The same day that coordinated deadly bombings struck the London transportation system, the New York Daily News reported that the Department of Homeland Security secretly released nontoxic “tracer gases” in New York’s Grand Central Terminal last month as part of the federal government’s efforts to improve evacuation plans.
Together, these bring to mind the conclusions of a survey last month by Sen. Richard Lugar of leading terrorism experts, including a former secretary of defense, a CIA director and a national security adviser: that “the estimated combined risk of a WMD attack over five years is as high as 50%. Over ten years this risk expands to as much as 70%.” So, we are twice as likely as not to suffer a chemical, biological, nuclear or radiological attack by 2015, and still likelier to suffer the type of conventional attacks London suffered yesterday.
Mr. Lugar’s experts figure the United States is twice as likely to suffer a radiological or “dirty bomb” attack as it is to suffer a chemical, biological or nuclear attack. The chances of a nuclear attack stand at 10 percent over the next five years and almost 30 percent by 2015. Of the 85 experts surveyed, four think a nuclear attack is certain — a 100 percent probability — by 2015. There is about a 40 percent probability that we will suffer a radiological attack by 2015, the group thinks, a 32 percent chance that we will suffer a biological attack and a 31 percent chance of chemical attack. Putting all these together, we are twice as likely as not to suffer a major WMD-armed calamity at the hands of terrorists by 2015.
The experimentation that took place last month in Grand Central, as well as other types of terrorism drills, are part of ongoing efforts to prepare and guard against those contingencies. Most of it rightly remains secret, but it’s worth asking whether the public and the federal government are prepared for the dark possibilities envisioned by Mr. Lugar’s experts. The public grasps at least the scope of the problem, if not the specifics, and federal authorities are rightly stepping up security precautions in the wake of the London bombings.
But for a more than two-thirds possibility of a WMD attack within the next 10 years, we should probably be hearing about a lot more instances like the Grand Central gas tests. Maybe the Department of Homeland Security is sufficiently airtight in preventing leaks and other public glimpses into its activities. The likelier explanation is that federal authorities are insufficiently ambitious in their planning and testing efforts.