The chances are better than 50-50 that terrorists will deploy nuclear or biological weapons somewhere in the world in the next five years, according to a bipartisan commission's report released Wednesday.
Former Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, the Democratic co-chairman of the commission to study the risk of terrorists attacks with weapons of mass destruction, briefed officials this week, including President Bush, Vice President-elect Joe Biden and Gov. Janet Napolitano, President-elect Obama's designee for homeland security secretary.
The Times spoke with Graham in Washington on Wednesday about what the Russians are doing right, why al-Qaida is more like McDonald's than General Motors, whether we are safer now than before 9/11, and what made his work more personal.
What's the first thing the Obama administration should do about terrorism and WMDs?
The first thing it should do is to have President Obama restate what he said as candidate Obama, that this is the most serious security challenge to the United States — the worst people gaining access to the worst weapons — and that he will personally commit himself and his administration to take those steps to increase the safety and security of America and the world.
The commission says that a biological attack is more likely than a nuclear attack. Why?
Basically, it's hard to get access to nuclear materials. It's easy to access and to compound the items that would be in a pathogen. Many of them are available in nature itself. Others can be constructed in the lab. … We need to do everything we can to lock down the biological materials in the same way that in the last 15 years we've been attempting to do with nuclear. One of the best parts of this story is what we've been able to do with the Russian and former Soviet Union states' nuclear stockpiles. They are under substantially greater security than they have ever been, and the risk of terrorists gaining access to those materials — which represents almost half the nuclear material in the world — is much reduced.
What's the next biggest threat?
Second would be Pakistan. Mumbai has underscored how tenuous the relations are between India and Pakistan. Pakistan continues to be a major center for terror, it has a history of proliferation of weapons, it has an unstable government with an unstable relationship with its military — all the ingredients for terrorism and weapons of mass destruction to cross are available in Pakistan.
The last major domestic terror attack in the United States was Sept. 11, 2001. Doesn't that mean the system is working?
We have made changes which have increased our security. The problem is that our adversaries have made even more changes. Al-Qaida, since it relocated from Afghanistan into the federal territories of Pakistan, has reorganized itself from a General Motors-type, very hierarchical organization to more like a McDonald's franchise, with operations in more than 60 countries. … It's more operational and nimble than it was even on 9/11. The access to biological weapons is greater than ever. Our assessment is that although we're better, our opponent has made even more gains, and therefore we are relatively less secure today than we were eight years ago.
The report refers to the deadly bombing of Pakistan's Islamabad Marriott in September, when you and other commission members were en route to that very hotel. How did that close call shape your thinking about terrorism, or the report?
Because we had come so close to a very potentially fatal, personal encounter with terrorism — had our trip been 24 hours earlier, we would have been sleeping in that hotel when the bomb went off — it made this more of a personal challenge. It was no longer theoretical.
Wes Allison can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 463-0577.