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WMD Commission Issues Findings
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Daniel Arnaudo

On Dec. 3, a congressionally mandated commission released a report offering 15 recommendations to help the U.S. government improve its ability to prevent and respond to threats of biological and nuclear terrorism. Drawing even more attention and criticism than the recommendations, however, was the commission's prediction that terrorists were likely to carry out an attack with biological or nuclear weapons somewhere in the world within the next five years.

The nine-member Commission on the Prevention of the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction and Terrorism, chaired by former Sens. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Jim Talent (R-Mo.), devoted considerable attention to biological weapons issues, particularly the security of facilities said to be involved in research of vaccines and other defenses against biological weapons. Funding for such research has grown substantially since the September 2001 terrorist attacks and has raised concerns that the United States is not adhering to its commitments under the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). (See ACT, October 2004.)

One recommendation of the commission is to improve the security culture at biological labs in the United States and overseas. The report calls for a review of biosecurity at labs nationwide, federal registration for all labs with a biosafety level (BSL) of 3 or 4, and increased funding for bioforensics research to identify biological agents and such characteristics as their age and place of origin.

High-containment (BSL-3) and maximum-containment (BSL-4) labs are designed for the safe handling of pathogens with the highest levels of lethality and contagiousness. All BSL-4 labs are currently required to register with the U.S. government, but only those BSL-3 labs that work with pathogens or toxins designated as select agents, or that conduct recombinant DNA research with federal funding, are required to do so. An unknown number of BSL-3 labs, ranging from tens to hundreds, do not fall into either category.

The registration of all BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs would be coordinated by a federal agency designated by the president and would contribute to a database of high-security facilities that would help the government assess the "aggregate risks" associated with the expansion of biological research. This agency could also help develop a strategy for securing dangerous pathogens better and creating mandatory security standards for all labs to follow in the future.

Internationally, the commission recommends that the Departments of State and Health and Human Services press the international community to convene a conference to create global biological security standards.

Although the commission condones the Bush administration's 2001 decision to pull out of the negotiations on the BWC extended verification protocol (see ACT, September 2001), it recommends that the next administration reaffirm the importance of the BWC and work toward achieving universal adherence as a means of promoting better international biosecurity. One hundred and sixty-one states are party to the BWC, and 14 have signed but not ratified it.

A second focus of the report is combating nuclear terrorism. It recommends that the Obama administration conduct a comprehensive review of the recently completed U.S.-Indian nuclear energy cooperation agreement's effect on programs in the region. (See ACT, October 2008.) The report also calls for greater attention to be paid to Pakistan, calling it "the geographic crossroads for terrorism and weapons of mass destruction" (WMD).

Ensuring the continued viability of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is another major concern of the report. It calls on the United States to strengthen the international nonproliferation regime by supporting and funding an international nuclear fuel bank (see page 43), imposing stricter penalties for nations that violate or withdraw from the NPT, and increasing the inspection capacity of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The report supports the negotiation of a treaty to end the production of fissile materials such as plutonium and highly enriched uranium for use in weapons, saying that alternative approaches to a proposed fissile material cutoff treaty should be explored. It suggests that the five NPT nuclear-weapon states jointly declare a halt to their own production of materials for weapons. Four of the five have indicated officially that they are no longer producing fissile material for weapons purposes; China has indicated so unofficially.

Other recommendations touch on the involvement of the U.S. public with these issues and the ability of the federal government to coordinate with state and local governments and offer citizens information on threats and preparedness.

To improve public understanding, the commission calls on the government to release more information on how to respond to a WMD attack, including descriptions of specific actions that citizens can take in the event of an attack. It similarly asks for better explanations of the meaning of the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) color-coded threat levels and what individual citizens should do in response. The commission found that the system has resulted in a "highly simplistic representation of the nation's risk" thus far.

The report emphasizes the need to reform the system of congressional oversight for national and homeland security, noting that DHS has 16 committees overseeing it in the House and 14 in the Senate. It calls for the House and Senate Homeland Security Committees to become the sole oversight bodies. It also calls on the foreign relations, intelligence, and armed services committees to cooperate and share information better on WMD and terrorism threats, partly by expanding the number of fellowships and positions for personnel with relevant expertise from the nongovernmental sector.

In the executive branch, the commission recommends that the Homeland Security Council be folded into the National Security Council. The report suggests that much duplication of work and confusion could be avoided with a merger but that the homeland security advisor could continue to exist as the president's principal adviser coordinating the domestic agencies responsible for disaster preparedness and response. According to a Jan. 9 report in The Washington Post, President-elect Barack Obama has already instructed his designated chief adviser on counterterrorism, John Brennan, to personally investigate whether the two should be merged.

The controversial prediction on WMD use comes in the first line of the report's executive summary, which notes that "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." This prediction was immediately picked up by the world media and criticized by one of the commission's members, Nonproliferation Policy Education Center Executive Director Henry Sokolski, who also produced an "additional view" questioning the report's focus on the likelihood of an attack from terrorists. Sokolski contends that the commission should have taken more time to focus on threats emanating from the export of U.S. nuclear energy technology to countries that cannot fully secure their nuclear facilities.

In a Jan. 7 interview with Arms Control Today, Sokolski noted that the 2013 prediction was dependant on a government estimate that suggested that an attack could consist of a "single letter bomb that might kill one or several people" or an "extremely unlikely" nuclear attack or would not occur at all. Graham said at a Dec. 11 discussion at the Center for National Policy that the report notes that although the anthrax letter attacks of 2001 killed five people, they also cost the government and the economy billions of dollars in the panic and investigation that followed.

The prediction has other critics, including Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), chair of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence and Terrorism Risk Assessment, who said Dec. 2 that "[i]t's time to retire the fear card. We need to educate and inform the American people, not terrify them with alarming details about possible threats to the homeland."

This page was corrected on January 23, 2009. The original paragraph describing the registration of labs incorrectly implied that no BSL-3 labs are required to register with the U.S. government. At present, some BSL-3 labs are required to register if they (1) work with pathogens or toxins designated as select agents, or (2) conduct recombinant DNA research with federal funding. An unknown number of BSL-3 labs do not fall into either category, and the commission recommends that they also be registered.

Posted: January 16, 2009