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Volume 86 Issue 49 | p. 6 | News of The Week
Issue Date: December 8, 2008

Panel Warns Of WMD Attack

Congressional task force calls for urgent measures to mitigate probable threat
Department: Government & Policy | Collection: Homeland Security
Graham discusses the "World at Risk" report.
Credit: Rochelle Bohaty/C&EN
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Graham discusses the "World at Risk" report.
Credit: Rochelle Bohaty/C&EN

A TERRORIST ATTACK involving a weapon of mass destruction (WMD)—particularly a nuclear or biological weapon—somewhere in the world is probable by the end of 2013, a congressional task force predicts. This is the startling assessment of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation & Terrorism, which discussed its findings at a press conference last week.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said of the report, "Dealing with [the risk of a WMD attack] effectively must be a matter of first priority for the next Administration and the new Congress."

The commission's report, "World at Risk," recommends actions to reduce the possibility of a devastating attack. Although it mentions chemical and radiological weapons, it focuses on biological and nuclear weapons.

"I can appreciate the commission's decision to prioritize," says Matthew Rojansky, executive director of the Partnership for a Secure America (PSA), a bipartisan nonprofit center that also studies WMD issues. But "I'm reluctant to put a number on the likelihood of a WMD attack in the next five years," he notes.

"I strongly disagree" with the commission's choice to solely focus on biological and nuclear terrorism, says Margaret E. Kosal, author of a chemical weapons paper PSA published in September (C&EN, Sept. 15, page 30). Disregarding the threat of chemical and radiological terrorism creates a potential vulnerability, she tells C&EN.

"We did not ignore the fact that there are other forms [of WMDs], particularly chemical and radiological" weapons, Daniel R. (Bob) Graham, a former Democratic senator from Florida and chair of the commission, said at the press conference. Instead, the commission determined that in terrorists' hands, biological and nuclear weapons pose the greatest threat to human life. "We thought that these were most significant to our mission, which was assessing U.S. policies and making recommendations for future action," he added.

Among its recommendations, the commission suggests that the U.S. review security programs for ensuring containment of harmful pathogens, increase oversight of laboratories dealing with dangerous biological materials, and promote security awareness in the life sciences community. It also suggests strengthening multinational nuclear proliferation agreements and limiting or eliminating nuclear facilities such as those in Iran and North Korea.

It is not too late to implement the recommendations, thus possibly preventing a MWD attack, the report says. "There is still time to defend ourselves, if we act with the urgency called for by the nature of the threats that confront us."

 
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