The Obama administration and Congress get an F for failing to prepare for a biological terrorist attack—a “national security” risk that is getting greater “by the day,” according to the director of a blue-ribbon federal panel set up to study the issue.
Borrowing a page from the 9/11 Commission, the bipartisan WMD panel is today issuing a “report card” on how the U.S. government has responded to its December 2008 recommendations for steps needed to prepare for the threat that terrorists will strike using nuclear or biological weapons.
The panel—chaired by former Democratic senator (and intelligence-committee chairman) Bob Graham and former GOP senator Jim Talent—concluded more than a year ago that there was better than a 50-50 chance that Al Qaeda or some other terrorist group would use weapons of destruction somewhere in the world in the next five years.
Since then, the risks of such an attack have only gotten greater, said Randell Larsen, the executive director of the panel, in an interview. “The further we go down the road, the easier it gets to make a biological weapon,” he told Declassified. “It’s getting easier every day.”
Larsen acknowledged that the panel is aware of no “tactical intelligence” that Al Qaeda is about to mount such an attack. But the panel’s updated report being released Tuesday finds that “it is well within [Al Qaeda’s] present capabilities to develop and use bioweapons.” (One ominous development was the release from a Malaysian prison—just days after the panel’s initial report—of Yazid Sufaat, a U.S.-trained microbiologist who had been working on developing a biological weapon for Al Qaeda.)
But the panel says the Obama administration and Congress get the lowest possible grade by failing to respond to one of its most important recommendations: taking steps to prepare vaccines, train medical workers, and conduct environmental cleanups in the event that a terrorist group unleashes anthrax or other biological weapons on the U.S. homeland. One development that underscored how woefully the government is prepared for such an attack was the problems encountered getting and distributing vaccines to deal with the H1N1 virus last year.
The panel estimates it would cost $3.4 billion a year for the next five years to do what is required to prepare for a biological-weapons attack, but the government is currently spending less than one tenth of that. Larsen noted, for example, that an anthrax attack in the New York subway system could cripple the city, but there are still no plans in place to decontaminate trains if such an assault were to take place. “If there were anthrax in the New York City subways, it could take decades to clean it out,” said Larsen.
The panel also gave the administration a D-plus for failing to tighten government oversight of high-contaminant labs where pathogens are stored, and Fs for failing to streamline and reform congressional oversight of homeland security and intelligence and for failing to implement programs to educate and train national-security experts who can deal with a WMD attack. But the panel gave better grades—ranging from A to C—for the response to some of its other recommendations, such as strengthening “domestic and global diseases surveillance networks,” strengthening nuclear nonproliferation programs, and creating a more efficient White House policy structure to deal with the issue.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokesman said the White House will respond on Tuesday.