There has been no national security issue that has preoccupied the presidency of George W. Bush more than the threat of weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of terrorists. But Wednesday, a congressionally-mandated bipartisan commission is slated to deliver a sobering report to the White House concluding that the threat is as great as ever—and that it is now better than 50-50 that a WMD terrorist attack will take place someplace in the world in the next five years. In an interview with NEWSWEEK, commission co-chair Bob Graham—former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a senior advisor on intelligence issues to Barack Obama's transition team—discusses the panel's work.
NEWSWEEK: Is there something you learned in the course of working on this that surprised you?
Bob Graham: Yes. What surprised me was the degree of risk associated with a biological weapon. When you think weapons of mass destruction, you tend to think mushroom cloud. But the ubiquitous nature of pathogens and the increasing lethality of both natural and synthetic pathogens led our commission to conclude it's more likely that an attack will come biologically rather than nuclear.
Give me an example of the kind of attack you ' re referring to.
Today, the focus is on anthrax. Anthrax is a naturally produced pathogen that comes from dead cattle. But in current life sciences, maybe an even greater threat is posed by the ability to create new—or to resurrect older—pathogens. As an example, the influenza of 1918, which killed 40 million people. That particular pathogen had been extinct [in the years after the 1918 epidemic] until it was re-created in a laboratory. Should that fall into the hands of evil people with the appropriate capability for organization and technical dissemination, it could exceed the lethality of 90 years ago. I would say that's my worst nightmare.
You start out the report by saying there is a better than even chance there will be such an attack by the end of the year 2013. A lot of people are wondering , where do you get that? How reliable is something like that?
We interviewed over 250 people—scientists, academics, military, political personnel from the United States and other countries as well as visiting research facilities in the United States and abroad. And the nine members of the commission, most of whom have a background in these areas, reached [that] unanimous conclusion.
Rep. Jane Harman issued a press release today suggesting the commission is playing the " fear card " here, that this is the kind of talk we ' ve heard from the Bush administration in recent years — and maybe a little too much of that distorts the debate ?
This issue has been stated by every presidential candidate at least going to back to the year 2000 as being the No. 1 security concern for the United States—including [President-elect] Barack Obama. The problem is, while we have done some things that have reduced the threat, we haven't done enough. Our adversaries are gaining greater capabilities and our margin of safety has been retreating. There has been a series of policy issues in which proliferation was posited against either an economic or a geopolitical objective. And in the large majority of those cases, proliferation has lost. The most recent example of that is the Indian nuclear agreement, [allowing for the sale of U.S. nuclear technology to India] which has a very destabilizing effect on nonproliferation treaty commitments. China has cited the India agreement when it sold reactors to Pakistan. Russia has cited it in defense of its relations with Iran. So our action has contributed to our greater vulnerability.
That should make things interesting when you present the report to the president tomorrow.
We felt we should not pull any punches. Our report would indicate we have less than 1900 days [before] it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will go off someplace in the world.
When you talk about our adversaries, from what I saw of the report, you ' re mainly talking about North Korea and Iran and their nuclear programs. I didn ' t see as much that Al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations are a real threat in this area.
We have identified Pakistan as being the intersection of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. The concern is not that the terrorists are going to develop the ability to create these weapons—although in the biological area, we think it is within their capabilities to create pathogens and weaponize them. But what will happen is there will be a successful theft or the turning of a corrupt official, and through that means, a terrorist group would gain access to either nuclear or biological material for a weapon.
I noticed from the report, you interviewed the top White House counterterorrism advisor, Juan Zarate, and he said he spent only 15 percent of his time on this issue. And Congress had mandated [as part of its post 9/11 reforms] that a full time WMD advisor be created. But the White House has never done so. Is this an example of the kind of failure you ' ve been talking about?
Yes. And we recommend that the new president structure a position accountable to him to be responsible for U.S. policies [on WMD.]. When we first looked at this, we were thinking the principal problem was one of coordination. I think our commission over the period we studied this shifted and came to the conclusion that there was nobody in the administration of sufficient gravitas to contend with the advocates for economic or geopolitical policies that would compromise our proliferation goals.
Given your expertise and passion about this subject, do you have any interest in helping President-elect Obama in this regard?
I'm currently serving as his senior advisor on the intelligence transition. And I met this morning with a person who is likely to have some significant responsibility in this area.
Can you shed some light on who that would be?
As for yourself, do you have any interest in serving the president in a more formal capacity?
Any American if called upon by the president to carry out what is clearly a major responsibility in the government to protect our people would be inclined to be receptive.