By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
The odds that terrorists will soon strike a major city with weapons of mass destruction are now better than even, a bipartisan congressionally mandated task force concludes in a draft study that warns of growing threats from rogue states, nuclear smuggling networks and the spread of atomic know-how in the developing world.
The sobering assessment of such threats, due for release as early as today, singled out Pakistan as a grave concern because of its terrorist networks, history of instability and arsenal of several dozen nuclear warheads. The report urged the incoming Obama administration to take "decisive action" to reduce the likelihood of a devastating attack.
"No mission could be timelier," says the draft report of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, which spent six months preparing an assessment for Congress and the new president-elect. It adds: "In our judgment, America's margin of safety is shrinking, not growing."
The report, ordered by Congress last year, concludes that terrorists are more likely to obtain materials for a biological attack than to buy or steal nuclear weapons. But it says the nuclear threat is growing rapidly, in part because of the increasing global supply of nuclear material and technology.
"Without greater urgency and decisive action by the world community, 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," says the draft report, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post. The Post reported excerpts from an earlier draft in Sunday's editions.
The creation of the commission, chaired by former senator Bob Graham (D-Fla.), with former congressman James M. Talent (R-Mo.) serving as vice chairman, was one of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, which explored the causes of the 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States. The new panel's bipartisan members and staff conducted more than 260 interviews with government officials and experts around the world to assess the problem of weapons of mass destruction as well as offer proposals for reducing the threat.
While the panel found the risk of an attack with such weapons to be increasingly serious, "nuclear terrorism is still a preventable catastrophe," the report says. It calls for aggressive steps to secure unguarded stockpiles of nuclear weapons material such as uranium and plutonium, as well as coordinated international efforts to discover and disrupt smuggling rings that traffic in atomic technology.
It also urges a dramatic overhaul of the international institutions and treaties that have sought to slow the spread of nuclear weapons since the 1950s. The landmark Non-Proliferation Treaty should be dramatically toughened, the report recommends, with the addition of real penalties for violators and a more robust International Atomic Energy Agency to carry out inspections and enforce the rules.
The United States should push for a global consensus banning states such as Iran and North Korea from adding to their stockpiles of enriched uranium and plutonium, while also ensuring supplies of commercial reactor fuel for countries that renounce nuclear weapons, the report says.
Commission members urged Barack Obama to take a tough line with both Iran and North Korea. If the president-elect seeks to engage the two countries diplomatically, they said, he should do so "from a position of strength, emphasizing both the benefits of them abandoning their nuclear programs and the enormous costs of failing to do so." Nuclear weapons in the hands of either regime not only pose a threat in their own right but also increase the chances of a destabilizing arms race, the report says.
Pakistan's buildup of nuclear arms also threatens to exacerbate a regional arms race, while presenting opportunities for terrorists to acquire weapons parts and critical technology, the commissioners concluded.
"Pakistan is our ally, but there is a grave danger it could also be an unwitting source of a terrorist attack on the United States -- possibly with weapons of mass destruction," the report says.