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If someone nukes D.C., equipment in Arlington will help figure out who did it

D.C. skyline view from the rooftop of the Bartlett in Pentagon City (staff photo)

The prospect of a nuclear bomb going off in the D.C. area is something that will hopefully remain in the realm of fiction.

Should the proverbial sum of all fears play out, however, equipment in Arlington will help the federal government manage the response.

A broad overview of the system — installed on county-owned property since 2016 — is included in an item on the Arlington County Board’s meeting agenda for this coming Saturday.

Details are not provided, and are said to be exempt from release under the Freedom of Information Act, but a letter from an Air Force official included in a Board report says the system will aid in the investigation and the emergency response after any such explosion.

This system is designed to characterize nuclear explosions in urban environments. In the event of an intentional detonation such as a terrorist attack, information generated by the system is critical for the Federal Government’s efforts to determine who was responsible for and how to respond to the event. The information will be used to support law enforcement prosecution efforts and will be shared with the consequence management community as applicable (e.g. to contribute to damage assessments). However, the full disclosure of the location of our equipment, and information regarding its components and operations, would jeopardize the ability for the system to provide valuable information in a timely fashion to the law enforcement and consequence management communities, by giving insight into the system’s design and coverage, and possibly how to defeat the system.

Therefore, we request that our work with Arlington County on this project, including the Agreement and supporting documentation, be exempted from public disclosure under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act per Va. Code Section 2-2.3705.2, subsection 14 (plans and information to prevent or respond to terrorist activity or cyber-attacks, the disclosure of which would jeopardize the safety of any person). Supporting documentation includes, but is not limited to: program descriptions, what equipment is sited on Arlington County property and where, and details about the equipment (e.g. function, operations, engineering drawings).

The item is on the Board’s agenda this weekend because management of the system is being transferred from the Fort Belvoir-based Defense Threat Reduction Agency to the Florida-based Air Force Technical Applications Center.

Both military agencies have responsibilities related to nuclear deterrence and monitoring.

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