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Experts, Lawmakers Concerned About Nuclear Terrorism, Aviation Security

Experts testifying before Congress say the United States needs to be more aggressive and organized in defending against possible nuclear terrorist attacks. The testimony on Capitol Hill came as lawmakers expressed concern about new reports on weaknesses in aviation security.

Appearing before a House subcommittee, the experts said that while laudable, steps to strengthen safeguards against nuclear and biological attacks lack intensity and organization.

Under legislation approved since the September 11, 2001 al-Qaida terrorist attacks on the United States, the government has undertaken new efforts to help reduce the chances of such attacks.

These include a new Domestic Nuclear Deterrence Office within the Department of Homeland Security, to help coordinate efforts to prevent the smuggling of nuclear weapons or materials into the United States.

However, Fred Ikle of the Center for Security and International Studies says what is needed is nothing less than a major effort modeled on the Manhattan Project that developed the U.S. atomic bomb during WWII.

"What we need is to pull these laboratories together, like we did for the Manhattan Project initially, like we did in a different context for the Apollo project, with one manager [who] can run it with a flexible budget, and can attract the best people," he said.

A continuing concern is that terrorists might be able to get a radiological weapon through detection measures in force at the nation's seaports.

Congress approved billions of dollars to bolster port security including sophisticated detection equipment to scan shipping containers.

But many lawmakers say that is still not enough, and other witnesses assert such measures may be missing the point.

Graham Allison is a former Assistant Secretary of Defense, now heading the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, and a critic of what he calls incoherent strategies to prevent nuclear terrorism.

"We remain a country almost without borders,” he said. “So, a terrorist who is bringing a nuclear bomb or material for a bomb into the country is going to come through a highly protected port, or portal, where they get inspected? And if we build a fence higher, higher and higher, and we have 100 miles with no fence what happens? We have actually run this experiment down by San Diego. So we have a huge fence and no one comes through the fence amazingly, but more people come [across the border] than came before, because they come around the fence."

Mr. Allison says one of the best defenses against nuclear terrorism remains to secure or eliminate nuclear materials at their source, mentioning as an example joint efforts with Russia and former Soviet republics.

Randall Larsen, head of Homeland Security Associates, questions the emphasis on nuclear detection being in major ports.

"Now, let's face it, if you had an arsenal of three nuclear weapons and you're a terrorist organization, are you just going to put it in a shipping container and say hey send it to Chicago?” he asked. “I would put it inside a Gulfstream [jet] and fly across the United States. I'd put it in a ship, the press says al-Qaida may have up to 80 ships, I would put it in a ship and drive it into a port, it would never get to your detector there in your screening place. You know set it off in Long Beach or Los Angeles or in New York, just as it's pulling into port. What good is a detector going to do there? There are 7000 miles of unguarded border here, so we say we're going to put these detectors at these major crossing points. They [terrorists] are not stupid."

The focus on potential nuclear and biological terrorism coincides with new reports concerning aviation security since September 2001.

One by the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security cites a lack of improvement in the ability of airport screeners to detect hidden weapons. A similar assessment is expected in an upcoming report by the Government Accountability Office.

"Three-and-a-half years after those horrific terrorist attacks there is still a very vital need for some immediate aviation security improvements," said Congressman John Mica, chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee.

In 2002, the federal government's new Transportation Security Administration assumed responsibility for airport screening.

Homeland security officials maintain that Americans are safer as a result, but attribute remaining weaknesses to problems with training, equipment and management.