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Inevitability of a WMD Attack?

Earlier this week Vice President elect Joseph Biden was briefed on the just released study by the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism that a WMD attack was likely sooner than later and that the supposed “margin of safety” was narrowing. The “top line” of the report is that while terrorist groups (with al Qaeda still being the prime concern and suspect) lacked the technical capabilities to actually make the weapon, the ability to find cooperating scientists could enable such an attack is increasing. Further, the Commission warned that all roads lead to Pakistan when it comes to weaponizing a WMD. Specifically, the Mumbai attacks last week, of necessity, raise the specter of an attack being planned and launched from inside of Pakistan, and more specifically, from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

In a sense, the release of this new government report, is new, but it is not necessarily news. The warnings about bio-terrorism have been a part of a clarion call since November 3, 2003 when an unclassified CIA Report discussed the risks inherent in the super-accelerated biotechnology sector. The earlier report, “The Darker Bioweapons Future” went just so far. If told us that the fear was the proliferation of weapons, of labs going research and of the growing number of people engaged in the science of developing new “bugs” so that countermeasures could be developed. They talked about the development of elixirs of combinations of a mild pathogen with its antidote (a virulent mixture); or of designer pathogens designed to challenge existing antidotes to force the development of new ones; or most scary, a stealth virus that could lie dormant until triggered. What “The Darker Bioweapons Future” did not cover was the possibility of scientists becoming turncoats and offering weapons skills and capabilities to terrorists, and that the origin of the threat might be in Pakistan. Frankly, it took the passage of a few years and some history to conclude that the threat might be real, and that the enemy might lie in the guise of a lab coat. In 2003, no one really considered the possibility that a scientist might “go to the dark side.”

Some of the highlights and recommendations of the report to take away from the report were:

- Nuclear and biological weapons are proliferating: Yes, indeed, they are. The question of course relates to their availability to access of terrorists organizations to them. The statement that as proliferation continues (that more countries come into possession) the more likely a nefarious end occurs, is obviously true.

- I think correctly, although disturbingly, every terrorist act anywhere in the world brings us closer to the moment that an attack with a WMD occurs is unfortunately true. It is in this case, inevitable. While tactics do merge and evolve and morph, the reality is that with every incident, the “terrorists” are emboldened by successful attack and will seek to expand.

- The conclusion that a terrorist organization would obtain a biological as opposed to a nuclear or radiological capability is likely, especially considering the proliferation of biological research and testing laboratories worldwide. As a side note, regardless of where the National Bio and Agro Defense Facility is located (recent announcements were that the NBAF will be located in Kansas, rather than San Antonio with some people concerned that the decision has more to do with politics than actual capability), the existence of new biological research capabilities logically increase the possibility that a scientist could be lured by money or other to “cross the line.”

As noted by the Report, even though the Biological Weapons Conventions Treaty was signed in 1972, a number of countries blatantly violate it, and still there are countries like Egypt, Israel and Syria that never signed it. Further it is feared the Russia, China, Iran and North Korea may be secretly pursuing programs. Even though it is acknowledged that terrorist organizations like al Qaeda likely lack the technical skills to weaponize a biological agent (like anthrax), the fear is real that as more countries violate or circumvent the BWC, or as more companies in the United States and elsewhere work with such pathogens, that a rogue scientist, for whatever motivation, might lead to combining with a terrorist organization.

"The United States should be less concerned that terrorists will become biologists and far more concerned that biologists will become terrorists," the report states.

Thus, as with other scientific skills and perhaps not unlike the beginning of the proliferation of the nuclear arms race and the race into space, the acquisition of talent can propel a country or now, a terrorist organization from being a non-player into a power.

The potential scenarios are as endless as they are believable. The question is plausibility. No one should doubt the goal of al Qaeda and its followers to eventually gain the ability to mount a WMD attack on the West. The question is how it will acquire the capabilities and whether through policy and actions, those countries now in possession of the tools of a new holocaust will protect the rest of the world. Until now, the nonproliferation efforts have focused on nuclear weapons. One of the shirts needed it would appear is an increased diligence in the vetting process of hiring scientists at facilities that handles biological toxins. The question then extends to research universities. Who gets to work at the myriad BSL3 and BSL4 laboratories around the country?

Of course, while anthrax remains the most likely biological weapon, the report also highlights the potential of contagious diseases — like the flu strain that killed 40 million at the beginning of the 20th century — are looming threats. That virus has been recreated in scientific labs, and there remains no inoculation to protect against it if is stolen and released.

Another area of concern is the ongoing monitoring of global outbreaks of infectious diseases. Surveillance of diseases and outbreaks, and ensuring that infected individuals do not cross borders becomes an important element in preventing biological terrorism in the United States. Of course, this brings to mind the case of Andrew Speaker in May 2007 who knowingly returned to the U.S. while suffering from an especially drug resistant strain of tuberculosis by taking a flight from Europe to Montreal and then crossing the border by car.

“There’s a lot of international coordination that has to get done, and questions about what the triggers are for doing so,” she said. “It seems like there needs to be a really clear standard if someone is a risk or not, and if someone is a risk, there ought to be a clear trigger for quarantine or isolation.”

The thirteen recommendations made in the report are listed below.

RECOMMENDATION 1: The United States should undertake a series of mutually reinforcing domestic measures to prevent bioterrorism: (1) conduct a comprehensive review of the domestic program to secure dangerous pathogens, (2) develop a national strategy for advancing bioforensic capabilities, (3) tighten government oversight of high-containment laboratories, (4) promote a culture of security awareness in the life sciences community, and (5) enhance the nation’s capabilities for rapid response to prevent biological attacks from inflicting mass casualties.

RECOMMENDATION 2: The United States should undertake a series of mutually reinforcing measures at the international level to prevent biological weapons proliferation and terrorism: (1) press for an international conference of countries with major biotechnology industries to promote biosecurity, (2) conduct a global assessment of biosecurity risks, (3) strengthen global disease surveillance networks, and (4) propose a new action plan for achieving universal adherence to and effective national implementation of the Biological Weapons Convention, for adoption at the next review conference in 2011.

RECOMMENDATION 3: The United States should work internationally toward strengthening the nonproliferation regime, reaffirming the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons by (1) imposing a range of penalties for NPT violations and withdrawal from the NPT that shift the burden of proof to the state under review for noncompliance; (2) ensuring access to nuclear fuel, at market prices to the extent possible, for non-nuclear states that agree not to develop sensitive fuel cycle capabilities and are in full compliance with international obligations; (3) strengthening the International Atomic Energy Agency, to include identifying the limitations to its safeguarding capabilities, and providing the agency with the resources and authorities needed to meet its current and expanding mandate; (4) promoting the further development and effective implementation of counterproliferation initiatives such as the Proliferation Security Initiative and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism; (5) orchestrating consensus that there will be no new states, including Iran and North Korea, possessing uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing capability; (6) working in concert with others to do everything possible to promote and maintain a moratorium on nuclear testing; (7) working toward a global agreement on the definition of “appropriate” and “effective” nuclear security and accounting systems as legally obligated under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540; and (8) discouraging, to the extent possible, the use of financial incentives in the promotion of civil nuclear power.

RECOMMENDATION 3: The United States should work internationally toward strengthening the nonproliferation regime, reaffirming the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons by (1) imposing a range of penalties for NPT violations and withdrawal from the NPT that shift the burden of proof to the state under review for noncompliance; (2) ensuring access to nuclear fuel, at market prices to the extent possible, for non-nuclear states that agree not to develop sensitive fuel cycle capabilities and are in full compliance with international obligations; (3) strengthening the International Atomic Energy Agency, to include identifying the limitations to its safeguarding capabilities, and providing the agency with the resources and authorities needed to meet its current and expanding mandate; (4) promoting the further development and effective implementation of counterproliferation initiatives such as the Proliferation Security Initiative and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism; (5) orchestrating consensus that there will be no new states, including Iran and North Korea, possessing uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing capability; (6) working in concert with others to do everything possible to promote and maintain a moratorium on nuclear testing; (7) working toward a global agreement on the definition of “appropriate” and “effective” nuclear security and accounting systems as legally obligated under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540; and (8) discouraging, to the extent possible, the use of financial incentives in the promotion of civil nuclear power.

RECOMMENDATION 5: As a top priority, the next administration must stop the Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons programs. In the case of Iran, this requires the permanent cessation of all of Iran’s nuclear weapons–related efforts. In the case of North Korea, this requires the complete abandonment and dismantlement of all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs. If, as appears likely, the next administration seeks to stop these programs through direct diplomatic engagement with the Iranian and North Korean governments, it must do so from a position of strength, emphasizing both the benefits to them of abandoning their nuclear weapons programs and the enormous costs of failing to do so. Such engagement must be backed by the credible threat of direct action in the event that diplomacy fails.

RECOMMENDATION 6: The next President and Congress should implement a comprehensive policy toward Pakistan that works with Pakistan and other countries to (1) eliminate terrorist safe havens through military, economic, and diplomatic means; (2) secure nuclear and biological materials in Pakistan; (3) counter and defeat extremist ideology; and (4) constrain a nascent nuclear arms race in Asia.

RECOMMENDATION 7: The next U.S. administration should work with the Russian government on initiatives to jointly reduce the danger of the use of nuclear and biological weapons, including by (1) extending some of the essential verification and monitoring provisions of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that are scheduled to expire in 2009; (2) advancing cooperation programs such as the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540, and the Proliferation Security Initiative; (3) sustaining security upgrades at sensitive sites in Russia and elsewhere, while finding common ground on further reductions in stockpiles of excess highly enriched uranium; (4) jointly encouraging China, Pakistan, and India to announce a moratorium on the further production of nuclear fissile materials for nuclear weapons and to reduce existing nuclear military deployments and stockpiles; and (5) offering assistance to other nations, such as Pakistan and India, in achieving nuclear confidence-building measures similar to those that the United States and the USSR followed for most of the Cold War.

RECOMMENDATION 8: The President should create more efficient and effective policy coordination structure by designating a White House principal advisor for WMD proliferation and terrorism and restructuring the National Security Council and Homeland Security Council.

RECOMMENDATION 9: Congress should reform its oversight both structurally and substantively to better address intelligence, homeland security, and crosscutting 21st-century national security missions such as the prevention of weapons of mass destruction proliferation and terrorism.

RECOMMENDATION 10: Accelerate integration of effort among the counterproliferation, counter-terrorism, and law enforcement communities to address WMD proliferation and terrorism issues; strengthen expertise in the nuclear and biological fields; prioritize pre-service and in-service training and retention of people with critical scientific, language, and foreign area skills; and ensure that the threat posed by biological weapons remains among the highest national intelligence priorities for collection and analysis.

RECOMMENDATION 11: The United States must build a national security workforce for the 21st century.

RECOMMENDATION 12: U.S. counter-terrorism strategy must more effectively counter the ideology behind WMD terrorism. The United States should develop a more coherent and sustained strategy and capabilities for global ideological engagement to prevent future recruits, supporters, and facilitators.

RECOMMENDATION 13: The next administration must work to openly and honestly engage the American citizen, encouraging a participatory approach to meeting the challenges of the new century.

To a degree, none of this is a surprise. But it does serve as a reminder that that lack of an attack on the U.S. homeland does not ensure that such an attack will not occur. The recent commando style attack in Mumbai also lays open a number of previously undiscussed scenarios that warrant consideration moving forward. Finally, the implications of the unsettled political and terrorist climate in Pakistan create a situation that must be watched.