News & Events

U.S. still unprepared for major biological terrorist attack, report says

By Joby Warrick

Washington Post Staff Writer

Tuesday, January 26, 2010; 10:52 AM

More than eight years after the deadly 2001 anthrax attacks, the United States is still unprepared to respond to a major biological terror attack, a congressionally appointed commission said Tuesday in a report that gave the federal government mixed grades overall for protecting Americans from the threat of weapons of mass destruction.

The report, which measured government’s performance in 17 areas, gave the White House and Congress "F" grades for failing to build a rapid-response capability for dealing with bioterror threats, or providing adequate oversight over security and intelligence agencies.

The bipartisan panel cited the government’s faltering response to the swine-flu epidemic as evidence of a lack of preparedness for a large-scale crisis, adding that the blame for the failures is shared across administrations and branches of government.

"Each of the last three administrations has been slow to recognize and respond to the biothreat," said former senator Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who co-chaired the panel along with former senator Jim Talent (R-Mo.). "But we no longer have the luxury of a slow learning curve, when we know al-Qaeda is interested in bioweapons."

The Commission on the Prevention of Weapons Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism warned in its initial report 13 months ago that a major attack using weapons of mass destruction somewhere in the world was "more likely than not" by 2013, unless significant steps were taken.

The panel gave "A" grades for government programs that secured dangerous viruses and bacteria, and for the Obama administration’s reorganization of the National Security Council to better deal with threats related to weapons of mass destruction.

The release of the commission’s report card came a day after a separate study warned that al-Qaeda had not abandoned its ambition to use weapons of mass destruction against Western targets. The report, by a former senior CIA official who led the agency’s hunt for weapons of mass destruction, portrays al-Qaeda’s leaders as determined and patient, willing to wait for years to acquire the kind of weapons that could inflict widespread casualties.

The former official, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, draws on his knowledge of classified case files to argue that al-Qaeda has been far more sophisticated in its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction than is commonly believed, pursuing parallel paths to acquiring weapons and forging alliances with groups that can offer resources and expertise.

"If Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants had been interested in . . . small-scale attacks, there is little doubt they could have done so now," Mowatt-Larssen writes in a report released Monday by the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Mowatt-Larssen, a 23-year CIA veteran, led the agency’s internal task force on al-Qaeda and weapons of mass destruction after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and later was named director of intelligence and counterintelligence for the Energy Department. His report warns that bin Laden’s threat to attack the West with weapons of mass destruction is not "empty rhetoric" but a top strategic goal for an organization that seeks the economic ruin of the United States and its allies to hasten the overthrow of pro-Western governments in the Islamic world.

He cites patterns in al-Qaeda’s 15-year pursuit of weapons of mass destruction that reflect a deliberateness and sophistication in assembling the needed expertise and equipment. He describes how al-Qaeda’s No. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, hired two scientists — a Pakistani microbiologist sympathetic to al-Qaeda and a Malaysian army captain trained in the United States — to work separately on efforts to build a biological weapons lab and acquire deadly strains of anthrax bacteria. Al-Qaeda achieved both goals before September 2001 but apparently had not successfully weaponized the anthrax spores when the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan forced the scientists to flee, Mowatt-Larssen said.

"This was far from run-of-the-mill terrorism," he said in an interview. "The program was highly compartmentalized, at the highest level of the organization. It was methodical, and it was professional."

Mowatt-Larssen said he has seen no evidence linking al-Qaeda’s program with the anthrax attacks on U.S. politicians and news outlets in 2001. Zawahiri’s plan was aimed at mass casualties and "not just trying to scare people with a few letters," he said.

Evidence from al-Qaeda documents and interrogations suggests that terrorists leaders had settled on anthrax as the weapon of choice and believed that the tools for a major biological attack were within their grasp, the former CIA official said. Al-Qaeda remained interested in nuclear weapons as well but understood that the odds of success were much longer.

"They realized they needed a lucky break," Mowatt-Larssen said. "That meant buying or stealing fissile material or acquiring a stolen bomb."

Bush administration officials feared that bin Laden was close to obtaining nuclear weapons in 2003 after U.S. spies picked up a cryptic message by a Saudi affiliate of al-Qaeda referring to plans to obtain three stolen Russian nuclear devices. The intercepts prompted the U.S. and Saudi governments to go on alert and later led to an aggressive Saudi crackdown that resulted in the arrest or killing of dozens of suspected al-Qaeda associates.

After that, terrorists’ chatter about a possible nuclear acquisition halted abruptly, but U.S. officials were never certain whether the plot was dismantled or simply pushed deeper underground.

"The crackdown was so successful," Mowatt-Larssen said, "that intelligence about the program basically dried up."