When Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute and associate vice president for homeland security, noted that the event at 1957 E Street featured “the titans of national security,” he wasn’t kidding.
The June 14 event, titled The Threat of Bioterrorism: Improving America’s Response Capabilities (video), drew panelists Sen. Joe Liebermann (I-Conn.), Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and former Senators Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Jim Talent (R-Mo.).
The latter two are chairman and vice chairman of the WMD Center, which cosponsored the event with the Homeland Security Policy Institute.
One topic that the panelists and Mr. Cilluffo, who moderated the event, kept returning to was what keeps them up at night, which was mostly a biological terrorist attack on the U.S.
Rep. Rogers added Iran and North Korea to the list of sleep-threatening dangers.
One of the most important sentences of the 9/11 Commission Report was the claim that the attacks occurred because of a failure of U.S. imagination, Sen. Lieberman said, interpreting the failure as an inability or refusal to imagine what al-Qaeda was plotting.
“We know that the intent to hurt us continues,” he said. “It doesn’t take a very aggressive imagination … to believe that groups that are venomously anti-American would be considering biological attacks on us.”
Part of the legislation Sen. Lieberman is working on now is creating a national bio-defense strategy. “I don’t like to be kept up at night, so to whatever extent I can reduce the causes of the sleepless nights, not just for myself but also for other Americans, I’d like to do so,” he said.
Former Sen. Talent explained why the prospect of a biological attack was so terrifying. Whereas the 9/11 attacks killed about 3,000 people, conservative estimates say a biological attack could claim 10 to 100 times that number of lives, and it would be easy for the terrorists to “reload and hit another city.” The attacks would also leave residue that would make it tough to rebuild.
“The American economy would just stop,” he said.
Former Senators Talent and Graham also discussed the annual report cards their center gives for U.S. efforts to protect itself from terrorist attacks.
Sen. Graham said his background working in higher education taught him about the importance of issuing something like a report card. “If you don’t evaluate a particular subject it’s not likely to be taught or not likely to be taught well,” he said.
Out of 18 items on last year’s report card, the U.S. government received four grades of F. The most significant F was for being unprepared to respond to an act of bioterrorism. “We think this is a serious national security risk,” Sen. Graham said.
Sen. Talent said the pair hadn’t realized the significance of biological threats at first, but after conducting hundreds of interviews as part of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, which was tasked with following up on the 9/11 Commission Report, they realized a biological attack would be the most dangerous threat to the country.
The U.S. knows that al-Qaeda wanted to build biological weapons in the 1990s, it would not need to undergo intense organizational realignment to construct such a weapon and biological weapons are relatively easy to create and stock pile, he said.
“This is not a next generation threat. This is now.”
Rep. Rogers said elements of a national bio-defense strategy, like vaccines for Anthrax, are “something you hope you never use.”
“Everyone is always mad at the firefighters around budget time, but you love them when you pick up the phone and they show up and protect your house,” he said. “When you need them, you need them. Same with these vaccines. This is not something you can go back and say, ‘We’ve had an event. Oh, by the way, where do we go buy 8,000 doses of Anthrax vaccine.’ It’s not going to happen.”