Terrorism is the “greatest security challenge of our age,” explained Senator Joe Lieberman, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, during a hearing last Wednesday on “Confronting the Terrorist Threat to the Homeland.” Because of this great challenge, FBI Director Robert Mueller, said in his testimony that protecting America from terrorism is the FBI’s highest priority. And as Maine Senator Susan Collins pointed out in her opening remarks we cannot risk another “failure of imagination” like the one that led to 9-11.
Despite the importance of the threat of terrorism to our national security a recent Gallup Poll found that a mere “one percent of Americans mention terrorism as the most important problem facing the country, down from 46% just after the attacks.” This is perhaps understandable given the state of the economy and persistently high unemployment numbers. Our law makers, federal agencies, and policy experts, however, must remain attentive to the threat.
The discussion at the hearing mainly focused on attacks and planned attacks involving bombs and homemade explosives. Bioterrorism was barely mentioned. In fact, neither bioterrorism nor biological weapons were discussed until the closing minutes of the hearing and then only in passing.
If our nation’s policy makers and security agencies are determined to avoid another failure of imagination, bioterrorism deserves more attention. During the hearing, Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security, explained how terrorists’ tactics and targets are evolving. Tactics are shifting towards “smaller, faster developing plots” and targets are moving away from high profile marks towards a “greater diversity in the sense of targets” including smaller targets such as mass transit. In contrast to large-scale attacks “executing smaller-scale attacks requires less planning and fewer pre-operational steps. Accordingly, there are fewer opportunities to detect such an attack before it occurs,” said Napolitano. A bioterrorist attack using crudely developed biological weapons would easily fit this bill. Many experts believe that a biological attack could be planned and carried out on a small scale involving very few people and minimal supplies of readily available material.
There is a genuine threat of bioterrorism. According to a progress report by the Commission On The Prevention Of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism released last year, “In recent years, the United States has received strategic warnings of biological weapons use from dozens of government reports and expert panels. The consequences of ignoring these warnings could be dire.” Given this warning, bioterrorism and our efforts to defend against it should be the focus of a Homeland Security Committee hearing in the near future.