Last year, the White House publicly shot down a controversial proposal from Republican lawmakers to designate fentanyl as a weapon of mass destruction.
Though President Joe Biden declined to issue the executive order granting the WMD designation, which would have come with extraordinary powers to combat the scourge, federal agencies — including the Department of Defense, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security — had already begun preparing for a fentanyl WMD attack as far back as 2018.
Government documents obtained by The Intercept reveal that national security agencies have for years been advancing the narrative that the drug could pose a WMD threat, going so far as conducting military exercises in preparation for an attack by a fentanyl weapon.
The push to declare fentanyl a WMD — and the security state approaching the drug that way even absent the declaration — has been a boon to federal agencies’ budgets. It’s not clear, however, that reimagining the highly toxic drug as a superlethal weapon has had any effect of combating the ongoing crisis of fentanyl overdoses. What it has done, though, is help kick off a panic.
“In the WMD world, there’s an industry built on taking a bit of a threat du jour and, like a few egg whites and a whisk, whipping it into an expensive meringue,” said Dan Kaszeta, a former adviser to the White House on chemical and biological preparedness and longtime expert on WMDs. The push to treat fentanyl like a WMD so far “involves emergency responders giving fentanyl mythical properties that toxicologists and anesthesiologists who use the stuff all the time refute,” added Kaszeta, who is currently an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank.
“Is it,” Kaszeta asked, “the next anthrax scare — a way to beg for budget, training, equipment?”
Even as it produced material warning of a fentanyl weapon, the government at times assessed such an attack was unlikely. One internal 2018 FBI bulletin, obtained by The Intercept from a former federal law enforcement official, calls the possibility of a chemical attack using fentanyl a “low probability high impact event.”
In a statement to The Intercept about the report, an FBI spokesperson said, “While our standard practice is not to comment on specific intelligence products, the FBI regularly shares information with our law enforcement partners to assist in protecting the communities they serve.”
Can’t Touch This
“Fentanyl Very Likely a Viable Option for a Chemical Weapon Attack in the United States for Extremists and Criminals, Low Probability High Impact Event,” reads the title of the July 2018 FBI intelligence bulletin.
The assessment, produced by the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, cites bureau and Centers for Disease Control information to conclude with “high confidence” that the likelihood of such an attack is a remote probability. The long odds are “due to no known credible threat reporting regarding the use of fentanyl for a CW” — chemical weapon — “event in the United States.”
The intelligence bulletin, marked “FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY” and not disseminated to the public, also references a since-removed Drug Enforcement Agency fentanyl briefing guide for first responders. Under a red, boldfaced “WARNING,” the briefing guide incorrectly cautioned that mere incidental skin contact or inhalation of even just a small amount of fentanyl can result in death.
The DEA blasted out the warning to law enforcement agencies all over the country, including the FBI, generating panic among police.
The DEA later revised its guidance after the American College of Medical Toxicology and the American Academy of Clinical Toxicology issued a joint report concluding that “the risk of clinically significant exposure to emergency responders is extremely low.”
The hysteria, however, continues to this day. Around 80 percent of police officers surveyed believe you can overdose by touching fentanyl, according to three different studies.
In 2021, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department released dramatic body cam footage of a deputy collapsing after contact with fentanyl. “My trainee was exposed to fentanyl and nearly died,” Cpl. Scott Crane remarks in the video.
News media echoed the department’s claims, with the San Diego Tribune running an article headlined, “‘I’m not going to let you die’: Deputy overdoses after coming in contact with fentanyl.”
Medical experts promptly took issue with the story, saying incidental contact with fentanyl can’t cause an overdose and suggesting that the officer’s reaction was more likely an anxiety response.
The Tribune’s public safety editor responded with a statement saying the publication asked the sheriff’s department to respond to the criticisms and for more information on the incident — once again relying on the account of law enforcement officials rather than medical experts.
DHS Push to Label Fentanyl as WMD
In 2019, the assistant secretary in charge of the Department of Homeland Security’s newly created Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office referenced the FBI report from the previous year.
“In July 2018, the FBI Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate assessed that ‘… fentanyl is very likely a viable option for a chemical weapon attack by extremists or criminals,” said the February 22, 2019, DHS memo, sent by James McDonnell to the DHS secretary, first reported by the military news website Task & Purpose.
The memo didn’t mention the next sentence in the FBI document: a warning that the event was “low probability” due to there being “no known credible threat reporting” on the matter. (Asked why the memo did not mention this, the Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment.)
The omission appears to be part of a bureaucratic turf-grab. Since the office was created by consolidating DHS’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office with its Office of Health Affairs, if fentanyl, a public health threat, could be portrayed as a WMD threat, it could fall under the new office’s purview.
The memo went on to suggest that the creation of the new office under the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Act of 2018 “provides an opportunity to apply DHS CWMD assets and capabilities to the fentanyl problem through the lens of WMD.” Suggested applications included the development and deployment of sensor technology to detect fentanyl.
The DHS memo’s proposals were criticized as misguided when they were reported on, and the CWMD office did end up getting involved in the fentanyl response. In July 2019, DHS’s Science and Technology Directorate announced that it had begun work with a private firm to develop a miniaturized nanofiber device capable of detecting fentanyl. In the announcement, the DHS office repeated the false claim that “fentanyl can be absorbed through the skin … putting many first responders at risk of a fatal contact overdose.”
In 2020, the CWMD office awarded a contractor $1.7 million to produce a trace chemical detector designed to screen for trace amounts of fentanyl on the outside of parcels — the same kind of sensor technology referenced in the DHS memo.
Politicians are under intense pressure to respond to the epidemic of fentanyl overdoses, a crisis that claimed almost 70,000 lives in 2021 alone, according to Centers for Disease Control data.
In April last year, Ambrose Partners lobbyist Kevin Fogarty, the former longtime chief of staff to Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y., registered to lobby on behalf of the nonprofit Families Against Fentanyl. The group released a 2021 letter by former top national security officials — including top CIA brass and a cabinet secretary — calling for a declaration making fentanyl an official WMD. Fogarty would be a natural choice to lobby Capitol Hill: King, his old boss, served as the chair of the Homeland Security Committee before retiring in 2021.
Several Republican members of Congress, like Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., have introduced legislation that would label fentanyl a WMD.
In September 2022, 18 state attorneys general signed a letter urging Biden to classify the drug as a WMD. Led by Republican Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody and Democratic Connecticut Attorney General William Tong, the officials said the move “would require the Department of Homeland Security and the Drug Enforcement Administration to coordinate a response with other agencies, including the Department of Defense — as opposed to the federal government simply treating the substance as a narcotics control problem.”
The White House quickly swatted down the proposal.
The Military Gets Involved
“It may seem odd to classify fentanyl as a weapon of mass destruction like a chemical or biological warfare agent, but as a threat to our first responders and in the interest of public health and safety we handle it as a threat in exactly the same way,” Lt. Col. Tyler Royster, commander of the 10th Civil Support Team of the Washington state National Guard, said in a March 30 press release. The unit provided support to state police responding to the Thurston County, Washington, jail following six fentanyl overdoses.
Civil Support Teams, also known as WMD-CSTs, are federally funded, active duty military personnel under the National Guard that provide support to civil authorities in cases of the use or threatened use of a WMD.
The Washington WMD-CST unit worked with a SWAT team to “eliminate on-site hazards,” using a sophisticated spectroscopy device to scan for fentanyl.
None was detected.
The U.S. military has also sought to conduct military exercises simulating fentanyl WMD attacks. In June, the Wyoming National Guard’s WMD civilian support unit, as part of an exercise called “Vigilant Guard,” planned a scenario in which a conflict between rival drug gangs escalates into a weaponized fentanyl attack.
“International narcotics networks, in coordination with international military competitors, exploit regional narcotic distribution networks to increase violence between rival gangs and push a narrative of America being unsafe via social networks,” says the ominous description of one scenario in a procurement document. “Additional targeting information reveals plans for a retaliation shooting and use of aerosolized car fentanyl on a rival gang location in Cody, Wyoming and Powell, Wyoming.”