Several national security experts are warning the United States is not prepared to defend against what some say is the growing threat of an attack by a terrorist armed with a biological weapon. Congress heard testimony Wednesday about how easy it would be for example, for a terrorist to release just a small amount of the deadly disease smallpox and the horrific consequences that would result.
An exercise conducted in June at a military base outside Washington illustrated just how ill-prepared the nation is to deal with the release of just a small amount of smallpox.
Former Senator Sam Nunn tells Congress the simulated bio-terrorist attack and the rapid spread of disease would wreak the kind of havoc not seen in this country in modern times. "Our health experts told us that every two to three weeks, the number of cases would increase tenfold," he said.
The former senator was asked to play the role of president during the exercise which envisioned the government, health officials and local authorities coming face to face with an almost total breakdown of civil society. Martial law would be required when people found out not enough smallpox vaccine exists to go around. "On day six of the crisis, we had very little vaccine left. We quickly faced the only other alternative, forced isolation, with large numbers of exposed citizens whose locations and identities remained guesswork," he said. "We were down to the really tough questions: Do we force whole communities and cities to stay in their homes? How? With force? How much force? Does it include lethal force?"
Needless to say, his appearance before lawmakers was intended to illustrate the growing threat to the nation posed by bioterrorism. "Enemies don't normally attack us where we're strong," he said. "They target us where we're weak."
The Bush administration is requesting about $200 million for bioterrorism awareness programs for the coming year. But experts including former CIA director James Woolsey think the matter should be made the administration's top national security priority, to prepare a country now largely defenseless against the use of a biological weapon. "We know that the Russians genetically modified anthrax and so if that were used, and we don't know exactly how it was genetically modified, we conceivably could have lots of vaccinated service men and women in the Mideast and vaccinated people in the United States who would be no better off if they were subjected to an attack," he said.
Fueling the threat is the suspicion that an out of work Russian scientist could export deadly bacterias stockpiled during the Cold War to one of about a dozen countries that have or want biological weapons.
If a cult in Japan could evade detection and unleash deadly sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway, James Woolsey points out how easy it would likely be for someone with ties to a laboratory in Russia to stage a similar attack. "If something like Aum [Shinrikyo] could happen in Japan, it's so much more likely that you're going to have leakage from these Russian laboratories to let's say Mideast terrorist groups, to the government of Iraq, than would have occurred in this very ordered Japanese society," he said.
What's the best way to prevent such a scenario? He and others agree better efforts by U.S. intelligence to penetrate terrorist networks to prevent such attacks before they happen.