World At Risk: The Report of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism

| January 22, 2009

Testimony to the House Armed Services Committee

Oral Testimony

Chairman Skelton, Congressman McHugh, and members of the Committee, I am honored to appear before you today to discuss what I believe is the single most important issue facing this nation: the threat of terrorists with a weapon of mass destruction.

World at Risk, the report of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, has been submitted for the record. I was proud to serve as a member of the Commission and to join my fellow members in its unanimous findings and recommendations.  I will keep my formal remarks brief and offer what I believe are the most important “takeaways” from the Report.

Established by Congress in 2007 (P.L. 110-53) pursuant to recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, the assignment to our Commission was twofold: (1) to assess all of the nation’s activities, initiatives, and programs to prevent weapons of mass destruction proliferation and terrorism; and (2) to provide concrete recommendations to address these threats.

Congress appointed former Florida Senator, Bob Graham, as chair and former Missouri Senator, Jim Talent, as vice chair plus four additional Democrats and three additional Republicans. It gave us 180 days and full access to all government officials and information to fulfill our mission.

At the outset, on the advice of the chairs of the 9/11 Commission, the Chair and Vice Chair decided that we would strive for a unanimous report.  That was challenging at some points, indeed challenging in the extreme.  Nonetheless, we succeeded.  Thus the key findings of the Report are unanimous conclusions of nine Americans, Republicans and Democrats—most of whom had some background in these areas, but were not experts, and sought to respond to the mission of our mandate.

We had an excellent staff who together with the Commissioners talked to more than 250 experts across the U.S. government, military, intelligence, political, and other experts, as well as counterparts in the UK, Russia, and other countries.

What does the Report say that you might not know?  If I can be professorial, let me offer the following quiz:

  1. How likely is a successful terrorist nuclear or biological attack somewhere in the world in the next five years?
  2. Is the threat of such an attack growing, or alternatively, shrinking?
  3. Why?
  4. Are successful WMD terrorist attacks inevitable?  If so, should we accept fatalistically?  Or is there an alternative?

Our answers:

  1. As the first sentence of the Executive Summary states: “The Commission believes that unless the world community acts decisively and with greater urgency, it is more likely than not a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013.”
  2. “America’s margin of safety is shrinking, not growing.”
  3. The Commission recognizes that “many thousands of dedicated people across all agencies of our government are working hard to protect this country and their efforts have had a positive effect.”  We applaud their outstanding work.  We agree that it is unfair that when running faster, we could be falling further behind. Nonetheless, the score is what it is. This unfortunate and unacceptable bottom line results from a combination of failed policies, on the one hand, and adverse trend-lines, on the other.  Ineffective policies have over the past eight years allowed North Korea to expand its nuclear arsenal from 2 to 10 plus a test; Iran to go from 0 to now 5,000 centrifuges enriching uranium, with a stockpile of LEU sufficient, after further enrichment, for Iran’s first nuclear bomb; Pakistan to triple its nuclear arsenal while becoming extremely fragile; and al-Qaeda—who attacked the U.S. successfully on 9/11 killing 3,000 people—to regroup, reconstitute its headquarters with its leadership, recruit new lieutenants to its ranks, reopen training camps, and redouble its efforts to launch even more deadly attacks upon the United States and our allies.  Still more daunting is a seriously adverse trend-line created by the relentless advance of science and technology, especially benign biotechnology that creates new medicines to help us cope with deadly diseases, but simultaneously empowers larger and larger numbers of people with the capacity to kill massively.
  4. The Commission is not fatalistic.  It believes that these threats can be prevented (in the case of nuclear terrorism) and managed (in the case of bioterrorism) as our letter of transmittal states: “The intent of this Report is neither to frighten, nor to reassure the American people about the current state of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.  It is to underscore that the U.S. government has yet to fully adapt to these circumstances, and to convey the sobering reality that the risks are growing faster than our multilayered defenses.”

The Commission report endorses and extends the central proposition I argue in my book Nuclear Terrorism, published in 2004 It is that nuclear terrorism is a preventable catastrophe. There exists a feasible, affordable checklist of actions that, if taken, would shrink the risk of nuclear terrorism to nearly zero. This includes:

·       No loose nukes. Accelerate efforts to secure all nuclear weapons and materials to a “Gold Standard” within next four years; lockdown, clean out, and eliminate weapons usable material from facilities in countries that can not be secured to that standard.

·       No new nascent nukes. Orchestrate consensus that there will be no new national uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing.

·       No new nuclear weapons states. Draw a bright line under today’s nuclear powers and declare: “no more.” North Korea, the only self-declared but unrecognized nuclear state, needs to be rolled back. Iran must not be allowed to cross its nuclear goal-line.

·       No role for nuclear weapons in international affairs. To realize President Reagan’s vision of “a world free of nuclear weapons,” the immediate agenda should be to devalue nuclear weapons and minimize their role in international affairs.

·       Sound presidentially-defined and presidentially-driven strategy. In the Cold War, American presidents gave “absolute priority” to preventing nuclear war. In the 21st century, preventing nuclear terrorist attacks on the American homeland deserves analogous absolute priority.

·       A global strategy. Winning the war on nuclear terrorism requires deep and steady international cooperation rooted in the recognition that nations share an overriding common threat and can only succeed with a common strategy.

Secretary of Defense Gates was asked recently, “What keeps you awake at night?” He answered: “It's the thought of a terrorist ending up with a weapon of mass destruction, especially nuclear.”

Having failed to heed repeated warning signs of rot in the American-led global financial system, we dare not wait for the catastrophic effects of a nuclear terrorist attack on one of America’s cities. From the consequences of such an event, there is no feasible bailout.

The challenge in organizing to prevent nuclear terrorism is to imagine what everyone will agree must be done on the morning after the first nuclear terrorist attack – so that each will act now to prevent this from happening.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham. “World At Risk: The Report of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism.” Testimony to United States House of Representatives, House Armed Services Committee. Washington, District of Columbia, January 22, 2009.