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Don't Break the Beaker

CBRN Operations Against Small Scale
Production Facilities and Laboratories

A view inside the CBRNPro.net laboratory.  Image: Public Domain

A view inside the CBRNPro.net laboratory.  Image: Public Domain

CBRN operations in a clandestine or small scale/state sponsored laboratory falls more into the category of sensitive site exploitation (SSE) than CBRN sample collection. These missions primarily focus on determining the process, which can offer clues as to the purpose of the site, and only then on sampling materials from that process to determine efficiency and success levels. These laboratories can run the gamut, from crude improvised production, to high tech state or non-state facilities. The facilities housing small-scale production processes can also run the gamut and can include lab and pilot scale projects in uranium enrichment and plutonium separation, bio-weapons incubation and weaponization, and chemical agent production. These labs may exist on their own, or as part of a larger facility, for instance a quality control laboratory, or a research and development lab housed in a manufacturing facility, or a research lab at a university or government sponsored research center.

Further, these sites have inherent issues as most small-scale labs encountered by military and homeland security CBRN teams are NOT conducting laboratory scale production of CBRN. Teams reliant on intelligence or overly expecting to encounter CBRN often flounder when the scene lacks any discernable CBRN related process, a subject of a future post. Labs encountered by CBRN teams, both domestic and foreign, include legitimate facilities carrying out legitimate lab work, illicit drug production facilities, and home “experimenters.” For CBRN teams working domestic and anti-terrorism missions, the amateur chemist is one of the most dangerous scenes they will encounter. Experimenters run the gamut, and many are carrying out some associated illegal activity, from methamphetamine production to improvised explosives. Amateur chemists have produced some of the most dangerous hazmat response scenes ever encountered, including one site whose entire floor was explosive from picric acid. From a CBRN standpoint, amateurs tend to experiment most with explosives, but quite a few dabbled in ricin production as well. Most dangerous for CBRN teams operating overseas, especially those lacking organic EOD capabilities, are improvised explosives labs, some of which can include highly volatile processes like that associated with the homemade production of TATP.

Ultimately, all laboratory type missions must answer the question that drives the rest of the CBRN operation – “What are they making here?” Because these labs can serve both dual-use purposes and non-CBRN labs can be mistaken for CBRN production, the level of knowledge and training required to determine what is occurring, at the site, requires highly trained and experienced subject matter experts (SMEs). At the most basic level, differentiating between legitimate laboratory activities (in state sponsored or other non-clandestine labs) and illicit activities is essential. In clandestine labs, determining “Is it CBRN?” becomes the key question, as these labs are more often associated with the production of improvised explosives and illegal drugs, both of which can be mistaken for CBRN production and vice versa. 

Because these missions fall more into the realm of SSE, the collection of material other than CBRN becomes important at these sites. Collection of documents, laboratory notebooks, computers, and the identification of individuals involved from personal items are important aspects of these missions, in some cases such collects are more important to mission success than CBRN samples. Likewise, documentation of the site’s process, utilizing video and photographic collection is important, and requires a systematic process for a thorough analysis, especially if access to the site is time constrained.[1]

CBRN sampling at these sites requires a marriage of knowledge about the process and sampling techniques. Unskilled or ham-fisted sampling can alter an ongoing process, which can have disastrous consequences, including the release of material or even explosion. Sampling in these situations requires, at a minimum, the supervision, and guidance of subject matter experts (SMEs). If you can’t run through the production processes for Sarin in your head, you are not a chemical SME. The same is true in the nuclear and biological realm, if you don’t have an advanced science or engineering degree and extensive training in production processes, it is better you limit your interaction with a small scale production facility or laboratory. That isn’t to say some CBRN operators with extensive training in this area cannot handle such missions, just that that training goes above and beyond the training inherent in all but a few CBRN teams.  Detection and analytical capabilities in these missions is not a primary concern, other than for personnel safety. Typically, equipment profiles beyond PPE will focus on basic multi-gas monitors, personal radiation detectors/pagers, and sampling gear. Onsite or near site analysis, like in obvious missions, may be conducted, but is of a secondary or even tertiary concern, as the priority is usually process first, location and individuals involved second (SSE), and last the success rate/purity of any production process (the analysis part).

As to the nature of these sampling missions, again, overt and covert teams will utilize the same approach, the only differentiation being covert teams will adopt mission parameters designed to avoid detection of their activity, which may limit their ability to remove materials from the site, increasing the importance of their ability to provide well-produced video and photographic evidence.

Clandestine work in this realm is largely a HUMINT activity and not applicable to CBRN operators. There are several things that apply for all CBRN Operations (clandestine, overt, covert) that are worth mentioning because they are frequently overlooked. Dumpster diving is a valuable tactic for extracting information about suspected lab sites and who was working there. Sampling hazardous waste or sampling of hazardous waste streams (i.e. drains) can tell you a lot about a process, especially if the process is difficult to discern or is no longer in operation. Finally, obtaining whole or partial filter material from vent stacks and soil, vegetation, air, or water samples from at or near the site can also prove valuable..

PPE for collection at labs, if a state sponsored lab, will typically mirror that of the personnel operating there, with additional protective measures as a backup. Basic self-decontamination is usually adequate for these missions and may be as simple as using decontamination wipes and glove removal. Clan labs require higher levels of PPE and significant attention to decontamination procedures. There is usually greater risk of encountering contamination, and therefore a logistical footprint equivalent to the large presence associated with obvious missions is possible, depending on the scale, scope, and quality of the site. A common rule for teams operating in austere environments or where time and material are constrained, is to use the canary rule. Match the PPE of individual working in the lab, and be prepared to increase a step. For example, if observation of individuals working at the site shows them to wear little or no PPE, but intel suggests some hazardous material inside, teams may want to enter in a modified level C or B, ready to mask if needed, and with suits on, something equivalent to MOPP 2 or 3.  In an industrial situation, or a research facility that is state sponsored, PPE is likely to be minimal, especially if the lab is working under hoods or with hotcells. The only caveat to that rule is that the lab must be functioning. If power to lab is lost or the facility damaged and the hoods are no longer operating, the PPE levels will be much higher.

In the final assessment and based on personal experience, small scale production and labs are best handled by specialized teams trained to deal with them. As previously mentioned, if you don't know the production pathways for Sarin, or the three ways to make methamphetamine, or how to make TATP, you should limit your interaction with labs. CBRN teams who find themselves in situations where they are out of their depth or where SMEs are not available to back them up, should strictly focus on SSE and avoid changing anything in an ongoing process. Take pictures and forget trying to sample a process.  Remember, other items at the site, or the people that work/worked there are the best source of information about what is going on. Being able to look at a lab apparatus and say "aha I know what they are doing" is nice, but grabbing the lab notebook that tells you the same thing is even better.  The biggest error all CBRN teams make (even those with extensive training for labs) is getting focused so much on a lab apparatus they miss the more important things around it (like maps, computers, notebooks, etc.). Start big, work small, conduct a thorough and complete SSE, then, if there is time, go back and take a closer look at any ongoing processes or apparatus. If you do that, you'll leave singing your own "Ode to Joy."



[1]Filming and photographing SSE is an art. The author has seen many examples of documentation from SSE’s that proved to be useless, both in determining the process and for further exploitation by analysts. The best approach is one of “big to little” which documents all aspects of the site thoroughly by starting with a broad slow pan of the external and internal parts of the building and its rooms before focusing on specific processes or items. Documentation of photos and videos, and correlating them to samples and document collection is also vital. A good team will run video throughout its operations, documenting all of its collection activities and narrating its activities. Forensic collection techniques utilized by law enforcement are particularly useful for adaptation to this process, however even basic video and sample documentation can prove invaluable. Because of the nature of the "jerky" filming, “helmet cams” are particularly bad at providing such documentation unless operators have extensive practice using them and modifying their head movements for filming rather than just "looking around," as they might normally. Hand-held systems work best at documenting the SSE with helmet based cameras acting as a backup or additional source of information. In either case, a good rule is to move the camera (or your helmet) at half the speed you might normally think appropriate and then play it back and practice until you get a feel for the appropriate speed and time to focus on specifics. It is always slower than you think, and takes a lot of practice to film well, especially in "adrenaline-high" situations. Another method to practice is to perform high stress/strenuous activities immediately followed by a "filming" exercise - say calisthenics or a run, straight into an exercise that requires slow and steady camera movement.  



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