Lawmakers tackle gaping flaws in WMD attack preparedness

A Senate Judiciary subcommittee will assess government preparedness for a terrorist attack with weapons of mass destruction in the wake of a report calling Justice Department planning inadequate.

The Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security will hear testimony Wednesday from senior Justice Department and Homeland Security officials concerning the ability of the United States to prevent as well as respond to an attack using a WMD.

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The hearing comes after several damning reports about the country’s ability to prevent such an attack, including a report card this year from a blue-ribbon commission that gave the White House three failing grades on WMD preparedness.

On top of this, the intelligence and security lapses that preceded a string of recent domestic attacks — the deadly shooting at Fort Hood and failed bombing attempts on Northwest Flight 253 over Detroit on Christmas Day and on Times Square — have done little to inspire confidence from homeland security hawks in Congress.

The subcommittee will address specifically a May 2010 report by Glenn Fine, the inspector general of the Justice Department, that raised serious questions about the department’s ability to respond to a potential WMD attack.

“The Department of Justice as a whole … has not implemented adequate WMD response plans. As a result, the Department is not fully prepared to provide a coordinated response to a WMD incident,” the report said.

Fine is scheduled to testify at the hearing.

The report is one of several this year finding flaws in the country’s preparedness for a catastrophic terrorist attack.

In January 2010, the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism issued a "report card" assessing the government’s progress in implementing preventive measures recommended by the commission in a December 2008 report. 

The Obama administration received mixed grades in the January report, including three Fs, for failure to prepare effectively for a biological attack, failure to recruit and train a new generation of national security experts and failure to reform congressional oversight on intelligence and national security.

Retired Col. Randall Larsen, USAF, the executive director of the commission, will also testify before the subcommittee.

“We gave America, as a whole, an ‘F,’ ” Larsen said.

The blue-ribbon commission, chaired by former Sens. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Jim Talent (R-Mo.), was created by Congress following a recommendation from the 9/11 Commission. Graham and Talent’s initial report in 2008 warned that a terrorist attack using WMDs was “likely” to occur somewhere in the world by 2013, with the United States being a prime target.

The commission officially concluded its work in February, but Graham, Talent and Larsen have sought to continue their efforts by forming the Bipartisan WMD Terrorism Research Center.

Larsen said his primary mission is to educate lawmakers about the seriousness of the threat posed by WMDs and that this will be the focus of his testimony next week.

“Congress has got a lot on its minds, but this should be one of its highest priorities,” Larsen said.

“All these little battles we have to fight, I don’t think we’d have to be doing that if members of Congress really understood the threat,” he added.

The commission’s latest report slammed Congress for failing to consolidate nearly 100 committees and subcommittees that oversee some aspect of the Department of Homeland Security.

"Virtually no progress has been made since consolidation was first recommended by the 9/11 Commission in 2004," the report stated.

The Obama administration disputed the commission’s findings, arguing that the president had accomplished a "great deal" since taking office.

The commission’s report laid out a range of measures the federal government should pursue to reduce the United States’ vulnerability to such an attack, including increased security and awareness at biological research labs and strengthening international treaties against the spread of biological and nuclear weapons.

Lawmakers have been making progress to address the commission’s concerns through legislative action.

At a press conference last month, Graham and Talent joined members of the House Homeland Security Committee to announce the introduction of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Prevention and Preparedness Act of 2010, a bipartisan bill that aims to enact the commission’s recommendations.

Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) described it as “a major step forward on the threat from WMD.”

The bill is the House companion to legislation introduced by Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) in 2009. Both bills have cleared committee but have yet to be brought to the floor for a vote.

Lieberman and Collins, respectively chairman and ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, presided at a June 30 hearing on nuclear terrorism where they heard alarming testimony from government officials concerning the United States’s ability to prevent a nuclear attack.

Lieberman said the officials’ testimony was “a real alarm bell going off” in terms of the country’s preparedness.

“The threat of nuclear terrorism is growing faster than our ability to prevent an attack on our homeland,” he said at the hearing.