Expert Report: Talk of WMD Terror Threat to U.S. Has Been 'Overheated'

Thomas Kean, former head of the 9/11 Commission and current co-chair of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Homeland Security Project, is pictured on Capitol Hill in 2011. A new BPC report says there has been has “considerable overheated commentary” about the threat of out weapons-of-mass-destruction attacks on the United States (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite).
Thomas Kean, former head of the 9/11 Commission and current co-chair of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Homeland Security Project, is pictured on Capitol Hill in 2011. A new BPC report says there has been has “considerable overheated commentary” about the threat of out weapons-of-mass-destruction attacks on the United States (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite).

WASHINGTON -- Warnings over the past dozen years of the threat of extremists carrying out weapons-of-mass-destruction attacks on the United States have been overblown, concludes a new think-tank report released on Monday.

The Bipartisan Policy Center report notes that in the 12 years since the Sept. 11 attacks, no domestic Islamist terrorist groups or individuals are known to have gained access to or utilized chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons.

“This point bears repeating as there has been considerable overheated commentary on this subject over the past decade,” states the report, a project of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Homeland Security Project. The 84-page report, which is backed by the former heads of the 9/11 Commission, is the first in a series of planned yearly threat assessments on the Islamist terror threat.

The document notes that none of the 221 separate cases of known Islamist extremism since Sept. 11 have involved reports of WMD acquisition, production or usage.

"Jihadist Terrorism: A Threat Assessment" was written by Peter Bergen, a national security analyst who appears on CNN; Bruce Hoffman, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies; and Mike Hurley, a former career CIA operations officer.

The authors emphasize that the lack of Islamist WMD attacks to date does not eliminate the need to continue efforts to secure and lock-down WMD-relevant materials.

Former Republican New Jersey Governor Tom Kean, who chaired the now-disbanded 9/11 Commission, formally named the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, said he sees some WMD threats as more exaggerated than other perils. Those include, he said, "the wilder, almost science-fiction" warnings about the potential for terrorists to detonate a nuclear device in the atmosphere above the United States for the purposes of creating an electromagnetic pulse that could disrupt and damage the electrical grid below.

A number of Washington political figures and pundits are calling for the United States to take steps to strengthen the disparate electrical networks in the country so that they can better withstand a feared EMP attack. A massive test involving over 150 companies and organizations is planned for November that is intended to examine how local governments and businesses handle a sudden shutdown of the electrical grid due to a terror attack or natural disaster.

In terms of how to most effectively defend against a WMD strike, Kean said he sees the most cost-effective approach coming from investing more to help public-health systems respond to attacks.

"I think when you talk about health facilities, that to me is always a priority because it covers everything," Kean said in a phone interview with Global Security Newswire. He co-chairs the BPC Homeland Security Project with Lee Hamilton, the former 9/11 Commission vice chairman and a onetime Democratic congressman from Indiana.

The federal government in recent years has moved to substantially curtail the funding it provides to state and local public-health agencies and emergency-response-planning efforts, according to a November 2012 study by the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan think-tank based in Washington. The loss of funding has meant that much of the headway in preparing localities for responding to WMD terror attacks, notably biological ones, is being rolled back, according to the Aspen report.

Addressing the law-enforcement response to the April Boston Marathon bombing, the BPC report warns against overreacting to future conventional terror attacks on the homeland in order to avoid playing into the hands of terrorists.

"The Boston Marathon bombings, for example, an undeniably tragic but comparatively modest terrorist incident, closed down not only the Boston suburb where the Tsarnaev brothers were believed to have fled, but the entire Boston metropolitan area and Logan International Airport," reads the BPC threat assessment. "The lesson to future adversaries is that even a handful of deaths can elicit a large response."

The report offers a list of recommendations for improving U.S. national security. Those include drastically curtailing the number of congressional committees that have oversight of the Homeland Security Department. Currently a "mind-boggling" 108 panels have oversight of differing aspects of the department, according to the study.

"We are less safe because Congress has not addressed the jurisdictional problems" with DHS oversight, Kean said

September 9, 2013
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WASHINGTON -- Warnings over the past dozen years of the threat of extremists carrying out weapons-of-mass-destruction attacks on the United States have been overblown, concludes a new think-tank report released on Monday.

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