Top House Dem warns U.S. 'unprepared' for dirty-bomb attack

The U.S. is “unprepared” to deal with a radiological or small arms attack, even though both are likely to occur, according to a top-ranking House lawmaker on intelligence issues.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing, and Terrorism Risk Assessment, said the possibility of a Mumbai-style attack, in which gunmen storm a specific area, is much more likely to occur than a dirty-bomb attack, but that both scenarios are serious and real threats to U.S. national security.

“I’m surprised there hasn’t been a successful conventional attack in the United States,” said Harman at a New America Foundation event on Wednesday.

Harman’s comments come in the wake of a State Department warning issued last Sunday to Americans traveling in Europe. The warning asked travelers to be extra vigilant when watching for suspicious activity, but it did not specify what kinds of threats to look for or what countries in Europe were the most vulnerable to attack.

Harman, who receives regular classified intelligence briefings, said the White House hasn’t done a good job explaining the European scare to Americans, which she described as “a real threat.”

“[The government] ought to offer people more specific guidance,” she said. “This warning has led to more confusion than was necessary … I wish our own government right now were giving more sensible advice to people to know what to look for and what to do.”

Harman is most concerned that westerners will fly into the U.S. undetected — via the visa waiver program — after they’ve received terrorist training in the Middle East. The program allows citizens of certain countries to travel to the U.S. for tourism or business for up to 90 days without having to get a visa. 

Several years ago, Harman traveled to New York City and toured three of the city’s major hospitals to inspect the levels of security they use to keep radiological materials safe from theft by terrorists.

“They are not adequately secured,” said Harman of the materials. “It’s not that hard to storm into one of these hospitals, take the source out of the machine and put together a crude bomb and explode it almost immediately, before law enforcement can arrive in adequate numbers.”

Harman asked administrators at the hospitals about what kinds of background checks they did on employees who handle radiological materials. She said the answers she received led her to believe the detonation of a dirty bomb from a hospital could easily be “an inside job.”

“I think many of the folks who have emerged as some of our homegrown terrorists would pass any of those checks,” she said. “They have very clean backgrounds.”

Harman said it would cost $250,000 per building to secure the 500 major metropolitan hospitals in the U.S. — totaling $125 million.

“I hope that once this election is over … that the House and Senate can get back to work on this subject and find $125 million,” Harman said.