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Report: WMD Attack Likely By 2013

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block. Today, Vice President-elect Joe Biden was briefed on a new report about terrorists getting their hands on weapons of mass destruction. The bipartisan report was requested by Congress. It predicts there could be a terrorist attack with a nuclear or more likely a biological weapon in the next five years. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Authors of the report say they didn't want to frighten Americans, but former Florida Senator Bob Graham, a Democrat, certainly came up with a rather alarming headline for the report issued today.

BOB GRAHAM: It is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used someplace in the world prior to the end of the year 2013.

KELEMEN: And he said that the weapon would more likely be biological rather than nuclear. That's an issue Jim Talent, a former Republican senator from Missouri, emphasized at today's news conference.

JIM TALENT: We're trying to raise a visibility in the mind of policymakers and the public as well of the danger of this threat. It is - the terrorists are organizationally sophisticated enough to get either the nuclear or bioweapons. But the bioweapon would be even easier for them to get and then to weaponize.

KELEMEN: Experts say that it's hard to back up estimates like these. David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, says they were simply judgment calls of the commissioners.

DAVID ALBRIGHT: They fall back on this better-than-even chance and numbers that are hard to - I personally feel it would be hard to defend technically. But they know if they put out those numbers, it'll get everyone's attention. And then that'll lead to greater action, which is really the intention of this commission.

KELEMEN: The advice on the nuclear front is fairly conventional: strengthening the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, staying tough on Iran and North Korea, and continuing efforts to safeguard nuclear material around the globe. Tom Inglesby, who's deputy director for biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, says trying to lock down biological material is much harder.

TOM INGLESBY: Given that pathogens are in laboratories big and small around the world and given, as they say in the report, that it doesn't require any more than a few skilled individuals to make and use a biological weapon, our efforts to prevent biological attack should be strengthened, but the country can't bank on prevention as its sole strategy.

KELEMEN: He says the government and public health agencies need to get far more prepared. President-elect Barack Obama has shown a lot of interest in this area, and he is expected to take the advice of the bipartisan commission and appoint a top official at the White House to coordinate government efforts to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists. The report is also encouraging him to pay close attention to Pakistan. Commission member Tim Roemer, a former congressman from Indiana, says the group was forced to cancel a trip to Pakistan this fall.

TIM ROEMER: We were hours away from the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad when the terrorists hit it. That was a near miss for this commission and for its members, but certainly a signal that Pakistan - when you're looking at the confluence of terrorism and proliferation, all roads lead to Pakistan.

KELEMEN: And the recent rampage in India, an attack India blamed on terrorists from Pakistan, is once again raising tensions in the region. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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United States & World Morning EditionAll Things Considered
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.