Sam Nunn is no alarmist, no prophet of doom. He is a serious man who is respected by both Democrats and Republicans for his command of complex national security issues. But as we now know, serious people were rarely taken seriously in Washington before Sept. 11.
While the politicians and pundits were preoccupied with the usual nonsense and petty politics that have characterized Washington in recent years, Nunn was trying to prepare the nation for the threat of terrorism. The former Democratic senator from Georgia received polite hearings from old colleagues on Capitol Hill, but no one paid much attention to his warning that it was only a matter of time before terrorists would strike on American soil. He urged the government to start preparing for the unthinkable before it happened.
When terrorists did strike, not even Nunn was prepared for the horror of hijacked jetliners crashing into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. He had thought a biological or chemical attack was more likely. That threat is still out there.
Six days before the 9-11 attack, Nunn testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the results of a simulated smallpox attack on America code-named Dark Winter. A group of think-tanks conducted a computer-simulation exercise that involved U.S. officials acting out a government response to a bioterrorism attack using smallpox, which, unlike anthrax, is highly contagious. The results were alarming. The government was ill-prepared for the public health catastrophe that unfolded. The disease spread rapidly. The computer predicted 300,000 cases at the end of three weeks. Vaccines were exhausted, the public became hysterical and the government considered the imposition of martial law.
Suddenly, Nunn is being hailed for his prescience by many of the same journalists and politicians who had ignored his message, and many Americans probably wish that Nunn, or someone like him, was playing a key role in the war on terrorism that caught us unprepared at home. There are too few people in Washington who think about real problems and threats, and the few who do struggle to be heard over the din of partisan bickering and scandal mongering.
The handful of people who tried to awaken the nation and its leaders to the threat of terrorism were not congressional leaders, intelligence agencies, federal law enforcement or administration officials. Most of them are former senators, serious men who grew weary of the politics and partisanship that made the U.S. Senate anything but the world's greatest deliberative body _ Nunn, Gary Hart, Warren Rudman. Only two sitting senators _ Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and Pete Domenici, R-N.M. _ can be counted in this group.
For five years Nunn has been urging Washington to take the threat of nuclear, biological and chemical terrorism seriously. Before he left the Senate in 1996, Nunn, along with Lugar and Domenici, authored legislative initiatives aimed at keeping the stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in the former Soviet Union from falling into the hands of terrorists such as Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network.
Nunn is co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a group concerned with reducing the threat of nuclear, biological and chemical terrorism. In a recent interview with Cox Newspapers, Nunn spoke of his concern that the United States is not doing enough to help Russia secure its stockpile of weapons of terror. Russia, he said, "has scientists who know more about making biological weapons than any human beings on the face of the globe, and many don't have employment. We have not helped them nearly enough to keep them out of the hands of terrorists."
Asked if it is likely that al-Qaida and other terrorists groups already have some of those weapons, Nunn said, "There's certainly a danger of that, and there's probably more danger of that in the biological and chemical weapons than nuclear. Biological and chemical weapons are available on the commercial market, whereas nuclear is not. It does not take a huge amount of expertise to make chemical and biological weapons."
Listen to what Nunn has been saying in recent years: He has called for tighter security in the handling of biological and chemical material by the nation's pharmaceutical industry. He has spoken of the need to improve our intelligence capability and has pushed for new technology for early detection of biological and chemical attacks. As a senator, he held hearings on the need to train firefighters, police officers and public health officials _ the "first responders" to a terrorist attack _ to deal with bioterrorism. He worries about the vulnerability of our animal-plant food chain. He has proposed a "Manhattan Project" to accelerate research and development to come up with better vaccines and antibiotics. He is urging the government to beef up security at sports stadiums and other public facilities.
Sam Nunn finally has Washington's attention. If I were President Bush, I would seek his advice and counsel often. I would forget that Nunn was one of the Democratic senators who opposed Bush 41's decision to go to war in the Persian Gulf. Nunn has since come to regret that vote. But official Washington has an even bigger regret _ that it didn't take Nunn seriously before Sept. 11.