Biological Attack Threat Cited as Pentagon Bolsters Defenses

The Pentagon is increasing spending to combat biological threats, such as highly toxic ricin, as U.S. spy agencies warn that a terrorist group might conduct a “limited” attack “in the next year.”

While a mass attack by foreign terrorist groups using a chemical, biological or radiological weapon in the U.S. is “unlikely” in the next 12 months, intelligence agencies “worry about a limited” attack domestically or abroad, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a Senate panel yesterday. He cited interest expressed in such attacks by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which operates in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

American intelligence agencies judge that lone actors abroad or in the U.S. “are capable of conducting at least limited attacks in the next year,” Clapper said in written testimony submitted to the Senate Intelligence Committee before his hearing.

Culprits might include criminals or “homegrown violent extremists” who have been influenced by terror groups or literature advocating similar attacks, he said.

The threat assessment follows the Pentagon’s unveiling last week of revised budget priorities for the next five years that protect spending on programs to counter weapons of mass destruction and that increase funding in the field of biological weapons. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned of the threat at a biological weapons meeting in Geneva in December.

Crude but Effective

“A crude, but effective, terrorist weapon can be made by using a small sample of any number of widely available pathogens, inexpensive equipment and college-level chemistry and biology,” Clinton said. “Even as it becomes easier to develop these weapons, it remains extremely difficult -- as you know -- to detect them.”

Clinton cited what she said was a “call to arms” by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula for supporters with degrees in microbiology or chemistry to develop a weapon of mass destruction.

“That’s probably one of the reasons they’re ramping up the threat assessment for biological weapons,” said Kelsey Gregg, project manager of the Virtual Biosecurity Center at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.

In contrast, last year’s joint threat assessment from U.S. intelligence agencies devoted only three sentences to the terrorist threat involving chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons. It said some terror groups remain interested in acquiring the weapons and threaten to use them, and that stockpiles that were poorly secured might provide material for attacks.

Increasing Capability Worldwide

The Pentagon said the increased focus on biological defense wasn’t spurred by any specific intelligence assessment. President Barack Obama’s 2009 National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats was the impetus, said Air Force Lieutenant Colonel April Cunningham, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

“A key part of the strategy is a broad effort to increase capability worldwide to conduct effective and timely disease surveillance” and counter disease outbreaks, Cunningham said.

The Obama administration is due to release its budget recommendations on Feb. 13 for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.

“I would put ricin at the top of the list” of threats, Gregg said. “You can get a deadly amount of it pretty easily.”

The Defense Department first revised its chemical and biological weapons programs for the year that started Oct. 1 “to increase focus on biological capabilities such as bio surveillance and medical countermeasures,” Cunningham said in an e-mailed response to questions.

Downplaying Some Aspects

She said the department now is increasing funding for the next fiscal year to expand work under the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which involves joint work with other nations.

This year’s assessment downplays concern that countries may have supplied help in developing or obtaining weapons of mass destruction.

“We assess that no nation-states have provided WMD assistance to terrorist groups and that no non-state actors are targeting WMD sites in countries with unrest,” Clapper said in the written statement.

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