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Archive for the ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ Category

In the 2000 Presidential Election, both George W. Bush and Al Gore raised the threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) as the most pressing national security issue of the day. Since then, the specter of WMD has been a consistent presence in policy and rhetoric–most notably evoked as justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

In recent months, however, the global economic crisis has overshadowed that threat in the national security community as well as the public imagination. The drastic reordering of priorities is most evident in Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair’s Annual Threat Assessment Hearing (PDF), which describes the crisis as the “primary near-term security concern of the United States.”

However, the threat of WMD has not disappeared. Former Senators Bob Graham (D-FL) and Jim Talent (R-MO), chair and vice chair of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism, hope to keep the threat of WMD as a top priority. While they acknowledge the danger presented in the current economic climate, their concern is that, as Senator Graham says, “the urgent has crowded out the important,” leading policymakers and the general public to ignore a growing threat to national security.

On March 5th, Senators Graham and Talent visited the University of Florida for a panel discussion on the findings of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism. Their report, World at Risk, available in online and as hard copy, suggests some alarming trends despite great strides made in the prevention of WMD.

“We’re running fast,” said Senator Talent, “but our enemy is running faster.”

The very definition of WMD has been muddled through the inclusion of everything from cyberwar to economic sabotage. The commission chose to define weapons of mass destruction as the means to kill tens of thousands in one use, which lead them to focus on nuclear and biological attacks over chemical and radiological weapons due to their “lower kill rate.”

Among these weapons, the report identifies three areas of concern. First, the margin of safety from WMD continues to decline in spite of improvements to military, intelligence, and other governmental processes. Secondly, there is a greater than 50% chance that a WMD will be used somewhere in the world by 2013. Lastly, bioweapons may prove to be the greatest WMD threat given the ease that they can be “reloaded.” While takes substantial effort for a state or non-state actor to obtain the materials for one nuclear weapon, it is easy to stockpile a biological weapon once a sample of the agent is obtained.

One possible scenario is repeated biological attacks against an American city. The initial attack may kill thousands, but survivors may return after being evacuated only to be targeted again weeks or months later. In this case, the existence of the city itself is threatened. What began as an evocation may turn into a mass migration, effectively “killing” a city.

Senators Graham and Talent highlighted the improved security of WMD within the United States and elsewhere, but there is still much room for improvement. For example, there are three agencies currently that regulate select agents and toxins, which pose the greatest risk to the general public, and each agency has different policies on securing them. This situation makes it hard for institutions to meet government standards, much less maintain best practices.

Furthermore, the Intelligence Community has made progress. Senator Graham, former chairman of Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, highlighted three significant improvements. First, the IC has acknowledged its “primary responsibility to speak the truth.” Secondly, there is greater information sharing and fewer institutional stovepipes. Lastly, the overall organization of the IC has improved.

Yet, the Intelligence Community has a long, long way to go. According to Senator Graham, the greatest need for improvement is in the arena of human intelligence. Most notably, clearance process continues to take too long and be prejudiced against first- and second-generation immigrants who speak the languages and understand the cultures of regions most relevant to national security concerns.

Given the focus on the current economic crisis, there is little doubt that the debate will continue whether or not the WMD threat is receiving adequate attention.

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