February 4, 2009
The Center on Law and Security (CLS) hosted a January 28 panel, moderated by ProPublica senior reporter Dafna Linzer, on the topic "World at Risk? WMDs and the Specter of Terror," using as a springboard the newly released report of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism. Robin Cleveland, former associate director at the White House Office of Management and Budget and a member of the commission, warned that the nation's "margin of safety" is shrinking, and that without swift and decisive action, a weapon of mass destruction would "more likely than not" be used in a terrorist attack by the end of 2013. The use of a biological weapon, Cleveland said, was likelier than a nuclear terrorist attack would be, but added, "We are not helpless. When America acts, we make progress." Among other recommendations, the commission felt strongly that there should be a senior White House official dealing with proliferation concerns on a daily basis, she said. The reality of the ongoing terrorist threat was driven home when an Islamabad hotel was bombed hours before commission members were scheduled to check in.
Michael Sheehan, the New York City Police Department's former deputy commissioner and a CLS distinguished fellow, advocated charging a specific agency with addressing concerns about bioterrorism, whose multiple facets are currently overseen by multiple bodies. "You don't need reorganization to do that," Sheehan said. "You don't even need any new money to do that; you just need political courage and leadership.... Otherwise, you're just talking about a threat and it's business as usual in Washington, which means nobody's really accountable for anything, everyone points a finger at everybody else, and things never really progress." Although skeptical of the notion of specific forecasts about when a terrorist attack might occur, Sheehan said of the commission's 2013 prediction, "If you really believe it's going to be in five years, then the recommendations are not strong enough."
Frances Townsend had a surprising reaction to the commission's idea of placing a WMD czar in the White House, given her former role as assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism. "There is a current infatuation with the notion of czars," Townsend said, explaining that, when the mandates of Cabinet members and czars overlap, it is more difficult to assess accountability for unsatisfactory results. "Transparency and accountability is what forces action inside the bureaucracy.... It's a potential vulnerability for the country in terms of making progress." Nevertheless, she said, such a position was not without merit: "I do think that there is a gap between the counterproliferation community and the counterterrorism community.... Somebody needs to wake up and worry about this every single day. It's got to be somebody that looks across the spectrum."
Watch the full recording from this event (1hr 39min):
Read the report of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism