be all about partnerships—locally, nationally, and internationally. We’ll also focus even more on threats on the horizon. For example, we’ll look at emerging developments like synthetic biology from a preventative point of view. By collaborating with the synthetic biology community, we can articulate our safety and security concerns as they relate to weapons of mass destruction. We’ll also be improving our threat analysis capabilities to better spot potential WMD opportunities, potential WMD vulnerabilities, and gaps in our intelligence collection.

Q. What can the average citizen do to assist law enforcement with the WMD threat?

Dr. Majidi: Keep in mind that to develop weapons of mass destruction, you only need two things: the material and the know-how. So please, if you see anything suspicious or in a place where it doesn’t belong, report it to local law enforcement or your closest FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force. It could be just the tip we need to stop something serious.


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