Ash Carter Testifies Before Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs

April 21, 2008

Washington, DC - On April 15, 2008, Harvard Kennedy School Professor Ashton B. Carter testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs at its hearing on "Nuclear Terrorism: Confronting the Challenges of the Day After."

In his testimony, Carter discussed the actions that would be necessary in the 24 hours following a nuclear detonation in an American city, and reported the five key findings from the Preventive Defense Project's April 2007 workshop on "The Day After." Those key findings included:

  • The federal government, led by the Department of Homeland Security, should plan to step in quickly after a nuclear attack. While the actions of state and local officials will be crucial in the hours following the nuclear blast, the federal government must take full responsibility for the response. All of the resources of the U.S. government, especially the Department of Defense, will be required.
  • To best protect the affected population, the government must be able to quickly predict the path of the plume, advise citizens, close key roads, and manage the optimal mix of evacuation and sheltering.
  • Protocols already exist that provide for higher permitted doses of radiation for workers in nuclear industries than for the public at large, and such protocols will be needed on the Day After to guide responders about how to balance the need to minimize radiation exposure against the need to accomplish their life-saving tasks. These choices can ultimately only be made by individuals, but the protocols they follow must give them the best chance to know which areas are hotter than others and how long they can stay in the exposed zone to accomplish their duties. This has huge implications for the competence of the response, for how it is planned, and for how many personnel must be rotated in and out of the zone.
  • Following a nuclear attack, the U.S. government will surely work to find the terrorists and trace the source of the bombs in order to prevent a second, third, or fourth detonation. On the Day After, we will be seeking the cooperation of the governments whose facilities are the most likely sources to track down the remaining bombs and put the campaign of nuclear terrorism to an end.
  • The U.S. government itself, in a form recognizable to the citizenry as constitutional, would survive even if the first bomb struck Washington. A bigger issue is survival of governance itself - of the people's sense of well-being and safety...that their institutions were competent to respond to the emergency and protect them...that important things had been thought through in advance...that they were given good advice about how to act on the Day After...ultimately, that they could raise their children in big urban settlements.

With proper advance preparation, much could be done to save lives, reduce the cost to the country as a whole, and ensure that our nation, and civilization more broadly, endures.

Other expert witnesses included Cham E. Dallas (Director, Institute for Health Management and Mass Destruction Defense, University of Georgia), Roger Molander (Senior Research Scientist, RAND), John R. Gibb (Director, New York State Emergency Management Office).

This hearing was the third in a series examining nuclear terrorism, and is one of Congress's first attempts to examine the consequences of a nuclear terrorist attack and our ability to respond.

On February 13, the first hearing ("Defense Department's Homeland Security Role: How the Military Can and Should Contribute") examined the role of DOD, especially the National Guard and Reserves, in supporting civilian authorities during and after a nuclear attack. Three retired military officials provided testimony describing the final report of the independent Commission on the National Guard and Reserves, titled Transforming the National Guard and Reserves into a 21st-Century Operational Force. Witnesses included Major General Arnold L. Punaro, USMCR (Ret.) and Chairman of the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves; Lieutenant General James E. Sherrard, III, USAFR (Ret.) and Commissioner of the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves, and Major General E. Gordon Stump, ANG (Ret.) and Commissioner of the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves. 

The second hearing ("Nuclear Terrorism: Assessing the Threat to the Homeland"), held on April 2, examined the scale and the nature of the nuclear threat, with a particular focus on the intentions and capabilities of terrorist groups. (LINK) In the first panel, Charles E. Allen (Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis and Chief Intelligence Officer, Department of Homeland Security) and Rolf Mowatt-Larssen (Director, Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, Department of Energy) discussed the intelligence component of the threat assessment. In the second panel, Matthew Bunn (Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University) considered the supply side or nuclear terrorism, while Gary Ackerman (National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, University of Maryland) examined the demand side of the equation.

Future hearings on this issue will likely examine specific issues related to our response capabilities, such as public health concerns, as well as the challenges of evacuating, sheltering, and providing care for the affected population.

The full text of Carter's testimony can be accessed here.

Print print | Email email
Image of Prof. Ash Carter

Ash Carter, Ford Foundation professor of science and international affairs

Photo by Martha Stewart

"Nothing I can tell you from our report would make the Day After anything less than the worst in the history of the Republic. No greater failure of our government's duty to national security could occur than to let this catastrophic event befall our people. Yet it turns out that much could be done to save lives, reduce the cost to the country as a whole, and ensure that our nation, and civilization more broadly, endures," Carter told the committee.