The U.S. remains vulnerable to a possibly devastating terrorist attack with biological weapons, said former navy secretary Richard J. Danzig.
He told a Washington, D.C., security conference that the wide availability of pathogens means that “we need a strategy to deal with biological weapons.”
Many pathogens are easily available online from providers who require only basic identification. Their customers are university and corporate research labs, but lethal agents could easily be diverted for use by terrorists.
Danzig said previous terrorist attempts around the world to use biological weapons have failed. But, “with groups like these you are playing Russian roulette. We are substantially at risk.”
He likened the threat to playing Russian roulette. Although previous efforts by Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo and others to use biological weapons failed, one group will eventually succeed.
Aum Shinrikyo eventually used sarin gas, a chemical weapon, to kill 12 travelers on the Tokyo subway in 1995 after its experiments with weaponized pathogens failed. The cost in lives and economic disruption from a successful bioterrorism attack would be far more severe, Danzig warned.
Danzig has interviewed Aum Shinrikyo members in jail and described them as a highly solipsistic, secretive, and closely-bonded “fraternity.” These are common traits among terrorist groups, which makes it hard for intelligence and law enforcement agencies to detect and penetrate them. Their closed structure also makes them highly unpredictable and prone to “eccentric” behavior said Danzig.
He said the U.S. and other western governments are complacent.
Security officials believe that the effects of a biological or any other potentially catastrophic attack can eventually be overcome.
Danzig called this the “Pearl Harbor syndrome,” not because such an attack would be a surprise, but because officials are so confident that the country could recover from such a strike relatively quickly and at a bearable, if heavy, cost - just as it did in World War II.
He says this belief is mistaken. “If we don’t get ahead of curve and just wait till another event it will be too hard, too difficult,” to overcome. “We can’t afford to wait for a crisis and then respond to it. We need to be ahead of it.”