In December 2008, the Congressional Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism released its report, World At Risk. The nine commissioners, five Democrats and four Republicans, unanimously concluded that bioterrorism was more likely than nuclear terrorism. That same week, the Director of National Intelligence, Admiral Mike McConnell, made virtually the same statement in a speech at Harvard.
The basis for this assessment is the incredible pace of the biotechnical revolution—capabilities that were once available to only the most advanced nation-states, are now available to small nation-states and many non-state actors. If the FBI is correct about the perpetrator of the anthrax letters of October 2001, then a single individual, with no background in producing bioweapons, using commercial-off-the-shelf equipment, is capable of producing a sophisticated bioweapon. The only difference between enough material for a few letters, and enough material to attack a city, is just a matter of a few months of production time.
When talking about weapons of mass destruction (WMD), deterrence and prevention are always the first two strategies.
Deterrence is not a relic of the cold war. When dealing with nation states, the threat of massive retaliation remains a strong deterrent. Any nation that would consider using a WMD against the U.S. would have to understand the very real prospect of a nuclear response. This was clearly communicated to Saddam Hussein’s foreign minister just prior to the Gulf War in 1991.
On the other hand, deterrence has limited or no value to non-state actors. By definition, non-state actors have no homeland that can be held hostage to a massive response. Therefore, the best strategy against the terrorist use of WMDs is prevention.
Prevention is an excellent strategy to counter the threat of nuclear terrorism. An effective international effort to “locate, lockdown, and eliminate” loose nuclear material will prevent terrorists from putting a mushroom cloud over an American city.
Unfortunately, prevention efforts against the threat of bioterrorism provide only limited value. Deadly pathogens are readily available in nature, the knowledge and equipment required to weaponized these pathogens and the capability needed to effectively deliver this weaponized material is dual-use standard procedure in the biotech/pharmaceutical/agriculture industries.
The best strategy for defending America against the threat of bioterrorism is to develop an effective response capability—a capability that would effectively remove bioterrorism from the category of WMD.
The realities of 21st century biotechnology make it virtually impossible to prevent future bio-attacks on America. However, improvements in detection, diagnosis, communications, medical countermeasure development, production and distribution, medical treatment & disease management and environmental remediation will allow us to “push the decimal to the left”—producing an environment where we would not count casualties in the hundreds of thousands, tens of thousands or even thousands. It would move bioterrorism to the level similar to what we lose on highways during a three-day weekend—still a tragedy for those families, but not a threat to the nation.
Such a reality is possible, but it will not happen over night, or even in a few years. This will be the work of a generation. The good news is that there will be many benefits other than defense against bioterrorism. Major improvements in rapid diagnosis of disease; better, safer, less expensive vaccines and drugs; and expanded surge capacities in our hospitals are no regret investments that will benefit our children and grandchildren, whether we face acts of bioterrorism or the certainty of naturally occurring disease.