Written By Congressman Bill Pascrell, Jr. and Congressman Peter T. King
Published by The Hill on May 21, 2010
The recent attempted attack in Times Square reminds us as a nation that the threat of terrorism continues to be real and our vigilance must be everlasting. We can take pride in the fact that our local, state, and federal authorities responded effectively to the plot of Faisal Shahzad and apprehended him before he fled the country. However, we must also be aware of the fact that our enemies continue to attack our nation and are probing weaknesses within our homeland security infrastructure -- this is a challenge that requires us to look backward as well as forward. To that end, we are working on a bipartisan basis to craft legislation to address a significant unconventional homeland security threat -- weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
The fact is the 9/11 Commission did a very thorough job of describing the systemic weaknesses that contributed to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and providing recommendations designed to guard against future attacks. The 9/11 Commission also recognized the threat of WMD, including nuclear and biological, and stated that al Qaeda and other enemies are actively looking to develop and acquire nuclear and biological weapons to use against our nation. We should have no doubt the threat posed by WMD is very real and not simply some distant concern.
Earlier this year the bipartisan WMD Commission, created through the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007, H.R. 1, issued a report card on progress on their thirteen recommendations. They gave our government an "F" for bioterrorism preparedness. The "lack of U.S. capability to rapidly recognize, respond, and recover from a biological attack" was the most significant failure they identified. They didn't feel much better, awarding a "D+" grade, regarding our government's oversight of laboratories working with the most dangerous diseases -- diseases that, in the wrong hands with the right delivery mechanisms, could easily create a deadly epidemic. Their overall point was crystal clear: Almost nine years after 9/11, we still do not have a comprehensive national strategy to counter the grave threat that WMD poses to our nation.
The WMD Commission took pains to highlight why we need to focus on the bioterrorism threat, stating: "Terrorists are more likely to be able to obtain and use a biological weapon than a nuclear weapon." The commission's "World at Risk" report of 2008 stated, "It is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013." In their testimony before the House Committee on Homeland Security last month, the WMD Commission co-chairs reiterated their deep concerns and called for legislative action.
Bioterrorism is a problem that encompasses a wide swath of our national security infrastructure from the Department of Homeland Security to our public health agencies and on to our emergency first responders. We commend the Obama administration for putting forth the "National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats," and for officially acknowledging that the biological terrorism threat is more than simply a public health issue. However, in order to successfully address the bioterrorism threat, we need a complete framework that prepares us both before and after an attack. We need a blueprint for national preparedness.
We have done exactly that in our bill, The Implementing Recommendations of the WMD Commission Act of 2010.
We have worked closely with the WMD Commission to write a bill that has a truly comprehensive approach to securing the nation against weapons of mass destruction by looking at all angles, from prevention and deterrence; preparedness; detection; attribution; response; and, finally, recovery. Focusing on the homeland security aspects of countering the biological threat, we first took a survey of current activities and organized them according to this blueprint. In preventing an attack we created a clear outline for how our intelligence agencies need to prepare for this challenge, including requiring the Director of National
Intelligence to develop and maintain a real National Intelligence Strategy for Countering the Threat from Weapons of Mass Destruction. Furthermore, we looked broadly at the many critical challenges we face in containing an attack after it might occur. This includes a thorough review of our national vaccination policy, which now does not take into account the possibility of bioterrorism -- an ominous sign in the light of our clear lack of preparedness for the H1N1 scare. Our legislation also calls for coordination of our WMD strategy with our state and local officials including our first responders who have always been our front line against terror.
In the years since 9/11, we have all said -- on a bipartisan basis -- that our homeland security strategy must be proactive and not reactive. The fact that our nation has not yet suffered a devastating WMD attack should in no way hinder us from preparing for such a reality. Let us not forget that one of the most critical failures in preventing the 9/11 attacks was one of a lack of "imagination." As members of Congress, we take seriously this responsibility to prepare mightily for a day that we all hope will never happen.
Pascrell is a member of the Committee on Homeland Security. King is the Ranking Member on the Committee on Homeland Security.