Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/12/04/us_wmd_commission/

US WMD report: Dirty bombs, chem weapons are bunk

But the bioterrorists will strike by 2013! Aiee!

By Lewis Page

Posted in Government, 4th December 2008 14:06 GMT

A US congressional investigation into terrorists and WMDs has concluded that there will be a WMD attack within five years unless prompt international action is taken. The report also effectively says that the only kinds of WMD worth worrying about are atomic bombs and biological weapons.

Bob Graham and Jim Talent, both former senators (Democrat and Republican respectively) led the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, set up by the US Congress in 2007. The two men and their associated commissioners and staff have since travelled the world, interviewing people and looking into the terrorist WMD threat.

First off, Graham, Talent et al rapidly decided to ignore some of the threats which are often grouped under the term "WMD". According to their report:

The mandate of the Commission was to examine the full sweep of the challenges posed by the nexus of terrorist activity and the proliferation of all forms of WMD — chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear ... we concluded early in our deliberations that this report should focus solely on the two types of WMD categories that have the greatest potential to kill in the most massive numbers: biological and nuclear weapons.

In other words, "dirty bombs" (radiological) and chemical weapons aren't worth worrying about. That was already fairly obvious to many, but it's interesting to see the idea making headway in Washington.

But the two senators certainly aren't out to downplay the threat of terrorist WMDs, no sir. They think that unless something is done, there will be mass-casualty attacks soon.

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.

So terrorists might set off a nuclear bomb in the next five years, which is pretty damn serious. Well, actually maybe not:

Terrorists are more likely to be able to obtain and use a biological weapon than a nuclear weapon.

So we're probably talking about a bioweapon, not a nuke, at least in the near term. Still, the Commissioners have judged that the terrorist bio threat is on a par with nukes. This seems a little curious, and indeed they admit that in saying this they are actually in conflict with the advice they received from America's security and intelligence community. They are also unable to point to any kind of bioweapon attack which has resulted in the sort of casualties which nukes are all too well known to be capable of causing.

In the course of the report, the Commission does touch on the various underground bioweapon efforts of modern times, by the Rajneeshee cult in the US, Aum Shinrikyo in Japan and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. They also examine the most effective recent biological attacks, by the rogue US government bioweapons researcher Bruce Ivins. Ivins was, as one would expect, far and away the most effective bioweapon attacker. During his anthrax-spore mail campaign, in which he was able to draw on the resources of the US Army's biodefence labs, 22 people contracted the disease, five of whom died.

This was a rather unimpressive performance - Ivins' bioweapons campaign caused even less harm than the highly ineffectual chemical-weapons attack on the Tokyo subway by Aum Shinrikyo in 1995, which killed twelve people. Thus far, the Commission has offered no convincing reason why bioweapons shouldn't join the dirty bombs and the chemical weapons in the scare dustbin.

Indeed, the Commissioners seem to be aware that they don't really have much here. The US intelligence community certainly seems to have told them that there isn't much to worry about on the bioweapon-terror front. But they see it as being a threat on a par with nukes nonetheless.

The cases of the Rajneeshees, Aum Shinrikyo, and al Qaeda underscore not only the dangerous potential of bioterrorism but also the technical difficulties that terrorist groups seeking such weapons are likely to encounter. Aum’s failure to carry out a mass-casualty attack, despite its access to scientific expertise and ample financial resources, suggests that one should not oversimplify or exaggerate the threat of bioterrorism. Developing a biological weapon that can inflict mass casualties is an intricate undertaking, both technically and operationally complex ... the United States should be less concerned that terrorists will become biologists and far more concerned that biologists will become terrorists.

We accept the validity of intelligence estimates about the current rudimentary nature of terrorist capabilities in the area of biological weapons but ... the terrorists are trying to upgrade their capabilities and could do so by recruiting skilled scientists. In this respect the biological threat is greater than the nuclear; the acquisition of deadly pathogens, and their weaponization and dissemination in aerosol form, would entail fewer technical hurdles than the theft or production of weapons-grade uranium or plutonium and its assembly into an improvised nuclear device. The difficulty of quantifying the bioterrorism threat to the United States does not make that threat any less real or compelling.

The Commissioners also suggest that rapidly advancing genetic and biotech capability could in some way lead to much, much deadlier bioweapons than anything seen so far, though they don't say precisely how.

As DNA synthesis technology continues to advance at a rapid pace, it will soon become feasible to synthesize nearly any virus whose DNA sequence has been decoded — such as the smallpox virus, which was eradicated from nature in 1977 — as well as artificial microbes that do not exist in nature. This growing ability to engineer life at the molecular level carries with it the risk of facilitating the development of new and more deadly biological weapons. The only way to rule out the harmful use of advances in biotechnology would be to stifle their beneficial applications as well — and that is not a realistic option. Instead, the dual-use dilemma associated with the revolution in biology must be managed on an ongoing basis ... the risk that biological weapons pose to humanity must not be minimized or ignored.

At one point the two senators seem to hint that biotechnology will have to start operating under the same almost paralysing security and safety regime that the nuclear industry does.

The nuclear age began with a mushroom cloud—and, from that moment on, all those who worked in the nuclear industry in any capacity, military or civilian, understood they must work and live under a clear and undeniable security mandate. But the life sciences community has never experienced a comparable iconic event ... It is essential that the members of the life sciences community — in universities, medical and veterinary schools, nongovernmental research institutes, trade associations, and biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies — foster a bottom-up effort to sensitize researchers to biosecurity issues and concerns...

Even so, if the Ivins and Aum Shinrikyo cases are any guide, the threat of a bioweapon attack within the next five years probably needn't cause too much lost sleep.

But what about the big one, the undeniable danger - nukes? What should be happening there?

Well, it seems that the US must make more use of "soft power" and diplomatic efforts, seeking to stop countries from pursuing nuclear weapons programmes or civil nuclear power programmes which are dual-purposed as weapons production. In particular, nations should generally not be allowed to enrich their own nuclear fuel or reprocess spent fuel - the necessary equipment can also be used to produce weapons-grade material.

Enrichment and reprocessing activities, according to the Commissioners, should be made unnecessary by "ensuring access to nuclear fuel, at market prices to the extent possible, for non-nuclear states that agree not to develop sensitive fuel cycle capabilities".

Such guaranteed access to peaceful nuclear supplies and technology is a major plank of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the main quid pro quo which gets non-nuclear states to ratify it and so validate the established Treaty weapon states as the sole rightful nuclear-armed powers.

Curiously, however, the Commission then seems to suggest that America should try to suppress even civil programmes without any dodgy fuel-cycle elements. The commissioners say that the US should also start "discouraging, to the extent possible, the use of financial incentives in the promotion of civil nuclear power".

The report says quite clearly that Iran is working hard on getting a bomb, and should be stopped: also that North Korea has built at least one, and has the material for more, and likewise should be stopped.

Iran continues to defy its [Non-Proliferation Treaty] obligations, UN Security Council resolutions, and the international community in an apparent effort to acquire a nuclear weapons capability. It has 3,850 centrifuges spinning and more than 1,000 pounds of enriched uranium — three-quarters of what would be needed, after further enrichment, to build its first bomb ...

North Korea now has about 10 bombs’ worth of plutonium and it has conducted a nuclear test.

As a top priority, the next administration must stop the Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons programs.

But the primary point of action in dealing with both terrorists and nukes, according to the Commissioners, is Pakistan.

Were one to map terrorism and weapons of mass destruction today, all roads would intersect in Pakistan ...

Officials and outside experts believe that the next terrorist attack against the United States is likely to originate from within the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan. The Commission agrees. In terms of the nexus of proliferation and terrorism, Pakistan must top the list of priorities...

The Commissioners also advocate the creation of a new counter-proliferation chief with direct access to the President, an effort to remain on cooperative terms with the newly hardline Russia on proliferation issues, and more involvement by US citizens - though they aren't very specific about this last.

"The intent of this report is neither to frighten nor to reassure," they write, in summary. "It is ... to convey the sobering reality that the risks are growing faster than our multilayered defenses. Our margin of safety is shrinking, not growing."

Perhaps a bit of frightening, then. But some reassurance too:

We also want to assure the people that there is ample and solid ground for hope about the future. Our leaders — whatever their differences over domestic issues — are united in their desire to safeguard our country. The vast majority of the world’s peoples stand with us in wanting to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction and to defeat terrorists.

Whether the report has the balance between scare and reassure right is, of course, a subjective matter. But at least, with the sidelining of some of the less credible threats, it has changed the shape of the terrorism and WMD debate.

The report can be read in pdf here. ®