'Our margin of safety is shrinking, not growing'
By Jonathan Gurwitz
St. Paul Pioneer Press
ST. PAUL, Minn. — It's the economy, stupid -- of course. As a recession threatens to degenerate into something rivaling the Great Depression, Congress, President-elect Barack Obama and the American public are understandably focused on jobs and domestic issues.
A report issued last month by the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism is a reminder, however, that terrorism is still an international growth industry. The commission, modeled on the 9-11 commission, is bipartisan and congressionally mandated. Headed by former Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat, it builds on the 9-11 commission's work in assessing the threat to the United States posed by the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
The final report of the 9-11 commission warned: "The greatest danger of another catastrophic attack in the United States will materialize if the world's most dangerous terrorists acquire the world's most dangerous weapons." Its successor commission assesses that this danger is now more ominous than ever.
In a 1998 interview, Osama bin Laden declared the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction a religious duty. After the al-Qaida bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania the same year, he told his followers it was their duty to kill Americans, civilians and military, "in any country it is possible to do it."
That was in the pre-9/11 era. After commercial airliners were used as missiles against skyscrapers, there are no longer any excuses for intelligence failures of imagination. On this point, the new WMD commission report is clear: "Unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013."
The Hollywood scenario for such an attack is the celebrated suitcase bomb, inevitably procured from greedy and embittered scientists in Russia or the former Soviet republics. The more viable threat of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists emerges from the rogue governments of North Korea and Iran and from non-state actors such as the A.Q. Khan network in Pakistan.
The vision of a mushroom cloud rising over an American city provokes a startling image. The U.S. government has, accordingly, focused its counter-proliferation efforts on nuclear terrorism. But the WMD commission suggests a greater threat comes from bioterrorism.
Like nuclear materials and technology, biological pathogens are poorly secured around the globe. Those pathogens, though, are potentially far cheaper to purchase and far easier to transport across international borders than a radioactive weapon.
Even in the United States, the Government Accountability Office of Congress found potentially lethal security breaches. Inspections of the nation's five Biosafety Level 4 labs, the highest level of biological containment, uncovered vulnerabilities that could allow the deadliest top-security pathogens to fall into terrorist hands.
If the commission had issued its report before the November election, critics would have denounced it as an exercise in fear-mongering. At least, however, it would have been a topic of discussion. It's not at all clear that Congress or the incoming Obama administration -- fixated on the economy -- are even aware of its findings, let alone prepared to act on its recommendations.
"The intent of this report is neither to frighten nor to reassure the American people about the current state of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction," the commission stated. "It is to underscore that the U.S. government has yet to fully adapt to these circumstances, and to convey the sobering reality that the risks are growing faster than our multilayered defenses. Our margin of safety is shrinking, not growing."
Economic security is a component of national security, yes. Al-Qaida terrorists, however, aren't seeking bailouts.