September 15, 2008
By Bob Graham and Jim Talent
During the first presidential debate in 2004, President Bush and
Sen. John Kerry agreed -- as stated by the president -- that "the
single, largest threat to American national security today is
nuclear weapons in the hands of a terrorist network." Yet despite
that consensus, the subject of weapons of mass destruction
proliferation has quickly disappeared from the national agenda.
Few comments or questions on this issue have been posed to the
presidential candidates, even though preventing WMD proliferation
should be on the short list of priorities for a McCain or Obama
White House. And it rarely appears on polls of the most urgent
concerns of citizens. So, in 2008, after seven years in which there
have been no successful terrorist attacks inside the country, why
not relax? Here are the reasons:
Terrorists have continued to demonstrate the intent to acquire a
WMD capability. As Director of National Intelligence Admiral
Michael McConnell said in his Sept. 10, 2007, testimony to the
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, "al
Qaeda will continue to try to acquire and employ chemical,
biological, radiological, or nuclear material in attacks and would
not hesitate to use them if it develops what it deems is sufficient
The potential human toll of an attack utilizing weapons of mass
destruction is appalling. On a normal workday, half a million
people crowd the area within a half-mile radius of Times Square. A
noon detonation of a nuclear device in Midtown Manhattan would kill
Another attack -- particularly with WMD -- would have a
devastating impact on the American and the world economies. As
former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan warned, a nuclear
terrorist attack would push "tens of millions of people into dire
poverty," creating "a second death toll throughout the developing
The environment for the use of nuclear and biological weapons
has changed. Although Russia is doing a better job of securing its
stockpiles and therefore is less of a threat, North Korea and Iran
have taken its place. North Korea has gone from two bombs worth of
plutonium to an estimated ten. Iran has gone from zero centrifuges
spinning to more than 3,000.
In what some have termed a "nuclear renaissance," many nations
are now seeking commercial nuclear power capacity that will add to
the inventory of nations and scientists who could extend their
interest to nuclear weapons.
With the nuclear surprises we've experienced in Iran, Syria and
North Korea, it is clear that current nonproliferation regimes and
mechanisms can no longer be certain to prevent more nuclear
proliferation or the theft of bomb-usable materials.
Biologists are creating synthetic DNA chains of diseases which
have been considered extinct, such as the 1918 influenza virus that
killed over 40 million people. The potential of using these
laboratory-developed strains against an unaware and noninoculated
population is ominous.
There is the necessity of engaging the American people. Unlike
the Cold War, which was a superpower vs. superpower confrontation,
the current asymmetric threat that would be dramatically escalated
if the terrorists had access to nuclear or biological weapons. The
incorrect claims regarding Saddam Hussein's WMD and his collusion
with al Qaeda have contributed to public skepticism. Nonetheless,
there was and is a real danger that al Qaeda will get a nuclear
bomb and attack an American city.
Faced with the possibility of a mushroom cloud over Manhattan,
many people are paralyzed by a combination of denial and fatalism.
The president is the best position to rally the resilience and
patriotism of Americans to this threat.
We have been asked by Congress to lead a bipartisan commission
to assess the current state of our nation's policies to prevent the
proliferation of weapons of mass destruction into the hands of
rogue states and nonstate terrorists. Our final report will be
released in November. Based on our assessment, we will make
recommendations to the new Congress and the new president.
We trust that the president and Congress will recognize the
primacy of this threat and the consequences should it come to pass.
Nuclear terrorism has been described as the ultimate avoidable
catastrophe. Whether it -- and other WMD catastrophes -- will be
avoided will depend in large part on where it ranks among the 44th
Bob Graham, a former U.S. senator from Florida, is chairman
of the congressionally established Commission on the Prevention of
WMD Proliferation and Terrorism and the board of oversight of the
Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida and
the University of Miami. Jim
Talent a former U.S. senator from Missouri, is vice chairman of
the WMD Commission and Distinguished Fellow at the Heritage
First appeared in the Miami Herald
During the first presidential debate in 2004, President Bush and Sen. John Kerry agreed -- as stated by the president -- that ''the single, largest threat to American national security today is nuclear weapons in the hands of a terrorist network.'' Yet despite that consensus, the subject of weapons of mass destruction proliferation has quickly disappeared from the national agenda.
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