WASHINGTON – The risk of weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of terrorists is the gravest threat facing the United States, a Pentagon official has said.
Asked about the existential threats against Washington, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy said there were many, but warned that "the thing that keeps me awake at night is a nexus between terrorism and massive destruction."
She told a Washington symposium on US security that the United States needs to better prepare for "the possibility that a terrorist organization could either acquire a ready-made weapon or fabricate something improvised that would have a catastrophic effect for us."
The threat of WMDs falling into terrorist hands was the driving rationale behind high-profile nuclear security summit hosted by President Barack Obama in April which featured leaders from 47 countries including "nuclear club" members China, France, India and Russia.
The summit concluded with an agreement by the countries to a four-year deadline to lock down loose fissile material to prevent it from falling into militant hands.
"The only answer to this is prevention, keeping the material out of the hands of the terrorist, so we put enormous focus on this... from the beginning," Flournoy said.
The senior Defense Department official spoke on the same day lawmakers in the US House of Representatives introduced a bill on prevention and deterrence of possible WMD attacks in the United States.
"This is urgent. This is a big deal," Democrat and law co-author Bill Pascrell said, adding that the legislation addresses "how do we prepare, how do (we) detect, how do we build the state of the art to detect weapons of mass destruction?"
The bill cited a December 2008 report by a bipartisan congressional commission which sounded an alarm over America's "shrinking" margin of safety.
The draft report warned that without swift and decisive action by Obama, it was "more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction would be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013."
The new bill, among other measures, requires the director of national intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security to lay out a strategy to curtail the threat of nuclear, chemical, biological or radiological attack.
Asked about the realistic threat of a such an attack, the bill's co-author, Republican Pete King, said: "There is nothing I've seen that says that this will not happen."
WMDs, he said, "are the ultimate nightmare scenario."
The House Committee on Homeland Security will hold a hearing next Tuesday to consider the bill. Similar legislation has been drafted in the Senate.
© AFP 2013