NEWS

U.S. Government Gets Average Grade for Protecting Country Against WMD Attack

By Matthew Harwood

The U.S. government's efforts to stop terrorists from attacking the United States with weapons of mass destruction has received an overall grade of  "C" from a bipartisan group of former national security experts.

"A nuclear, chemical, or biological weapon in the hands of terrorists remains the single greatest threat to our nation," says the report (pdf) released by the Partnership for a Secure America (PSA). The report reminds readers that the 9-11 Commission concluded in 2004 that al Qaeda still sought WMDs for another attack against the United States, and thus "preventing the proliferation of these weapons warrants a maximum effort."

On the sixth anniversary of 9-11 last year, PSA announced an initiative to monitor how well the government was implementing the key recommendations from the 9-11 Commission. (Both chairs of the 9-11 Commission, Lee Hamilton and Thomas Kean, sit on the PSA.) One part of that initiative was to assess the government's efforts in preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the possibility that such weaponry could fall into the hands of terrorists.

Previously, in 2005 the 9-11 Public Discourse Project gave the U.S. government a "D" on WMD proliferation prevention efforts. Two years later, the government has climbed a grade.

PSA's grading was divided into three subject areas: "maximum effort to prevent nuclear terrorism," "maximum effort to prevent chemical terrorism," and "maximum effort to prevent biological terrorism."

The government's efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism received a "C" because, while the government has done better than average detecting and interdicting weapons and materials at the nation's ports, its efforts are still being hampered by poor integration of government programs across agencies, lack of U.S. buy-in on multilateral counterproliferation programs, and the inability to sustain such programs internationally for the long-term.

Regarding chemical terrorism, the U.S. government did better, receiving a "B-." The report criticized the U.S. for lack of follow-through on multilateral non-and counterproliferation initiatives, poor response exercises, and the low priority of physically protecting chemical industry facilities. Nevertheless, the report did praise the U.S. government for destroying half of its chemical weapon stockpile. It did, however, recommend that the U.S. spend additional money and oversight for the destruction of Russian and Libyan stockpiles.

The U.S. received its worst grade, a "C-," in its efforts to prevent biologial terrorism. The PSA criticized the government for disengaging from the Biological Weapons Convention, which it said "hurts multilateral confidence building." The report also said the U.S. needs to coordinate the research and development of new vaccines and drugs with allies to build up the country's resilience to an attack and better detect covert bioterror preparations.

Speaking at the National Press Club yesterday, Michael Chertoff, the secretary for homeland security, told a reporter that what keeps him up at night is "a weapon of mass destruction ... particularly a biological threat.

"[A] biological threat can't be necessarily detected. It can be carried in a very small vial. You could theoretically infect somebody and send an infected person into the country and create a biological weapon that way," he said.

Overall, the PSA recommends that the next President of the United States do three things to protect the nation from a WMD attack. First, he should create an executive position responsible for WMD proliferation "with authority to make government-wide decisions on funding and programs."

Second, a blueprint needs to be drawn up that links all existing non-and counterproliferation programs, prioritizes funding to the most important initiatives, and coordinates their implementation across the government.

Finally, the U.S. must strengthen international cooperation on these matters. "The United States cannot be safe working alone," the report states. "Terrorism does not respect borders."

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