Nine members of the Hutaree militia, a Michigan-based Christian doomsday cult, have been arrested and charged with planning to use “weapons of mass destruction” against law enforcement officials. The indictment alleges that the Hutarees intended to wage a guerilla war against police officers using “trip-wired and command detonated antipersonnel improvised explosive devices (IEDs).” There is no mention of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. When did IEDs become WMD?
In 1994. Since its origins in the 1940s, the phrase weapons of mass destruction has typically referred to some combination of nuclear, biological, chemical, and radioactive weaponry. But, in a sweeping 1994 crime bill, Congress defined the term to include weapons previously known only as “destructive devices,” such as bombs, grenades, mines, and guns with a bore of more than one-half inch in diameter that are not common in sport hunting. Under U.S. Code Title 18, Section 2332a, murder by WMD is now one of 50 death-penalty-eligible federal offenses, along with treason, espionage, drive-by shooting, and murdering a member of Congress. There is nothing in the congressional record showing why then-Sen. Joseph Biden, who drafted the language, defined the term so broadly, but the bill was introduced a few months after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, in which conventional weapons killed six and wounded more than 1,000 people.
Elsewhere in the U.S. Code, WMD is also defined to include more than just nuclear, chemical, and biological munitions. But in most cases, the law stipulates that the weapon must have the potential to cause a “mass casualty incident.” That requirement is missing from the 1994 law, but most prosecutors limit its use to such cases. Just seven months after President Clinton signed the legislation, Timothy McVeigh used fertilizer and a rental truck to level a federal building in Oklahoma City. McVeigh and his co-conspirator Terry Nichols were both charged with using weapons of mass destruction. Shoe bomber Richard Reid and underpants bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab were charged under the same statute, as was Sept. 11 co-conspirator Zacharias Moussaoui. A Dutch citizen who traveled to Iraq to plant IEDs was indicted under the statute (PDF) and is now serving his 25-year sentence in the Netherlands. Police found a massive stockpile of explosives in the home of an Arkansas doctor who bombed a member of the state medical board last year and now faces WMD charges. Not all terrorists are charged under the WMD provisions, though. Since Sept. 11, only 5 percent of terrorism suspects (PDF)—as defined by government charge sheets and press releases—have been indicted under Biden’s statute.
Merely threatening to use WMD can earn you a fairly lengthy stay in a federal penitentiary. Shortly after Sept. 11, a frustrated homeowner told a customer-service representative that he would dump anthrax into Countrywide Financial’s air conditioning system when his loan delinquency prevented him from checking his account balance over the phone. He was sentenced to more than four years in prison, even though he had no access to anthrax.
William Safire and James E. Goodby traced the history of the term WMD in 1998, before George W. Bush made it a household phrase. In 1945, a troika of the American, Canadian, and U.K. heads of state recommended a commission to eliminate “atomic weapons and all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction.” Vannevar Bush, a WWII-era American scientist and adviser to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, claims that he coined the phrase to encompass the unforeseeable mega-weapons of the future. He could not have been referring to bombs, grenades, or large-bore rifles, which were in common use at the time.
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Explainer thanks James E. Goodby of the Brookings Institution and Francesca Laguardia of The Center on Law and Security at New York University School of Law.