December 6, 2021

News

News Network

Science & Tech Spotlight: Tracing the Source of Chemical Weapons

16 min read
<div>Why This Matters Some governments are suspected of using chemical weapons despite international prohibitions under the Chemical Weapons Convention. For example, sarin and VX nerve gas have been identified in attacks. Most recently, Novichok nerve agent was used in 2020. Technologies exist to identify chemical warfare agents and possibly their sources, but challenges remain in identifying the person or entity responsible. The Technology What is it? According to the Global Public Policy Institute, there have been more than 330 chemical weapons attacks since 2012. Such attacks are prohibited under the Chemical Weapons Convention. A set of methods called forensic chemical attribution has the potential to trace the chemical agent used in such attacks to a source. A set of methods called forensic chemical attribution has the potential to trace the chemical agent used in such attacks to a source. For example, investigators could use these methods to identify the geographic sources of raw materials used to make the agent, for example, or to identify the manufacturing process Such information can aid leaders in deciding on whether or how to respond to a chemical weapons attack. Figure 1. Forensic chemical attribution process How does it work? Forensic chemical attribution is a three-step process, though the third step is being developed (see Fig. 1). First, a sample is taken from a victim or the site of an attack. Second, the sample's chemical components are analyzed and identified (see Fig. 2), either at a mobile lab or at one of 18 authorized biomedical labs worldwide. Common identification methods are: Gas chromatography, which separates chemical components of a mixture and quantifies the amount of each chemical. Mass spectrometry, which measures the mass-to-charge ratio of ions (i.e., charged particles) by converting molecules to ions and separating the ions based on their molecular weight. Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), which can determine the structure of a molecule by measuring the interaction between atomic nuclei placed in a magnetic field and exposing it to radio waves. NMR works on is the same principle as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) used in medical diagnostics. In the third step—still under development—investigators use the data from the forensic chemical identification and analysis and identification methods from step two to develop a "chemical fingerprint." The fingerprint can be matched to a database of information on existing methods or known sources to identify chemical agents (i.e., Source A matching Sample 1 of Fig. 2). However, a comprehensive database containing complete, reliable data for known agents does not exist. How mature is it? Forensic chemical analysis and identification (i.e., Step 2 of Fig.1) is mature for known chemical agents. For example, investigators determined the nerve agent sarin was used in an attack on civilians in 2017. The methods can also identify new agents, as when investigators determined the chemical composition of the Novichok nerve agent after its first known use, in 2018. Forensic chemical analysis and identification methods are also mature enough to generate data that investigators could use as a "chemical fingerprint"– that is, a unique chemical signature that could be used in part to attribute a chemical weapon to a person or entity. For example, combining gas chromatography and mass spectrometry can provide reliable information about the chemical components and molecular weight of an agent. To achieve Step 3, scientists could use this these methods in a laboratory experiment to match impurities in chemical feedstocks of the weapon to potentially determine who made it. In an investigation, such impurities could indicate the geographic origin of the starting material and the process used to create the agent. Figure 2. Example of forensic chemical identification and analysis, showing a match between Sample 1 and Source A. Opportunities An effective international system for forensic chemical attribution can open up several opportunities, including: Defense. Knowing the source of a chemical agent could help nations better defend against future attacks and, when appropriate, take military action in response to an attack.  Legal response. Source attribution may provide information to help find and prosecute attackers or to impose sanctions. Deterrence. The ability to trace chemical agents to a source might deter future use of chemical weapons.  Challenges Chemical database. Creating a comprehensive international database of chemical fingerprints would require funding and international collaboration to sample chemicals from around the world. Finding perpetrators. Matching a chemical to its sources does not reveal who actually used it in an attack. Almost all investigations require additional evidence. Samples. Collecting a sufficient sample for attribution can be challenging, as can storing and transporting it using a secure chain of custody—potentially over great distance—to one of the 18 authorized biomedical labs worldwide. International cooperation. Lack of cooperation can delay investigations and may compromise sample quality.  Cooperation is also essential for creating an international database. Standardization. Attribution methods are complex and require standardized, internationally accepted protocols to ensure results are reliable and trusted. Such protocols do not yet exist for attributing a chemical weapons attack. Policy Context and Questions The following questions are relevant to building an effective, trusted system for tracing attacks using forensic chemical attribution: How can federal agencies promote and contribute to the international standardization of scientific methods for forensic chemical attribution? Which agency or agencies should lead this effort? How can the international community create and implement a framework for cooperation and trust in forensic chemical attribution? What actions could promote or incentivize creation of an internationally accepted database of unique chemical fingerprints for attributing chemical agents to their sources? What can be done to fully identify and address the scientific and technological gaps in current capabilities for attributing a chemical agent to its source? For more information, contact Karen Howard at (202) 512-6888 or HowardK@gao.gov.</div>

Why This Matters

Some governments are suspected of using chemical weapons despite international prohibitions under the Chemical Weapons Convention. For example, sarin and VX nerve gas have been identified in attacks. Most recently, Novichok nerve agent was used in 2020. Technologies exist to identify chemical warfare agents and possibly their sources, but challenges remain in identifying the person or entity responsible.

The Technology

What is it? According to the Global Public Policy Institute, there have been more than 330 chemical weapons attacks since 2012. Such attacks are prohibited under the Chemical Weapons Convention. A set of methods called forensic chemical attribution has the potential to trace the chemical agent used in such attacks to a source. A set of methods called forensic chemical attribution has the potential to trace the chemical agent used in such attacks to a source. For example, investigators could use these methods to identify the geographic sources of raw materials used to make the agent, for example, or to identify the manufacturing process Such information can aid leaders in deciding on whether or how to respond to a chemical weapons attack.

Figure 1. Forensic chemical attribution process

How does it work? Forensic chemical attribution is a three-step process, though the third step is being developed (see Fig. 1). First, a sample is taken from a victim or the site of an attack. Second, the sample’s chemical components are analyzed and identified (see Fig. 2), either at a mobile lab or at one of 18 authorized biomedical labs worldwide. Common identification methods are:

  • Gas chromatography, which separates chemical components of a mixture and quantifies the amount of each chemical.
  • Mass spectrometry, which measures the mass-to-charge ratio of ions (i.e., charged particles) by converting molecules to ions and separating the ions based on their molecular weight.
  • Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), which can determine the structure of a molecule by measuring the interaction between atomic nuclei placed in a magnetic field and exposing it to radio waves. NMR works on is the same principle as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) used in medical diagnostics.

In the third step—still under development—investigators use the data from the forensic chemical identification and analysis and identification methods from step two to develop a “chemical fingerprint.” The fingerprint can be matched to a database of information on existing methods or known sources to identify chemical agents (i.e., Source A matching Sample 1 of Fig. 2). However, a comprehensive database containing complete, reliable data for known agents does not exist.

How mature is it? Forensic chemical analysis and identification (i.e., Step 2 of Fig.1) is mature for known chemical agents. For example, investigators determined the nerve agent sarin was used in an attack on civilians in 2017. The methods can also identify new agents, as when investigators determined the chemical composition of the Novichok nerve agent after its first known use, in 2018.

Forensic chemical analysis and identification methods are also mature enough to generate data that investigators could use as a “chemical fingerprint”– that is, a unique chemical signature that could be used in part to attribute a chemical weapon to a person or entity. For example, combining gas chromatography and mass spectrometry can provide reliable information about the chemical components and molecular weight of an agent. To achieve Step 3, scientists could use this these methods in a laboratory experiment to match impurities in chemical feedstocks of the weapon to potentially determine who made it. In an investigation, such impurities could indicate the geographic origin of the starting material and the process used to create the agent.

Figure 2. Example of forensic chemical identification and analysis, showing a match between Sample 1 and Source A.

Opportunities

An effective international system for forensic chemical attribution can open up several opportunities, including:

  • Defense. Knowing the source of a chemical agent could help nations better defend against future attacks and, when appropriate, take military action in response to an attack. 
  • Legal response. Source attribution may provide information to help find and prosecute attackers or to impose sanctions.
  • Deterrence. The ability to trace chemical agents to a source might deter future use of chemical weapons. 

Challenges

  • Chemical database. Creating a comprehensive international database of chemical fingerprints would require funding and international collaboration to sample chemicals from around the world.

  • Finding perpetrators. Matching a chemical to its sources does not reveal who actually used it in an attack. Almost all investigations require additional evidence.

  • Samples. Collecting a sufficient sample for attribution can be challenging, as can storing and transporting it using a secure chain of custody—potentially over great distance—to one of the 18 authorized biomedical labs worldwide.

  • International cooperation. Lack of cooperation can delay investigations and may compromise sample quality.  Cooperation is also essential for creating an international database.

  • Standardization. Attribution methods are complex and require standardized, internationally accepted protocols to ensure results are reliable and trusted. Such protocols do not yet exist for attributing a chemical weapons attack.

Policy Context and Questions

The following questions are relevant to building an effective, trusted system for tracing attacks using forensic chemical attribution:

  • How can federal agencies promote and contribute to the international standardization of scientific methods for forensic chemical attribution? Which agency or agencies should lead this effort?

  • How can the international community create and implement a framework for cooperation and trust in forensic chemical attribution?

  • What actions could promote or incentivize creation of an internationally accepted database of unique chemical fingerprints for attributing chemical agents to their sources?

  • What can be done to fully identify and address the scientific and technological gaps in current capabilities for attributing a chemical agent to its source?

For more information, contact Karen Howard at (202) 512-6888 or HowardK@gao.gov.

More from:

News Network

  • Justice Department Reaches Settlement with New Hampshire School District to Protect English Learner Students
    In Crime News
    Today the Justice Department announced a settlement agreement with the Nashua School District to resolve the department’s investigation into the school district’s programs for its English Learner students.
    [Read More…]
  • Justice Department Obtains Consent Decree in Sexual Harassment Lawsuit Against Owners of Minneapolis Area Rental Properties
    In Crime News
    The Justice Department today announced that it has obtained a consent decree with Reese Pfeiffer and several other defendants to resolve allegations that Pfeiffer violated the Fair Housing Act (FHA) by subjecting 23 women to severe and repeated sexual harassment and retaliation at residential properties defendants own or manage in and around Minneapolis.
    [Read More…]
  • Justice Department Seeks to Shut Down Fraudulent Chicago-Area Tax Return Preparer
    In Crime News
    The United States has filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, seeking to enjoin a tax preparer from South Chicago Heights, Illinois, from preparing federal income tax returns for others.
    [Read More…]
  • Veterans Health Care: VA’s Medical Support Role in Emergency Preparedness
    In U.S GAO News
    Since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has increased its efforts to plan for and respond to national emergencies, including acts of terrorism and natural disasters. Additionally, in August 2004, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security announced that military and VA medical facilities were potential terrorist targets. In light of military casualties from conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and continued threats of terrorist incidents, Congress asked us to review VA's medical support role in emergency preparedness. Specifically, we agreed to provide information on the following questions: (1) What is VA's role in providing medical support within the U.S. to military personnel in wartime and during national emergencies? (2) What actions has VA taken to improve its internal emergency preparedness to ensure that it is ready to maintain continuity of operations and provision of medical services to veterans? (3) What is VA's role in participating in emergency medical response measures with other federal, state, and local agencies?GAO found that Public Law 97-174 authorizes VA to provide inpatient medical care to active duty members of the armed services during or immediately following their involvement in armed conflicts during wartime and national emergencies. According to VA, while the Department of Defense (DOD) has never requested priority care from VA based on this law, VA has routinely reported to the Congress and DOD the number of inpatient beds available for military personnel. We also found that VA has taken numerous actions to improve emergency preparedness, such as developing educational and training materials for its staff, training staff at 134 VA medical centers, and increasing security at its facilities by requiring a minimum of two patrolling VA police officers on duty at all times. Other activities, such as developing a systemwide strategy for protecting its facilities and acquiring decontamination equipment, are still in progress. Finally, VA participates in emergency medical response measures with other federal, state, and local agencies by providing assistance in seven support functions outlined in the Department of Homeland Security's National Response Plan. For example, if requested, the types of support VA would provide include public health and medical services, emergency management, and public safety and security.
    [Read More…]
  • Veterans of the Law: Many in Judiciary Celebrate JAG Service
    In U.S Courts
    As America honors Veterans Day, many federal judges have a special link to the Judge Advocate General’s Corps — better known to many as JAG. Four judges and a senior Judiciary leader recall their experiences as military lawyers.
    [Read More…]
  • School board leader sentenced in corruption scheme
    In Justice News
    The former vice [Read More…]
  • Bastille Day
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Antony J. Blinken, [Read More…]
  • Justice Department Welcomes Passage of The Competitive Health Insurance Reform Act of 2020
    In Crime News
    On Jan. 13, 2021, President Donald J. Trump signed into law the Competitive Health Insurance Reform Act of 2020 (the “Act”), which limits the antitrust exemption available to health insurance companies under the McCarran-Ferguson Act.  The Act, sponsored by Rep. Peter DeFazio, passed the House of Representatives on Sept. 21, 2020 and passed the Senate on Dec. 22, 2020. 
    [Read More…]
  • Military Airlift: DOD Needs to Take Steps to Manage Workload Distributed to the Civil Reserve Air Fleet
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO FoundDOD exceeded the flying hours needed to meet military training requirements for fiscal years 2002 through 2010 because of increased operational requirements associated with Afghanistan and Iraq; however it does not know whether it used Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) participants to the maximum extent practicable. DOD guidance requires it to meet training requirements and to use commercial transportation to the "maximum extent practicable." During fiscal years 2002 through 2010, DOD flew its fleet more than needed to train its crews, although its flying has more closely matched its training needs in recent years. DOD has also used CRAF participants extensively to supplement military airlift. Although DOD has taken steps to make more airlift business available to CRAF participants, officials said that overseas operations have provided enough missions to support both training and CRAF business obligations. However, with the drawdown in Afghanistan, DOD officials expect the need for airlift to decline by at least 66 percent--to pre-September 2001 levels--reducing both training hours available for DOD and business opportunities for CRAF. DOD does not use its process for monitoring flying hours to determine when it will exceed required training hours and allocate eligible airlift missions to CRAF participants. Therefore, it cannot determine whether it is using CRAF to the maximum extent practicable. As a result, DOD may be using its military fleet more than necessary--which officials say is less economical--while risking reduced CRAF participation.DOD provided several reasons for restricting commercial carriers from transporting partial plane loads of cargo over channel routes, including the need to promote efficiency, meet its military airlift training requirements, and fulfill peacetime business obligations to CRAF participants. Channel route missions are regularly scheduled airlift missions used to transport cargo and provide aircrew training time. These missions also help DOD provide business to CRAF participants. According to U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) officials, DOD generally requires aircraft conducting channel route missions to be completely full of cargo before takeoff. The policy restricting carriers from flying partial loads over channel routes allows DOD to consolidate cargo previously flown by commercial carriers in less than full plane loads and redirect that cargo into the channel route system, where it will be transported by either commercial or military aircraft as part of a full plane load mission. According to DOD, consolidating cargo into full loads flown over the channel route system has increased both the efficiency of these missions and the availability of missions that DOD uses to train its crews and fulfill its business obligations to CRAF.It is unclear whether the planned size of CRAF will be adequate to meet future airlift requirements. DOD last established its future requirements based on the wartime scenarios in the Mobility Capability Requirements Study 2016, issued in 2010. However, due to changing military strategy and priorities, the 2010 study does not reflect current mission needs. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 requires DOD to conduct a new mobility capabilities and requirements study. DOD has not begun this study or finalized its ongoing reviews of the CRAF program's ability to support future requirements. Once they are finalized, these studies should allow DOD to better understand future requirements for CRAF and whether the CRAF program will meet future airlift requirements.Why GAO Did This StudyTo move passengers and cargo, DOD supplements its military aircraft with cargo and passenger aircraft from volunteer commercial carriers participating in the CRAF program. Participating carriers commit their aircraft to support a range of military operations in exchange for peacetime business. A House Armed Services Committee mandated GAO to report on matters related to the CRAF program. GAO assessed whether DOD (1) met its military airlift training requirements while also using CRAF participants to the maximum extent practicable, (2) provided justification for restricting commercial carriers from transporting partial plane loads of cargo over certain routes, and (3) has established future requirements for CRAF and how the planned size of CRAF compares to those requirements. GAO reviewed guidance and policies pertaining to the program, flying hour data, and DOD-sponsored CRAF study reports. GAO also interviewed DOD and industry officials.
    [Read More…]
  • Former coach charged with distributing pornographic images of children
    In Justice News
    A 44-year-old Rockport [Read More…]
  • Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco Delivers Remarks on Operation Dark HunTor
    In Crime News
    Good morning and thank you for being here today. I am pleased to be joined this morning by the Deputy Executive Director of EUROPOL, Jean-Philippe Lecouff, as well as the Assistant Attorney General of the Criminal Division Kenneth Polite Jr., FBI Deputy Director Paul Abbate, DEA Administrator Anne Milgram, and leaders of several law enforcement partners.
    [Read More…]
  • Man Pleads Guilty to Attempting to Provide Material Support to ISIS and Attempting to Commit an Attack at a Toledo-Area Synagogue
    In Crime News
    An Ohio man pleaded guilty today to attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, aka ISIS, and attempting to commit a hate crime.
    [Read More…]
  • Secretary Blinken’s Call with Foreign Minister Lamamra
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Office of the [Read More…]
  • Harvard University Professor Charged with Tax Offenses
    In Crime News
    The former Chair of Harvard University’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department was charged today in a superseding indictment with tax offenses for failing to report income he received from Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) in Wuhan, China.
    [Read More…]
  • Celebrating International Women’s Day
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Antony J. Blinken, [Read More…]
  • International Commission of the International Tracing Service Annual Meeting
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Wendy R. Sherman, Deputy [Read More…]
  • Secretary Antony J. Blinken Remarks to Mission Germany Staff
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Antony J. Blinken, [Read More…]
  • Secretary Antony J. Blinken at Sembremos Seguridad Site Visit
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Antony J. Blinken, [Read More…]
  • Deputy Secretary Sherman’s Meeting with Omani Deputy Foreign Minister Al Harthy
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Office of the [Read More…]
  • Owner of Sport Supplement Company Sentenced for Unlawful Distribution of Steroid-Like Drugs
    In Crime News
    A North Carolina sport supplement company owner was sentenced to one year and one day in federal prison after pleading guilty to introducing unapproved new drugs into interstate commerce, the Department of Justice announced.
    [Read More…]
Network News © 2005 Area.Control.Network™ All rights reserved.