December 22, 2008 | Commentary on National Security and Defense, Terrorism

How to prevent terrorists from using weapons of mass destruction

 
Seven years after 9/11, we were en route to Pakistan when a bomb blast destroyed the Marriott Hotel there. We were hours from staying at that very hotel. Our near miss provided a clear and sobering reminder that we live in a very perilous time.

More than 50 people died in that attack. If a weapon of mass destruction had been used, the death toll would have been exponentially higher. We state the problem clearly in the report we issued this month, the result of six months of research and analysis by the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism.

Our margin of safety is shrinking, not growing. In fact, on the current trajectory, we believe it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction - probably biological rather than nuclear - will be used somewhere in the world by the end of 2013.

We don't have to remind New Yorkers that the city is a prime target.

Our report puts forward recommendations that can help reduce that threat. During the course of our work, we learned from Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly that New York leads the rest of the country in its preparation for the unthinkable. But President-elect Barack Obama and Congress can and must do more, much more:

  • Focus on bioterrorism. We must raise the priority of the most likely form of attack - bioterrorism - by mobilizing the life sciences community to develop protocols that prevent misuse of scientific research; tightening oversight of our high-containment laboratories and the security of those around the world; improving our response time in the event of an attack and educating the American people in order to prevent panic. And we must lead the international community in the development of an action plan for universal adherence to and compliance with the anemic 36-year-old Biological Weapons Convention.
  • Revamp our policy toward Pakistan. Our most senior intelligence officials continue to warn that the next terrorist attack on the United States or an ally is likely to originate from Pakistan. Our government must step up its efforts to remove terrorist safe havens, secure nuclear and biological materials in Pakistan, counter and defeat extremist ideology and constrain the budding nuclear-arms race in Asia.
  • Reinvigorate the nuclear nonproliferation agenda. North Korea has tested a nuclear weapon, and Iran has been rapidly developing capabilities that will enable it to build nuclear weapons. We must be resolute in our intention to stop these dangerous programs, strengthening the International Atomic Energy Agency with more authority and resources, while continuing vigorous efforts to stop nuclear trafficking.
  • What damage could a nuclear attack do to New York? Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University and a WMD commissioner, outlines this scenario in his book "Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe":
  • "Al Qaeda rents a van, drives a Russian 10-kiloton nuclear bomb into Times Square, and detonates it. Times Square disappears instantly, as the heat from the blast would reach tens of millions of degrees Fahrenheit. The Theater District, Grand Central Terminal, Rockefeller Center, Carnegie Hall and the Empire State Building would be gone, literally in a flash. ... Half a million people who at noontime are in that half-mile radius of the blast site would be killed. Hundreds of thousands of others would die from collapsing buildings, fire and fallout."
  • Like this scenario, our report does not sugarcoat the threat. The world is at risk. But we are not helpless. Our recommendations, if promptly and decisively adopted, can increase the margin of safety for New York, America and the world.

Graham, a former governor and U.S. senator from Florida, is chairman of the congressionally established Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism. Talent, a former U.S. senator from Missouri, is vice chairman of the commission and distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Jim Talent Distinguished Fellow
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy

First appeared in the NY Daily News