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James M. Tour

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July 10, 2000

Volume 78, Number 28
CENEAR 78 28 pp.42-45
ISSN 0009-2347
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The U.S is in a precarious situation through the unregulated and ready availability of chemical precursors that can be used by terrorists for producing lethal chemical agents
James M. Tour
Rice University

This document was written as part of a two-year study that I, a synthetic organic chemist, undertook while serving on the Defense Science Study Group (DSSG) sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and administered through the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) . As part of the DSSG service, IDA invites 15 scientists from a broad range of fields to spend 40 days over a two-year period visiting numerous military and intelligence facilities while participating in a plethora of both unclassified and classified briefings and dialogues. Each scientist is commissioned to analyze, in depth, a particularly pressing issue presented by the military or intelligence community. The threat of chemical terrorism and the nation's overwhelming unpreparedness to deal with the problem was apparent.

Further conversations with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) underscored the nation's vulnerability to chemical weapons of terror. Although protocols are in place to react to a chemical attack, such as medical mobilization efforts (which are probably ineffective in scale), no preventative plans were presented by any governing agency. Because of my training and research area, I realized the ease with which terrorist groups functioning within the U.S. could prepare many of the known chemical warfare agents from readily available commercial precursors. Although generally a vigilant opponent to information tracking or increased legislation, when I was confronted with the enormity of the situation and its potential devastation, no alternative was obvious. Hence the need to consider some type of monitoring or legislation was evident.

Some have argued that public presentation of this proposal could decrease its effectiveness, and increase the threat, by alerting malefactors to the vulnerability of the nation. But there is no way to maintain confidentiality in a plan of this type and scope, and to those with a compulsion to terrorize, the content here is no revelation. Scientific, public, and political dialogue must address anticipatory countermeasures prior to catastrophic events that lead to hysteria. The views expressed here are mine and not necessarily those of DARPA, IDA, or the entire DSSG.

On March 20, 1995, the Japanese religious sect, Aum Shinrikyo, attacked the Tokyo subway system using the classic chemical nerve agent sarin, thereby killing 11 and injuring more than 5,500 people.1 Rather than being supplied by a rogue source, it appeared that the sarin had been locally synthesized by the terrorists.

The ensuing weeks and months spawned a series of questions, and many in the U.S. asked whether systems are in place to identify and retard the preparation of these chemical weapons of terror within our borders. The answer is few, if any.2 While some regulatory controls have previously been considered,2 few preemptive countermeasures3 have been taken, and the problem persists.

Although the overall threat of the situation is attention-grabbing,1,2 I am not attempting to sensationalize the issue. Furthermore, since the monitoring and control of these precursors4-7 was rarely necessary in the past, no accusation of delinquency is being directed at industry, academia, politicians, or law enforcement.

But the world scene is rapidly changing,8 and there is a concerted need to anticipate and respond to these changes. Outlined here is a basic concept to monitor the acquisition of precursors that can be used for the synthesis of chemical weapons of terror within the U.S. I also explore some options for implementing the concept.

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The photographs used in this article are courtesy of the Marine Corp's Chemical Biological Incident Response Force (CBIRF) based in Camp Lejeune, N.C. They were taken during recent CBIRF training exercise.

Purchasing precursors

It is remarkably simple, through entirely legal means, to purchase precursors for the synthesis of chemical weapons of mass destruction. A test case was conducted wherein an individual literally walked into three different chemical retail stores and purchased all of the precursors necessary for the synthesis of a common nerve agent.9

Of course, one needs some chemical expertise and equipment to prepare these deadly agents without killing oneself. However, the chemical equipment and expertise are relatively common, and literally thousands of people within the country possess enough talent to follow the detailed synthetic protocols that have been available in the primary literature for decades and that are now readily accessed on the Internet.10 The syntheses are generally two- to four-step sequences from common reagents (precursors), which is two to three days' work for a synthetic chemist. The Aum Shinrikyo was able to synthesize several types of chemical weapons, and although the one used in the Tokyo subway was of only moderate purity, it evinced devastating effects.

Current regulations and monitoring systems

To my knowledge, no regulations exist to control the acquisition of research quantities of numerous chemical weapons precursors within the continental U.S. A research-sized quantity equates to a terrorist-sized quantity of a few kilograms or less--that is, sizes smaller than a 55-gal drum, which is the smallest quantity that triggers regulation or recording requirements.

There is nothing in the international Chemical Weapons Convention11 (CWC) or the subsequent regulations drafted by the Department of Commerce for implementing CWC,12 or the chemical industry's product stewardship Responsible Care program,13 that restricts or tracks the sale of research quantities of these compounds within the U.S. As an example, 0.1 L of a nerve agent placed in the air-handling system of a skyscraper could kill at least hundreds of people and have paralyzing psychological effects on an entire nation.1,2

Although there are no laws restricting the research-scale commerce of these reagents, several vendors have initiated their own programs directed at controlling the sale of these precursors. For example, these vendors sell only to qualified industrial and academic buyers, using phone calls with background checks of site location and credit history.

But such a standard is by no means universal. Most precursor chemicals can be purchased through visits to a local chemical vendor, by phone, or from an online source, at many of the approximately 1,000 chemical retailers in the U.S.2 Ready availability is offered because these precursors are "dual-use" compounds having a host of benign chemical applications ranging from insecticides to cosmetics, and many retailers and researchers are not aware of the compounds' alternate uses in weapons manufacture.6,7

Also, while several abuses of these compounds by terrorists in the U.S. have been documented,14 it has rarely been a publicly recognized problem.

Electronic monitoring system concept

One method of combating the ready transformation of terrorist-sized amounts of precursors into chemical weapons could be use of an electronic monitoring system wherein a third party would provide software so that all sales could be screened by an independent flagging system. The front-end software would be made available to all chemical retailers nationwide.15 The system would use the Internet to collect information submitted by all chemical vendors. Electronic identification hits would be gathered at the vendors' sites, working in the background of their computerized corporate transaction systems.

Hits on chemical weapons precursors would be electronically forwarded to a central database server operated by the independent sales monitoring site. One reagent hit need not generate a flag, but two or more intermediates en route to a common chemical weapon could be used to trigger the flag. Different thresholds of flagging could be considered.

At the monitoring site, electronic and then human analysts could further analyze the flags for patterns indicating suspicious activity. Exclusion based on verification could be granted for companies that routinely use these compounds for legitimate purposes. A distributor with a small-scale operation could use a simple Web-based form to enter data regarding a transaction that is contained on a list of noted compounds.

Individuals or groups wishing to create weapons of terror might use multiple accounts to attempt to mask their trail. However, programming methods that monitor geographic location, timing, credit information, and Internet protocol addresses are available to deal with these issues. Variants of known chemical weapons could also be included in the flagged targets. For example, substitution of the alkoxy group in sarin gives a final product that could have a similar lethality.

Furthermore, this monitoring approach adds little to the regulatory burden placed upon retailers and consumers.

Will customers tolerate the screening of their purchase information? Only those compounds on the electronic hit list would be transmitted to the monitoring facility, which would only generate a flag after sequential hits arrive. Moreover, this method provides an added level of internal assurance to the consumer. For example, a researcher who has gone awry would be identified if he or she used the purchase system of their employer to order unauthorized intermediates for chemical weapons. Upon verification by the monitoring facility that an atypical buying pattern had been flagged, notification would be sent to the employer. If no corrupt activities were identified, the employer could confirm that these compounds are needed, thereby setting exclusion.

Implementation options of the monitoring concept

Who should be responsible for administering this monitoring system? A self-regulatory16 approach places the burden on a private company created by the chemical industry. From my conversations with the American Chemistry Council (ACC) (formerly the Chemical Manufacturers Association) and several vendors, self-regulation is welcomed.17 It is within the industry's best interest to immediately regulate itself because such action protects the public, decreases the industry's liability exposure by having a system in place to retard malefactors, and gives capable marketers a sales advantage. Also, industry usually leads academia in the implementation of new safety protocols.

Of course, privacy and civil liberty issues should be considered in any self-regulatory program, but ample precedent exists for record keeping of purchases. Unlike a phone conversation, a sales transaction is not a private issue; it comes under taxable guidelines that affect all citizens. Retailers and credit companies already track individual purchase patterns, and they use and sell the information to target those same consumers with focused advertisements.

Therefore, the key is how those chemical-monitoring records will be used. The Levi-Smith guidelines,2 which prohibit the FBI from investigating individuals or organizations in the absence of confirmed or imminent criminal activity, are fine pieces of legislation that protect our fundamental freedoms. Nevertheless, the gathering of all or several components for a chemical weapon might point to criminal activity that could warrant an investigation.

Although a system of self-regulation receives an embracing response by many chemical retailers,17 widespread acceptance by vendors may be slow. A case in point is the decade-old exhortation by ACC and the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association to subscribe to the Responsible Care initiative,13 in which a sizable percentage of the nation's smaller vendors choose not to participate.

Furthermore, although not readily admitted by vendors, there are some that have no interest in subscribing to a voluntary system because they cannot afford the personnel, have little to lose from liability exposure, or suffer from very small profit margins. Finally, a well-coordinated group effort of asynchronous purchases from varied geographic locations could circumvent this type of monitoring system.

A second oversight method would be through a legislative mandate, wherein the monitoring facility would be operated by a governing agency or by a government-contracted private organization. Flagged information from the monitoring agency could even be correlated with other law enforcement agencies' databases that record and monitor criminal activity.

Mandated regulation of precursors

Instead of an electronic monitoring facility, a more draconian option is the complete mandated regulation of these dual-use precursors. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 requires one to obtain, after justification, a permit from the Department of Justice for the purchase of certain drugs or drug intermediates; the chemical or pharmaceutical industry is further required to report these purchases.18 Therefore, there is precedent for mandated reporting of numerous classes of chemical compounds, and the legislation appears to be effective.

An advantage of mandated reporting of a weapons precursor is that it could immediately come under the umbrella of the Controlled Substances Act and the Justice Department would already have regulatory systems in place. Additionally, such legislation can affect the mindset of the industry, such that, eventually, industry becomes an advocate of the newly legislated program; academia then follows. Cases in point are safety and environmental legislation.

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However, a mandated regulatory system also has deficiencies. First, barring a terrorist-induced disaster, legislation is probably five years away, provided a legislator or group is willing to carry the banner. Moreover, even with such a national disaster, lobbying groups and constituents--including local chemical industries and academia fearing further regulatory burdens--can produce legislative vacillation. And even with legislation, the chemical community is not always quick to respond.19

Second, little interagency cooperation exists between law enforcement and intelligence agencies in monitoring and tracking criminal activity.20

Finally, the cost of a mandated program would be sure to exceed that of the self-regulatory approach. These deficiencies aside, regulations will be enactedwhen terrorists attack, and the chemical industry will come under heavy fire, especially in light of the resulting public hysteria. Starting to monitor now is clearly preferable.

Action plan

There is no panacea for inhibiting terrorist activities, and there is no single mechanism to defeat terrorism. Typically, safeguards are provided at obvious places in the likelihood that one of those checks will finger the villainous. Since precursors to chemical weapons of terror must be purchased, stolen, or supplied by a rogue source, safeguards are needed at each of those gateways.

Currently, purchase of precursors is essentially unfettered; thus a system of monitoring or regulation must be established. After the purchase route is closed, prompting terrorists to resort to thievery, for instance, increases their chances of being caught. If precursors or the final weapons are supplied by a nondomestic rogue source, this proposal would be ineffective, and other surveillance methods would be needed.

Industrial self-regulation might be the fastest route to close the door on the ready purchase of these chemical precursors. However, noting past trends in the effectiveness of related systems, legislatively mandated monitoring or reporting would be more encompassing and have greater authority. But we should not wait for a national disaster-induced gavel to trigger the government regulations.

As an action plan, stakeholders--industry, academia, chemical lobbying associations, law enforcement, and the regulatory community--should work together toward a detailed and systematic study that

bull.gif (180 bytes) Assesses the efficacy of self-regulated versus mandated approaches.

bull.gif (180 bytes) Defines the precursors that should be included on the compound monitoring or reporting list.6,7

bull.gif (180 bytes) Defines specific thresholds for flagged buying patterns and the appropriate responses that should result from flagged activities.

bull.gif (180 bytes) Analyzes the impact of monitoring and regulation upon basic research and entrepreneurial commerce.

A forum for considering these stakeholders' concerns is needed so that personal experience, singular cases, and anecdotal evidence do not become the basis for public policy decisions.21 Feedback, suggestions, and partners are welcome on this public policy assessment concept. For the security of our nation and the good of the chemical community, let us delay no longer.ltrif.gif (853 bytes)

James M. Tour is Chao Professor of Chemistry at the Center for Nanoscale Science & Technology, Rice University, 6100 Main St., Houston, TX 77005; e-mail: tour@rice.edu; Internet: http://www.jmtour.com.


1. Roberts, B., editor. "Terrorism with Chemical and Biological Weapons: Calibrating Risks and Responses." Alexandria, Va.: Chemical & Biological Arms Control Institute , 1997. Although the Aum Shinrikyo attack may have been a political success, it was a technological failure. If the agent dispersal system had functioned properly, hundreds or more would likely have been killed.

2.  An excellent and broad overview has been written on the topic that is available on the Internet. Purver R. "Chemical and Biological Terrorism: The Threat According to the Open Literature." Canadian Security Intelligence Service, 1995. http://www.csis-scrs.gc.ca/eng/misc docs/tabintre.html

3.  Currently, few or no resources are expended on preventing the manufacture of chemical weapons of terror within the U.S. Resources are used in planning responses that include medical mobilizations, chemical identification, and decontamination.

4.  In this context, a precursor is a commercial, readily available chemical compound that is a documented starting material for the synthesis of a particular chemical weapon product. Since the syntheses of these chemical weapons are relatively short, there is little necessity for distinction between a late-stage and early-stage precursor. Precursors to explosives, such as ammonium nitrate or toluene (for TNT synthesis), are not generally categorized within chemical weapons precursor designations.

5.  Solomon, B., editor. "Chemical and Biological Warfare" in "The Reference Shelf," Vol. 71, No. 3, New York: H. W. Wilson Co., 1999.

6.  Ellison, D. H. "Handbook of Chemical and Biological Warfare Agents." New York: CRC Press, 1999.

7.  The Australia Group List (http://projects. sipri.se/cbw/research/AG-mainpage.html), a compilation of precursors for chemical weapons, also includes some benign uses for these compounds. Many vendors do not consult this or other lists6 and do not even know of their existence.

8.  Regis, E., in "The Biology of Doom," New York: Henry Holt, 1999. Regis asserts that biological weapons are too slow in action to make them weapons of choice. Chemical weapons, on the other hand, are immediately incapacitating and often fatal within minutes.

9.  Personal communication.

10.  As cited by Purver2 [Hurwitz, E. "Terrorists and Chemical/Biological Weapons," Naval War College Review 35, No. 3, (1982): 38]: "It's relatively easy to make violently toxic nerve agents because the techniques by which they are made are similar to those used for insecticides, and in some cases may simply involve taking as intermediate products insecticides or other chemicals that can be purchased commercially and putting them through one additional chemical reaction. The equipment needed and the chemicals are readily available from chemical supply houses. And the chemical procedures used are described in dozens of articles available in the open literature." Furthermore [Mullen, R. K., "Mass Destruction and Terrorism," Journal of International Affairs 32, No. 1, (1978): 71], "The starting chemicals are available commercially, syntheses processes are in the open literature, and the appropriate laboratory ware available from almost any laboratory supply house. |Po [The] procedures are well within the capabilities of an organic chemist with some graduate training."

11.  The Chemical Weapons Convention is a global treaty that bans chemical weapons. Although the U.S. does not manufacture chemical weapons, it does produce, process, consume, import, and export numerous chemicals that can be used to produce chemical weapons. Therefore, companies engaged in activities involving certain chemicals may be required to submit reports to the Department of Commerce and may be subject to inspection by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international body that administers the treaty.

12.  The Departments of Commerce and State have recently issued long-awaited regulations governing industries' compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention, and industries had until March 31, 2000, to submit mandated reporting data to Commerce. None of these new or old Chemical Weapons Convention-prompted regulations will affect the sales of small volumes of precursors within the continental U.S.

13.  Responsible Care is an industrywide initiative aimed at fostering effective management of the environmental, health, and safety risks arising from the development, production, distribution, and use of chemicals. The program was started in 1988 and opened to partners in 1993.

14.  Purver2 notes several incidents where chemical weapons of terror have been used and or confiscated within the U.S.

15.  The Public Safety Group Inc. (Woodbridge, Va.) is a software development and training corporation primarily catering to intelligence, law enforcement, and military agencies. It estimates that the software system could be written for a cost of less than $1 million and maintained for under $2 million annually.

16.  Even the so-called Deutch and Specter Report (104th Congress, 1999) entitled "Combating Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction," submitted to the Commission to Assess the Organization of the Federal Government to Combat the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, which is one of the most recent reports on the subject, makes no reference to self-regulation, except in the context of export control. Additionally, although routine surveillance of terrorist organizations is mentioned, no proposal is described in the report for monitoring or recording local chemical precursor sales.

17.  Five corporate presidents were interviewed (from large and small companies) along with an experienced retail chemical sales consultant. Although this is not a statistically relevant sampling, the answers were consistent and are likely to be a general finding.

18.  With the Controlled Substances Act came harsher prison sentences, new Drug Enforcement Agency registration numbers for all prescribers or pharmaceutical handlers, and other numerous regulations. Additions, such as the Chemical Diversion & Trafficking Act of 1988, strengthened these regulations. Most states have passed laws that complement the Controlled Substances Act, although there are differences from state to state. As a rule, a state can add restrictions to the federal act, but almost never reverses or reduces them.

19.  For example, a large portion of the chemical and pharmaceutical community did not heed the recent regulations deadline mandating industrial reporting in compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention ( C&EN, April 10, page 13 ).

20.  According to the Deutch and Specter Report, page 88, although there is a long-standing problem in electronic information sharing between law enforcement and the intelligence community, some recent improvements are noted through senior agent exchange programs.

21.  Several organizations focus upon the international proliferation of chemical weapons, but few have coalesced around the issue of domestic sales leading to domestic terrorist attacks. For example, this topic falls outside the typical forum of the Union of Concerned Scientists , the Brookings Institution , the Council for a Livable World, and the Chemical & Biological Arms Control Institute.

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