Security Specialists Say U.S. Vulnerable to Nuclear Attack
Task force is warned of lax preparedness
By Bryan Bender, Globe Staff | September 11, 2008
NEW YORK - Some key measures experts have called for to thwart nuclear and biological terrorism have floundered since Sept. 11, 2001, increasing the risk that Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups will use a weapon of mass destruction and inflict far more civilian casualties, a government task force was warned yesterday.
Just five blocks from the site of the 2001 attacks, a congressionally-appointed Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism panel heard sobering testimony from law enforcement officials and national security specialists who believe the country is now more vulnerable to a catastrophic terrorist attack than it was seven years ago - in part because the government has dragged its feet in defending against the threat.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York testified that a new federal project to establish a ring of sensors around the city to detect radioactive and nuclear materials is inadequately funded in this year's federal budget. Bloomberg's police chief, meanwhile, said the federal government has no uniform standard for securing radioactive materials and biological pathogens, materials commonly used in hospitals and labs that could become components in a "dirty bomb" or germ-based weapon.
At the same time, a news anchor whose office was targeted in the anthrax attacks in the weeks after 9/11 complained that the Department of Homeland Security has not provided guidance on what to do if a biological agent is released. And some of the nation's top specialists on nuclear proliferation told the panel they think the likelihood that terrorists could detonate a nuclear bomb in an American city has increased, not diminished.
"The situation is worse than it was seven years ago," said former Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, chairman of the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative.
Nunn and others cited a confluence of factors - including the growing number of nations seeking nuclear weapons, the spread of sophisticated technologies, complacency among government officials and the public, and growing anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world - with fueling the efforts of violent extremists.
Several top government officials also pointed to evidence that Al Qaeda leaders are seeking weapons of mass destruction, with religious edicts used to try to justify their use.
Meanwhile, in Washington, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said yesterday that Al Qaeda operatives continue to focus on the nation's aviation system as a target. In a speech at the National Press Club, Chertoff said that the Bush administration has reduced the nation's vulnerability but the risk remains.
The special task force that convened in New York is required by law to deliver recommendations this fall for the incoming president of the United States.
"A nuclear or biological terrorist attack would be so catastrophic, and so consequential, that our government must explore every option, take every precaution, and pursue every sensible means to deter and prevent it," said former Senator Bob Graham, Democrat of Florida, who co-chairs the panel with former Senator Jim Talent, a Republican from Missouri.
But that has not always been the case in recent years, the panel was told.
For example, Bloomberg said the "Securing the Cities" initiative, intended to place radiation detectors around major cities beginning with New York, is $10 million short in the proposed budget now before Congress.
"We cannot afford to nickel-and-dime the best hope we have for preventing the worst possible calamity," Bloomberg said yesterday. "The explosion of a nuclear device could cost thousands of lives, devastate our economy, and plunge us into further conflict overseas."
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly of New York noted another major problem: lax security around radioactive materials that could be used to make a crude bomb.
"The threat stems in large part from the inadequate security of high-strength radioactive materials at hospitals, in certain industries, and waste products from nuclear power generation," Kelly said. "The federal government has the authority to regulate the security standards of these materials but to date has only done so weakly."
Former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw, who received one of several potentially deadly letters containing anthrax in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks, said he agreed to testify yesterday because he is deeply concerned about the lack of effort to prepare the public.
To highlight his point, he said he did a search of the Department of Homeland Security's website.
"There was almost no information that would be useful to me in that culture of chaos if I needed help to find out where I had to go, what it looks like, and what the next course of action should be" in the event of a biological attack, Brokaw told the panel.
The most emotional testimony, however, came from Carie Lemack of Boston, who lost her mother in the 9/11 attacks.
Lemack, who founded the group Families of September 11th, urged the panel to recommend that the government appoint a single official responsible for coordinating agencies to prevent an attack using weapons of mass destruction - something Congress approved more than a year ago but has yet to be implemented by President Bush.
"I have a personal stake in the recommendations you make," she said. "I owe it to my mom. This has to be a top priority, not just in words but in action."
Bender can be reached at email@example.com.