The Bio-Terrorist Threat

“This week, we received a classified intelligence briefing on the subject of chemical and biological weapons – or CBW – threats to the United States. That briefing painted a sobering picture of growing proliferation networks, aggressive national CBW development programs, and increasing levels of violence and lethality associated with terrorism…”

“The anthrax episode is exactly the kind of case that allows us to take a step back and examine the manner in which our law enforcement and intelligence agencies respond to a crisis of this nature, and the key resources at hand to secure, rapidly assess, and safely handle biological materials.”

I made those statements more than three years ago, in 1998, after two people were arrested in Las Vegas for possessing anthrax. Then, the threat to public safety was averted. Today our nation has had a very different experience with anthrax, yet the words I used then are still eerily applicable.

Unfortunately, our level of preparedness remains pretty much unchanged since I issued that warning in 1998. The Bush administration has inherited a government that has made little progress in preparing our nation for chemical or biological attack.

Officials testifying before our same terrorism subcommittee this week, for example, divulged that the FBI possessed little information about facts as basic on how many U.S. laboratories possess strains of anthrax or how many people may have come into contact with the strain that found its way into Senate Majority Leader Daschle’s office and many media outlets.

We must do a better job in tracking deadly pathogens, safeguarding strains in our laboratories, and preparing Americans for future bioterror attacks. The Bush administration understands this, as evidenced in my recent conversations with Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge. They are working to repair the gaping lapses in our ability to confront and prepare for future attacks. Anthrax is not our only concern in this regard; the administration is moving as quickly as it can to ensure that we are prepared for smallpox or other potentially deadly pathogens.

In fact, it was only six years ago that Japan avoided one of the most deadly terrorist attacks in recent history when the nerve agent sarin was unleashed in the Tokyo subway system, killing 12 people and injuring 5,500. The damage would have been even worse had the sarin mixture not been impure. A tine drop of sarin, if deployed effectively, can kill within minutes after skin contact or inhalation of its vapor.

If we are to ensure the safety of our country, we have to think creatively by preparing ourselves for terror attacks on other fronts that may be in the offing. Chemical and biological attacks are one part of the equation, and they properly deserve the focus of our attention. But there are others threats as well that deserve close examination.

One of these is the threat of nuclear or radiological terrorism. Recent news stories reported that high-level members of the al-Qaeda network have tried to gain access to nuclear materials, raising the worrisome possibility that a terrorist could bring radioactive materials into the U.S., endangering the lives of tens of thousands of people. Glaring lapses in security at nuclear facilities in Russia as well as news reports that nuclear material has been offered for sale on the black market also underscore the need for increased intelligence-gathering and preparedness.

The goal of discussing these frightening possibilities is not to scare the American people, but to urge Congress to act now before another terror strike.

The counterterrorism law recently passed by Congress in one important step in that effort. The law gives the Justice Department the long-sought weapons they need to track, detain and arrest terrorists within our borders who plot biological, chemical and other attacks against American citizens. The Senate is also considering other legislation to increase information-sharing among agencies, increase controls on pathogens, and sharply raise the number of intelligence agents who can infiltrate terrorist organizations.

We will have to live with the threat of bioterrorism for the foreseeable future, and we need to give the administration all the assistance it may require in securing our homeland from bioterror attacks.

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