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U.S. isn't ready to meet terrorist threats

Americans are increasingly afraid of major acts of terrorism capable of causing massive casualties. They are especially fearful of weapons of mass destruction. And yet programs to combat this threat have received little attention and even less funding in Congress. They represent a tiny fraction of the defense budget, much of which goes to fund old programs designed to stem Cold War era threats. Even the national ballistic missile defense system proposed in the Defend America Act would have little or no immediate effect on this threat: Were terrorists to use a bomb, it would probably be a very crude one, deliverable by van or ship rather than by ballistic missile.

There is no question that Americans are right to be afraid. Constraints against terrorists' use of weapons of mass destruction continue to erode. Crude designs for nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons are increasingly available in book form and on the Internet. Nuclear and chemical-weapons components are leaking from poorly guarded facilities in the former Soviet Union.

Closer to home, extremists and cults are experimenting with weapons of mass destruction. In the past year and a half, right-wing extremists have planned to use ricin, an extremely toxic biological agent, and, in a separate incident, radiological materials, to kill IRS and other federal officials. And a white supremacist was convicted in connection with the purchase of three vials of freeze-dried bubonic plague.

Cults are expected to become even more violent in the next few years. Aum Shinrikiyo broke the taboo against weapons of mass destruction when it used Sarin, a lethal chemical agent, on the Tokyo subway in March 1995. This incident, the first wide-scale terrorist use of chemical agents, killed 12 and injured thousands, sending more than 600 people to hospitals.

How well prepared is the U.S. government to meet these dangers? Not very. Spending on the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, designed to dismantle Soviet weapons of mass destruction, is about $300-million, little more than a tenth of 1 percent of the total defense budget for fiscal year 1996. The Department of Energy was allocated less than $100-million to help Russia improve its security for weapons-usable materials.

A convincing inventory of nuclear materials has yet to be taken in Russia. With respect to nuclear material, a Russian Security Council official has said as much as 10 percent of inventory was hidden during the Soviet period to be prepared to meet five-year plans. Now the Russian government has no idea where that hidden inventory is located.

While the DOE maintains a Nuclear Emergency Search Team trained to disable terrorist nuclear devices, the program is underfunded and understaffed. Highly specialized skills are required to disable nuclear weapons, and with the reduced demand for nuclear weapons expertise, the pool of scientists with relevant experience is decreasing. Exercises have revealed some weaknesses, including contradictory priorities among the agencies involved. More regular exercises are clearly necessary, and additional funding will be required for them. Moreover, there are no domestically deployed rapid response teams capable of defending against chemical and biological threats.

The situation at the local level is even more grave. Simply put, local emergency response personnel are not prepared. Few emergency personnel are trained even to recognize the effects of chemical-weapons poisoning. Hospitals are not equipped to decontaminate victims. Were an Aum-Shinrikiyo-type incident to occur on U.S. territory, many lives would be lost needlessly because of lack of government preparation.

An amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill, written by Sens. Sam Nunn, Richard Lugar and Pete Domenici, would make important strides toward correcting these deficiencies. It would:

Add $235-million to programs designed to meet the threat of nuclear, chemical and biological terrorism.

Provide funds for improving border controls and customs, both in the former Soviet Union, and in the United States.

Require the development of rapid response teams to disarm chemical and biological weapons, and improve our ability to disable the more likely types of terrorist nuclear bombs _ crude, jury-rigged devices made from stolen nuclear materials.

The measure has passed the Senate and is awaiting House action. Americans should urge their congressional leaders to demand these improvements and more. Anything less puts our children's lives at stake.

Jessica Stern recently left the National Security Council staff, where she ran the Nuclear Smuggling Interagency Group as director for Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian affairs. This piece is adapted from an article written for the Aspen Strategy Group.

Special to the Washington Post