It is "more likely than not" that a weapon of mass destruction — specifically a biological weapon that could include something like the deadly anthrax bacteria — will be used in a terrorist attack by the end of 2013.
That's the conclusion of a high-powered commission created by Congress, which has just released its report, titled "World at Risk."
The commission, chaired by retired Democratic Sen. Bob Graham, says the report is meant to neither frighten nor reassure Americans, but emphasize that the U.S. government is not doing enough to adapt to the growing risk of weapons of mass destruction.
The commission says the risks are growing faster than the government's defenses. The margin of safety, its members say, is shrinking, not growing.
Biological Attack More Likely
The commission focused on nuclear and biological weapons, saying they posed the "greatest evil." But since there are more controls on both nuclear weapons and materials, the commission says the threat of a biological terror attack is more likely than a nuclear one.
The U.S. government has focused its efforts on reducing nuclear proliferation — including securing Russian sites — the report says. But federal officials have placed too little emphasis on prevention of a biological attack.
"In many areas, we have improved the security of the nation," Graham said in a news conference. "However, while that has been occurring, there have also been changes in the environment in which we are operating, particularly as it relates to biological weapons, which have made them more accessible to potential terrorists."
Jim Talent, a former Republican senator and a commission member, echoed those concerns.
"The terrorists could acquire the biological capabilities, or they could convince biological scientists to become terrorists and then get the capability right away," he said. "So we know they want to do it."
Biological Stockpiles Not Adequately Secured
In the U.S. and other countries, laboratories that hold samples of biological materials — such as anthrax and botulinum toxin — are not adequately secured and therefore vulnerable to theft, the report says.
The commission came up with a number of recommendations, including better security at labs that house such biological pathogens, and an international conference to discuss ways to better prevent theft and proliferation.
Talent said the report is meant to spur the government to act.
"We say to the government, 'Look, you need to ... be more aggressive in trying to prevent it; in particular, by building a culture of accountability and a partnership with the life science community, reforming how we regulate the high-containment labs, where they work on these kinds of pathogens, and have a single agency responsible,' " Talent said.
Donald A. Henderson, a biosecurity expert who has advised the federal government and who is now a resident scholar at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, says the report does not break fresh ground.
"The report is just out, and I have scanned it. ... However, I saw nothing new," Henderson said in an e-mail response to questions from NPR. "The report indicates that more needs to be done in terms of preparedness, but this has been said before. The mystery is why they focused on 2013? My guess is that it is five years hence, and giving a year rather than stating 'within the next five years' made it seem stronger and would give the report an added element of interest."
Worries Over Anthrax
For years, especially just before the Iraq war, the American military in particular was worried about weaponized anthrax.
Anthrax spores can easily be spread over a wide area and be inhaled by troops, the surest route to infection. Tests have shown that enough anthrax to fill two sugar packets could drift over 250 kilometers in optimum conditions, while the same amount of botulinum would travel only a half-kilometer.
U.S. troops were vaccinated against anthrax before heading into Iraq in 2003, and also wore protective suits to guard against other types of biological or chemical weapons.
Over the past several years, the Bush administration has increased spending for chemical and biological defense, including new detection devices and enhanced protection against threats such as anthrax.
Graham said he has met with the congressional leadership about the report and expects they will be "active partners in achieving the goals of these recommendations. So I am very pleased with the initial reception by the people who appointed us."
Separately, congressional lawmakers and staff say the federal government will recommend a site in Kansas for a new $450 million laboratory to study biological threats like anthrax and foot-and-mouth disease.
The Department of Homeland Security's choice of Manhattan, Kan., beat out intense competition from other sites in Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas.