After a series of dire new warnings about possible terrorist threats—capped by a government commission's report that terrorists are likely to stage a biological or nuclear attack somewhere in the world during the next five years—some experts are urging officials "to retire the fear card," as California Rep. Jane Harman puts it.
"We need to educate and inform the American people, not terrify them with alarming details about possible threats to the homeland," she said, reacting to the 132-page report from the Commission for the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism released this week.
Harman, who heads the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence and Terrorism Risk Assessment, added, "It's time for the rhetoric about that threat to calm, instead of inflame, an anxious public."
The drumbeat started last month, when Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell said that the potential for a WMD attack in the coming decades is growing. The probability is increasing, he said, that the world will see "large casualty terrorist attacks using chemical, biological, or, less likely, nuclear materials." And the U.S. intelligence community recently released a study warning of an increased risk of the use of mass-casualty weapons by 2025.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff echoed the WMD Commission's findings this week, telling reporters that the country is entering "a period of greater strategic threat."
The congressionally mandated WMD Commission, which spent six months studying the threat, did offer some concrete counterterrorism recommendations, including a plea for greater emphasis on biological terrorism. The biological sciences community, in particular, should be more attuned to the risks of potentially dangerous knowledge falling into the wrong hands, the report concluded. It called for awareness similar to that demonstrated by the physics community after the development of nuclear weapons.
"With a nuclear attack, it's a one-shot deal," says James Talent, a former congressman and vice chair of the panel. "With a biological attack, terrorists can strike a city, reload the aerosol can, and come back a week later with the same agent and attack again." The prospect of weaponizing organisms is now greater than ever, the report said, particularly given the explosion in the number and quality of advanced biotech labs at the world's colleges and universities. (Biology is routinely one of the hottest majors in college.)
At the same time, terrorist groups currently lack both the materials and the scientific know-how to produce biological weapons, Talent said. But, he added, that hurdle could be overcome if the price were right.
Chertoff, for his part, noted that over time, the knowledge needed to produce such weapons is expanding. "We've reduced our vulnerability" to terrorist attacks with WMDs, Chertoff said. "But over time, the knowledge base needed to carry out such an attack expands. We're in a race against time."
When the nuclear age began with a mushroom cloud, the commission notes, "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. As a result, security awareness has grown slowly, lagging behind the emergence of biological risks and threats."
The danger should not spur security checks for every scientist hoping to study, say, plant genetics, commissioners said, but the dangers of a biological attack should prompt a change in the culture of the life sciences community, to one in which "sensitizes researchers to biosecurity issues and concerns."
As for warning of a likely attack in the next five years, that conclusion was reached after the commission interviewed more than 250 scientists, intelligence, governmental, and nongovernmental experts around the world from Vienna to Moscow to Sandia National Labs in New Mexico.
"We settled on the five-year time frame to show that this is a near-term rather than a long-term security issue," says Talent.