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Key Takeaways from Report of the Congressionally-established Bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism

Belfer Center Director Graham Allison speaks at the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism.

Key Takeaways from Report of the Congressionally-established Bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism

Memorandum

December 22, 2008

Author: Graham Allison, Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs; Douglas Dillon Professor of Government, Harvard Kennedy School

 

The Bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism (established by Congress) recently delivered its report to the leaders of Congress, President Bush, and the Obama-Biden transition team. Graham Allison, one of the Commissioners, outlines key takeaways from the Commission's findings.

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To: Colleagues

From: Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Subject: Key takeaways from Report of the Congressionally-established Bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism

Established by Congress in 2007 (P.L. 110-53) pursuant to recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, the Commission recently delivered its report to the leaders of Congress, President Bush, and the Obama-Biden transition team.  The Commission’s assignment 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 to the best of our ability.

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 weapons of mass destruction 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.”  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.”
  3. While it is unfair that having run faster, we are falling further behind, that is the consequence of a combination of failed policies, on the one hand, and adverse trendlines, 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 reprocessing, for Iran’s first nuclear bomb; Pakistan to triple its nuclear arsenal at the same time the state has become 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 continue plotting even more deadly attacks upon the United States and our allies.  Even more daunting is a seriously adverse trendline 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.”

Other takeaways:

  • If one maps terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, all roads intersect in Pakistan.
  • Terrorists are more likely to obtain and use a biological weapon than a nuclear weapon.
  • The United States and Russia have a responsibility to ensure disagreements do not interfere with preventing the proliferation and use of nuclear and biological materials.
  • The United States must work internationally toward strengthening the nonproliferation regime.
  • A senior White House position for WMD terrorism should be created.
  • The United States must negotiate with North Korea and Iran, but only from a position of strength.
  • The American people have a critical role to play in helping to protect the nation from WMD terrorism.

Read the full report

 

For more information about this publication please contact the Belfer Center Communications Office at 617-495-9858.

For Academic Citation:

Allison, Graham. "Key Takeaways from Report of the Congressionally-established Bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism." Memorandum, Harvard University, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, December 22, 2008.

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