Years After 9/11 . . .

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By Randall J. Larsen
Friday, May 20, 2005

Wasting money with good intentions does not make America more secure. A rapid, somewhat uncoordinated and even wasteful response in the days immediately following Sept. 11, 2001, was understandable. But I find it difficult to understand why, 1,347 days after the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States remains inadequately prepared for the two most dangerous threats facing it: biological and nuclear terrorism.

Why 1,347 days? That was the number of days between Pearl Harbor and V-J Day -- a reasonable measurement of progress. Starting from an abysmally unprepared posture, the United States required only 1,347 days to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. I do not expect a World War II-style victory in the war on terrorism, but after 1,347 days it is reasonable to ask: Who is in charge of defending this nation against what most experts agree are the only two existential threats we face -- biological and nuclear terrorism? The disturbing answer: no one.

According to a recent report from the Center for Biosecurity, we have 26 presidentially appointed and Senate-confirmed individuals working in a dozen different agencies to manage an annual biodefense budget of $5.5 billion. But no one is in charge. Defense against nuclear terrorism is equally disjointed, and the White House has recently recommended two new organizations, yet no one will be in charge.

Not all national security programs have this problem. One person, appointed by the defense secretary, leads the missile defense program, and an undersecretary, appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, controls the $7.7 billion annual budget. But the most likely delivery system for biological and nuclear weapons is not intercontinental ballistic missiles. The last time the United States suffered a biological attack, the U.S. Postal Service provided the delivery vehicles, and we still don't have a return address for the sender. A small truck, boat or private jet will most likely serve to smuggle a nuclear weapon across our 7,500 miles of borders or 95,000 miles of shoreline.

Reliable means for preventing this do not exist today and will not exist in the near future. While some funds must be spent on response and recovery capabilities, that is clearly a secondary priority. Preventing terrorists from getting their hands on highly enriched uranium or weapons-grade plutonium must be the No. 1 nuclear defense priority. But funding and political support for such programs are lacking. The only new initiative in the president's budget calls for creation of the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office. Two problems with that name and focus: domestic and detection. If you're detecting a nuclear weapon in the Port of Los Angeles, you're too late.

We need a single person in charge of defending America against nuclear ter rorism, and the focus of this effort must be overseas, in the form of Nunn-Lugar-type programs meant to keep terrorists from obtaining weapons-grade nuclear materials.

Defense against bioterrorism presents a completely different challenge. The biotechnology revolution has made it virtually impossible to prevent terrorists from producing biological weapons and bringing them into the United States. The top priority for biodefense must be early detection, rapid response and recovery.

Unfortunately, our public health infrastructure is incapable of such actions. In some states, such as Maryland, the county public health offices are all under the centralized control of the state public health officer. In others, such as New Jersey and Massachusetts, city and county public health offices march to their own drummers, with minimal guidance from above. In South Carolina, no state official has primary responsibility for public health. There are no nationally recognized standards for credentialing state and local public health officers, and funding for these offices comes from a hodgepodge of uncoordinated sources. Furthermore, federal bioterrorism funds are frequently diverted to programs with no connection to bioresponse efforts.

America needs one person in charge of biodefense. The focus must be on rapid detection, response and recovery. The good news: Much of the research, development and operational capabilities will provide a dual benefit that will also provide great value in response to SARS, a flu pandemic or other infectious diseases. If we do it right, all Americans will profit with a good return on investment -- increased security for their families.

This country is not substantially better prepared today for nuclear and biological terrorism than it was 1,347 days ago. We must have someone in charge of these efforts.

The writer, a former chairman of the Department of Military Strategy and Operations at the National War College, is director of the Institute for Homeland Security (http://www.tihls.org), a public service research organization. He will be available to answer questions today at noon onhttp://www.washingtonpost.com.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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