Study: US vulnerable to chemical, nuclear attacks

Group says sites and materials still accessible

By Brett J. Blackledge and Eileen Sullivan
Associated Press / September 10, 2008
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WASHINGTON - The United States remains "dangerously vulnerable" to chemical, biological, and nuclear attacks seven years after the 9/11 attacks, a forthcoming independent study concludes.

And a House Democrats' report says the Bush administration has repeatedly missed opportunities to improve the nation's security.

The recent political rupture between Russia and the United States only makes matters worse, said former Representative Lee Hamilton, Democrat of Indiana, who helped lead the 9/11 Commission and now chairs the independent group's latest study.

Efforts to reduce access to nuclear technology and bomb-making materials have slowed, thousands of US chemical plants remain unprotected, and the Bush administration continues to oppose strengthening an international treaty to prevent bioterrorism, according to the report by the bipartisan Partnership for a Secure America.

The group includes leaders of the disbanded 9/11 Commission, the bipartisan panel that investigated government missteps before the 2001 terror attacks on the United States.

"The threat of a new, major terrorist attack on the United States is still very real," says the report to be released today, the same day a congressional commission will hold a hearing in New York on nuclear and biological terrorism threats.

"A nuclear, chemical or biological weapon in the hands of terrorists remains the single greatest threat to our nation," the report said. "While progress has been made in securing these weapons and materials, we are still dangerously vulnerable."

Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, had stronger criticism of the Bush administration's efforts.

Their report, written by the staffs of the House Homeland Security and Foreign Affairs committees, found little or no progress across the board on national security initiatives.

"The Bush administration has not delivered on a myriad of critical homeland and national security mandates," said the Democrats' report that was released yesterday.

"The administration has just failed to act in so many ways," said Representative Bennie Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi. "Let's say that we've been fortunate that we have not been attacked" since 2001, said Thompson, who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee.

Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke called the House report "egregiously political and insulting."

He said committee staffs did not consult the department during their research and put partisanship above national security.

The independent report focuses narrowly on weapons of mass destruction.

The report and supporting studies describe a failure of international cooperation to prevent terrorists from obtaining weapons of mass destruction, which they call a major problem.

Russia has been a significant player in US efforts to secure nuclear weapons and to eliminate inventories of chemical weapons in the former Soviet Union. That cooperation could be jeopardized as the two countries face off over the Russian invasion of Georgia and concerns about a US missile defense base in Poland, Hamilton said.

The independent report, however, doesn't tell the whole story either, said Bryan Wilkes, spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration.

"By any objective standard - ranging from the security of Russian nuclear weapons material, to the installation of radiation detectors, to conversions of nuclear reactors - we are much safer than we were 10 years ago," he said.

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