Biowarfare Terror Threat
To US Called 'Overstated'
By Michael Kirkland
WASHINGTON (UPI) - Counterterrorism consultants and U.S. officials told a congressional panel Wednesday that the threat of terrorists using "weapons of mass destruction" against civilians is real but "overstated" by the media and in popular culture.
RAND consultant Brian Jenkins, however, said the need for public education about such potential attacks is crucial, warning the panel, "Even if a terrorist attack involving biological and chemical weapons were to kill only a small number of people...if we do not communicate well it could provoke national hysteria."
Jenkins and other consultants testified before a House Government Reform subcommittee on national security. All agreed that the threat of a catastrophic "event" involving weapons of mass destruction was unlikely, though not impossible.
Earlier, counterterrorism officials from the General Accounting Office told the panel that constructing and using a biological or chemical weapon was much harder than popularly realized.
Jenkins emphasized that "although I am an adviser to the president of the RAND Corp. my comments this morning are entirely my own." He apologized to the subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Christopher Shays, R- Conn., for the imprecision of his advice when it came to the use of national resources.
"I don't think we can do well in predicting...what will happen or what might not happen," Jenkins said. "We can say that limited attacks would be more likely than large-scale attacks. We can say that crude dispersal techniques in a contained environment are more likely than the poisoning of cities."
He conceded that such forecasting imprecision goes against the grain of "the new orthodoxy" surrounding counterterrorism issues.
Jenkins said "the possibility that terrorists might resort to chemical or biological agents" is an idea that has been around for decades. "That 'it is only a matter of time before terrorists use such weapons' is a relatively new idea that has in fact become part of the new orthodoxy."
There have been several changes on the world scene, Jenkins said, that have moved what was once "an exotic possibility years ago" to "the inevitability that we see today" in the public mind.
Jenkins cited "the growth of organized crimeand corruption in Russia....While we don't have, to my knowledge, direct evidence that chemical or biological substances have been Russia, we do have certainly ample examples of other weapons being sold through criminal organizations.
"Another factor is that today's terrorists seem more interested in running up a high body count than in advancing political agendas," Jenkins said, with terrorists moving away from ideological terrorism to a form "inspired by someone's vision of God."
Nevertheless, Jenkins said, "We cannot conclude that a catastrophic attack by someone using chemical or biological weapons is inevitable.... There is no inexorable progression from truck bombs to weapons of mass destruction."
He advised Congress to respond to a potential terrorist threat by devoting resources to those areas that have value in themselves outside of the terrorism arena, such as medical response teams.
Earlier in the hearing, Henry Hinton, assistant comptroller general for the GAO's national security and international affairs division, told the subcommittee that his agency conducted a "risk assessment" of the threat from terrorist "events" that would cause at least 1,000 casualties.
To cause such an event, Hinton said, terrorists "would have to overcome a number of technical problems." He added later, "The skills that you'd have to have to weaponize (a chemical or biological agent) are not that plentiful."
But under questioning from Shays, Hinton conceded that the risk assessment did not cover the possibility of a "rogue nation" either carrying out such an operation itself or helping a group of terrorists to do so.
Shays asked Hinton directly whether he believed there would be a terrorist attack using a "weapon of mass destruction" in the United States within the next 20 years.
Hinton replied, "We are being advised (by the intelligence community)...that the growing."
But in discussing any likelihood of such a strike, Hinton said, "the key word is an attempt" rather than a successful operation.