On the heels of President-elect Barack Obama's announcement of his national security team, a new report wastes no time in outlining one of the more serious and immediate challenges facing the new administration: how to combat the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). According to the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism, a congressionally mandated, bipartisan panel of experts led by former senators Bob Graham and Jim Talent, the outlook is not good. The panel's final report, due out tomorrow, shows proliferation to be on the rise and concludes that "unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013."
The last administration famously began its ill-fated foreign adventure in Iraq out of fear that "a smoking gun could come in the form of a mushroom cloud." But the Commission sees biological rather than nuclear weapons as a more pressing concern, describing the United States as "very exposed" to biological attack. The US has taken the lead in securing fissile materials used in nuclear weapons (although serious problems remain), but comparatively little effort has been spent in preventing biological attacks. The nuclear age began with the use of nuclear weapons, which gave urgency to fighting their spread. "The life sciences community," says the Commission, "has never experienced a comparable iconic event. As a result, security awareness has grown slowly, lagging behind the emergence of biological risks and threats." One possible exception, of course, was the 2001 anthrax attacks. But the vulnerabilities in the system has been "only partly addressed" and the Commission notes that "if only 15 grams of dry anthrax spores delivered by mail could produce such an enormous effect [an estimated $6 billion in damages, not to mention lives lost], the consequences of a large-scale aerosol release would be almost unimaginable."