Panel Charts Progress On Preventing WMD Attack
GUY RAZ, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
Sometime before the year 2013, there's a better than even chance a terror group will set off a chemical or biological weapon somewhere in the world. That was the conclusion reached a little more than a year ago by an independent commission that's been studying ways to prevent an attack on the United States.
The bipartisan panel is chaired by former Senators Bob Graham and Jim Talent. And this week, the two men will release a report card that evaluates whether the country is better prepared to prevent and possibly cope with a major terror attack than it's been in previous years.
Both men join me now. Senator Graham, Senator Talent, welcome to the program.
Mr. BOB GRAHAM (Former Democratic Senator, Florida; Co-Chair, Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation and Terrorism): Thank you, Guy.
Mr. JIM TALENT (Former Republican Senator, Missouri; Co-Chair, Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation and Terrorism): Thank you very much, Guy.
RAZ: Let me start with you, Senator Graham. Your prediction about the possibility of a chemical or biological weapon being unleashed by a terror group before 2013, do you believe that threat has diminished somewhat?
Mr. GRAHAM: No. We found in 2008 that the threat had been growing over the preceding years, and I believe it has grown further in 2009. Factors like the increasing sophistication of the organization of al-Qaida, the increasing access to the materials necessary for a nuclear but particularly a biological weapon, access to those persons with the skill level to convert pathogens into a weapon, have all grown in the past 12 months.
RAZ: How do we know that these organizations could easily obtain and weaponize biological agents and maybe even possibly release them inside the United States?
Mr. GRAHAM: Well, we got our source of information as to capabilities largely from our intelligence agencies who have found a pattern of laboratories and scientists under the control of terrorist organizations who are working towards achieving what has been a long stated objective of those organizations, which is to have a weapon of mass destruction.
RAZ: But with so much money and resources being funneled into intelligence gathering since September 11, 2001, how easy would it be for a terror operative to get into the United States, produce anthrax in this country and then begin to distribute it? I mean, wouldn't that person be tracked or followed or even prevented from coming into the country? Senator Talent?
Mr. TALENT: You'd hope so. And look, we break up a lot of these attacks. Eventually, they're going to defeat the intel apparatus. It's a hugely important capability, but you also need the ability to respond. So in effect, you turn these you defang these attacks, if you will, by the ability to respond quickly.
We just saw with H1N1, Guy, with a six months notice of an epidemic, we didn't have the capacity to stockpile nearly enough vaccine.
Mr. TALENT: So this is why we've been focusing on the bio along with concerns about intel and other capabilities.
RAZ: Clearly, the report that's coming out this week is sounding the alarm bells, in a sense. But I'm wondering, since your commission started its work in 2008, have you actually seen improvements among government agencies in preparing for a possible attack or in trying to prevent an attack?
Mr. GRAHAM: I think the answer is yes. And my assessment is most of those areas have been on the nuclear side. It's not solely within our control. We have to persuade other people like the North Koreans and the Iranians and the Russians to take action that will reduce the prospect of proliferation.
We are particularly focused on those things that are within our control, and they're the kind of issues that Jim has just described. It's within our control to have an adequate supply of the appropriate therapeutics and a means to disseminate them under emergency circumstances.
RAZ: What would be the one thing that the government could do fairly quickly and easily immediately to begin to address some of your concerns, Senator Talent?
Mr. TALENT: I'd love to see the president set a goal of being completely prepared for the likely bioweapons within a reasonable period of time, you know, three to five years. If you could do that in the top 25 cities, you could take bioweapons really off the list of weapons of mass destruction, and I think it's fully doable.
Mr. GRAHAM: And, Guy, we're going to make our report on Tuesday. Fortuitously on Wednesday, the president gives his State of the Union speech. I think an early test of how seriously this issue is being seen will be the level of attention and the nature of the attention the president gives to this matter when he speaks to the nation Wednesday night.
RAZ: That's former Florida senator, Democrat Bob Graham; and former Missouri senator, Republican Jim Talent. Together, they head up the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation and Terrorism.
Gentlemen, thank you so much.
Mr. GRAHAM: Thank you.
Mr. TALENT: Thank you, Guy.