Dangerously Vulnerable | January 12, 2009 Issue - Vol. 87 Issue 2 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 87 Issue 2 | pp. 35-36
Issue Date: January 12, 2009

Dangerously Vulnerable

Several reports rate biological weapons as greatest terrorism threat
Department: Government & Policy
News Channels: Biological SCENE
Dual Purpose
"Biotechnology research can create medical and scientific breakthroughs, but it can also be used to create weapons of bioterror," Sen. Lieberman said at a congressional hearing.
Credit: Emin Kuliyev/Shutterstock
Dual Purpose
"Biotechnology research can create medical and scientific breakthroughs, but it can also be used to create weapons of bioterror," Sen. Lieberman said at a congressional hearing.
Credit: Emin Kuliyev/Shutterstock

SEVEN YEARS HAVE PASSED since terrorists successfully carried out an attack on U.S. soil, President George W. Bush has pointed out repeatedly. Nevertheless, when President-Elect Barack Obama takes office next week, he will face a growing threat that such an attack could be carried out and that it may involve weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

"The threat of a WMD terror attack on the United States is still very real," says Matthew Rojansky, executive director of the Partnership for a Secure America (PSA), a bipartisan nonprofit center that studies WMD issues. He tells C&EN that he expects WMD terrorism to be "national security priority number one for the Obama Administration."

Concern over a WMD attack by terrorists has been the subject of several reports released in the past six months. The reports focus on the threats of an attack involving biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. Of these weapons, biological weapons pose the greatest threat, they say.

These reports are not falling on deaf ears. In December, Congress held a hearing on the topic, with senators discussing potential legislation to tighten regulations governing the security of biological pathogens and other materials that could be used in a WMD terrorist attack. And the incoming Administration has been briefed by the authors of the most recent report.

This report, "World at Risk," was prepared as a result of the 9/11 Commission Act. The act called for the formation of an independent panel, the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation & Terrorism, to provide Congress with recommendations on these issues.

THE COMMISSION'S analysis, which was released in December and received widespread media coverage, determined that WMD "will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013" (C&EN, Dec. 8, 2008, page 6). For this reason, the report calls on the U.S. government to review current policies in order to prevent proliferation of materials that could be used in a terrorist attack.

Setting the year 2013 "was a judgment reached" after the committee's analysis of current global affairs and expert consultation and is not based on specific intelligence, said Daniel R. (Bob) Graham, a former Democratic senator from Florida and chairman of the commission, in testimony before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs hearing held in December. The hearing was devoted to examining the details of "World at Risk."

In addition to reporting that a WMD attack is likely to take place within the next five years, the commission's report states that biological weapons are the most likely type of WMD to be used in this near-term scenario. The report also indicates that there is still significant concern that terrorists will acquire a nuclear weapon and use it in an attack. Arguing that chemical weapons are less of a threat than biological or nuclear weapons, the authors of the report opted to not discuss them in the report.

"We did not ignore the fact that there are other forms [of WMD], particularly chemical and radiological" weapons, Graham said when the commission's report was released. After consulting with experts, the commission determined that biological and nuclear weapons pose the greatest threat to human life and "were the most likely to be proliferated in the near future," he said. In addition, Graham tells C&EN that the current emergency responses to biological or nuclear terrorism attacks are less adequate than those in place for chemical attacks.

Another report, released by PSA in September, also highlights the threat of a terrorist attack involving biological and nuclear weapons, but includes chemical weapons (C&EN, Sept. 15, 2008, page 30). The "WMD Report Card" contains analyses by independent experts who looked at current federal programs to prevent biological, chemical, and nuclear terrorism in the post-9/11 era. The report gave grades for the government's action in the three WMD areas.

Overall, the PSA report card gives the U.S. a grade of C for its overall WMD prevention efforts. The report recommends developing a strategic plan for WMD prevention, strengthening international cooperation against terrorists acquiring and using WMD, and assigning a single federal official the power to make government-wide counterterrorism decisions.

"At this point, the biggest vulnerability with regard to chemical terrorism is a disturbing trend to dismiss the threat of chemical terrorism and the threat of chemical weapons as a relic of history," says Margaret E. Kosal, a professor of international affairs at Georgia Institute of Technology and author of the chemical weapons paper that was included in PSA's report card and one of the experts the commission called on.

"The threat of a WMD terror attack on the United States is still very real."

Although the report gave the U.S. a B– in preventing chemical terrorism, it gave the lowest grade, a C–, to biological terrorism prevention. Like "World at Risk," the PSA report argues that more needs to be done to prevent the misuse of biological material.

One reason these reports focus on biological material is that these substances can be made into weapons relatively easily and used in multiple attacks, according to experts. Furthermore, biological specimens are more readily available than nuclear materials and are subject to fewer controls, Graham said when the commission's report was released.

The concern about access to biological materials in research laboratories is also the focus of a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress. The report provides details on the limited security precautions that are taken at facilities that handle the most dangerous biological agents—biosafety level 4 labs (C&EN, Oct. 27, 2008, page 24). BSL-4 facilities house agents such as those that cause anthrax, foot-and-mouth disease, and smallpox. In terrorists' hands, such agents could make nightmare scenarios become real.

Despite these possibilities, two of the five U.S. BLS-4 facilities lack key security controls such as closed-circuit television monitoring systems or a command-and-control center, according to the GAO report. This laxity underscores concerns that terrorists could obtain dangerous biological materials, security experts say.

For example, Jim Talent, former Republican senator from Missouri and vice chairman of the commission, said at last month's congressional hearing that biological labs are at risk because these facilities have no standardized security requirement. This is due in part because, depending on the nature of the material that a particular biological lab works with, either the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention or the Department of Agriculture has oversight. This splitting of primary regulatory responsibilities between agencies introduces confusion, the commission noted.

To address this problem, the reports suggest that one agency be designated to oversee security at all facilities that house biological materials that could be used in a terrorist attack.

State of Affairs
Talent (center) discusses the "World at Risk" report in December alongside Graham (right) and fellow contributors Stephen Rademaker (left) and Henry Sokolski (right center).
Credit: Rochelle Bohaty/C&EN
State of Affairs
Talent (center) discusses the "World at Risk" report in December alongside Graham (right) and fellow contributors Stephen Rademaker (left) and Henry Sokolski (right center).
Credit: Rochelle Bohaty/C&EN

The current regulations do not "bring a homeland security approach" to securing dangerous biological agents, said Susan M. Collins (R-Maine), ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, at the congressional hearing. Such an approach would focus on preventing terrorists from exploiting facilities' resources using a risk-based consequence analysis, which considers physical security issues including theft and diversion tactics, incident management, and access control.

Currently, the Department of Homeland Security is using this approach to meet its charge of securing chemical facilities from terrorists attempting to procure potentially dangerous chemicals housed on-site (C&EN, Aug. 11, 2008, page 33). Collins suggested that DHS may also need to play a role in securing facilities that possess dangerous biological materials in a similar way.

At the end of the hearing, Collins and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, vowed to draft legislation to tighten oversight of facilities that deal with dangerous biological materials.

ANOTHER ISSUE raised in "World at Risk" is the relatively relaxed culture of the life sciences community, particularly the lack of worry regarding security breaches. The life sciences community has never experienced mushroom-cloud-like events like the ones that forced the nuclear community to live under a clear and undeniable security mandate, according to Graham. As a result, the emergence of biological risks and threats has outpaced the growth of security awareness in the life sciences community, the report states.

The commission suggests that the government play an active role in promoting security awareness in the life sciences community. Even though many experts do not believe that terrorists are technically advanced enough to prepare weaponized biological materials, the commission believes that terrorists could recruit technical experts who could quickly develop this technology for them. This is particularly concerning because recent advances in the life sciences and in biotechnology are likely to diffuse worldwide. Therefore, the commission concludes, "the U.S. should be less concerned that terrorists will become biologists and far more concerned that biologists will become terrorists."

The reports recommend that the next Administration and Congress take swift action to mitigate the possibility that terrorists will use WMD in an attack. Congress has already signaled that it plans to take action.

Graham and others on the commission who briefed a presidential transition team believe that Obama will make WMD terrorism prevention a priority, in part by appointing a director to coordinate WMD prevention efforts.

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