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General Public Must Do Its Part To Prevent Future Terrorist Attacks

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Much of the needed response to prevent WMD terrorism must occur beyond our shores and depends upon collaboration with our allies overseas. Yet there are also serious risks within our borders whose solutions rely upon greater public awareness, national commitment and community action.

Published December 3, 2008 by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

According to a recent study by the co-chairmen of the 9/11 Commission, the risk of nuclear, biological and chemical terrorism in our country has never been greater while our government’s efforts to prevent such a catastrophe warrant an unsatisfactory grade of “C.”

Today, a congressionally-mandated panel is issuing a report concluding that terrorists will most likely carry out an attack with nuclear, biological or other weapon of mass destruction somewhere in the world in the next five years.

Much of the needed response must occur beyond our shores and depends upon collaboration with our allies overseas. Coordinated intelligence networks are critical to identifying and ultimately disabling covert bioweapons activities of rogue states and terrorist groups.

And joint efforts to lock down and eliminate Russia’s Cold War stockpile of chemical munitions are central to our near and long-term safety.

Yet there are also serious risks within our borders whose solutions rely upon greater public awareness, national commitment and community action. As the 9/11 hijackers discovered, the tools for terrorism can be found anywhere. In the case of the most extreme terrorism – nuclear, biological and chemical – much of our exposure is hidden in plain sight among everyday medical and agricultural products.

“Terror-proofing” our nation is not possible, but exerting maximum effort is the obligation of every American.

Much of the work can and must be done by private institutions, corporations, individuals, and state and local governments.

Six steps to make us safer:

1. Implement an industry-wide chain of custody for all medical products that contain radioactive substances. In the last 10 years, more than 4,000 such devices have been lost, stolen or abandoned. More than half have never been recovered.

2. Accept that remote U.S. locations must be developed for the disposal of medical products that are radioactive or otherwise contain volatile substances that could be used as offensive weapons. Our collective needs require better containment of used hazardous substances, not the loss of suitable and safe containment sites.

3. Identify and correct dangerous situations where additional safeguards are needed. Recent federal actions, in cooperation with hospitals and the medical imagining industry, have targeted new safeguards for about 1,300 machines nationwide that irradiate blood and contain radioactive materials that could be used as “dirty bombs.” This is exemplary, but also just the tip of the iceberg.

4. Stimulate innovation to evolve less dangerous products from the ones we have now. Because of its ready accessibility, fertilizer is the ingredient of choice in constructing home-made bombs, such as the one built by Timothy McVeigh and used in Oklahoma City. This fall, a pioneering new fertilizer was launched – one that can’t be used to make bombs.

5. Empower the Food and Drug Administration to better regulate radioactive medical products and “dual use” biologicals – including explicit directive to the agency to consider national security in approving drugs, devices and other medical products. FDA is a gatekeeper for more than a fourth of all consumer spending – from radiation-emitting products such as televisions to drug and device approvals. A small, but important, segment of these products are “dual use” – they are marketed for their benefits, but have the potential to be used for nefarious purposes.

6. Take seriously that the public response to a terrorist attack could be more damaging than the attack itself. Recently, the Department of Homeland Security released an analysis that focused on mass terror, psychologically-induced illness and the lack of public trust in reassurances from public officials. It noted that without community action, a small incident or even a simple threat could result in mass casualties.

Although we need leadership from Washington, there is much that we should be doing ourselves.

Brian Finlay, a senior associate at the Stimson Center in Washington, is an expert on nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction.


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