By Bryan Bender, Globe Staff
WASHINGTON -- President-elect Barack Obama plans to appoint a new White House official to coordinate efforts to prevent terrorists from obtaining nuclear or biological weapons, advisers say, giving the highest priority to thwarting a catastrophic attack that a bipartisan panel warns could come in the next five years.
Naming a top deputy whose sole mission is to oversee the government's wide-ranging efforts to ensure such an attack never happens would mark a significant break with the Bush administration, which in resisting such a post has maintained that US efforts to reduce nuclear stockpiles and safeguard deadly pathogens are adequate.
A law requiring the position, passed by Congress more than a year ago and signed into law by President Bush, has been ignored for more than 15 months, in part because Bush opposes giving the Senate the power to confirm the official.
But Obama, whose first foreign trip as a US senator was to assess initiatives to lock down nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union, believes government programs lack coordination, are underfunded, and that having a top official to coordinate the efforts is crucial, according to three advisers with knowledge of the transition team's deliberations.
"I think it is a good idea and will probably happen" soon after Obama is sworn in Jan. 20, said one of those advisers, who asked not to be identified discussing private conversations with the president-elect.
The need for a top-level official to coordinate nonproliferation programs -- now spread across numerous agencies -- is expected to gain new urgency Wednesday with the release of the sobering new report that warns that without drastic new measures, the international community faces the real prospect of a nuclear or biological attack by 2013. Leaders of the commission that drafted the report said that terrorists have made it quite clear that the United States is their number one target.
"The simple reality is that the risks that confront us today are evolving faster than our multilayered responses," according to the report, a copy of which was obtained by the Globe. "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 impact. But the terrorists have been active, too -- and in our judgment America's margin of safety is shrinking, not growing."
Vice President-elect Joe Biden, who has also been active in the Senate on nuclear nonproliferation, and Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, named Monday by Obama as homeland security secretary, are to be briefed Wednesday on the report by commission co-chairmen, former Senators Bob Graham of Florida and Jim Talent of Missouri, and other panel members.
Asked why such an attack hasn't happened yet, Graham said on CNN today that "fortunately, thus far, we have been able to keep these materials out of the hands of terrorists. That prospect, however, is getting thinner and thinner as there are more nuclear states with more nuclear sites and materials. Biological materials are becoming ubiquitous around the world. What it will take is a few scientists prepared to become terrorists working with a terrorist organization to convert this possibility into a reality."
The 160-page report -- ordered by Congress last year as a roadmap for the next administration and completed after more than six months of study and access to classified intelligence briefings -- also calls for Obama to make it a top priority to stop nuclear weapons programs in Iran and North Korea, using diplomacy backed by credible threat of force; to beef up international efforts to slow the spread of nuclear weapons; and to work with Pakistan to eliminate terrorist safe havens and secure nuclear and biological materials in that country.
"Terrorist organizations are intent on acquiring nuclear weapons," it says. "Anyone with access to the Internet can easily obtain designs for building a nuclear bomb. Our crucial task is to secure the material before terrorists can steal or buy it on the black market."
Pakistan, Graham said, is the most likely source of terrorists armed with nuclear or biological weapons. "Pakistan is the intersection of the perfect storm," he said on CNN. "Terrorists occupy its northwest territories. It has had a history of proliferating nuclear materials. It is the sixth or seventh largest nuclear state in the world. It has an unstable government. It has a very -- to use the word acrimonious is an understatement -- relationship with India. It is the potential bombshell where terrorism and weapons of mass destruction will intersect."
The report also raises new alarms about the prospect of a biological attack, saying that too little focus has been given to controlling the ingredients for biological weapons -- even though they pose a "more likely threat" and facilities with pathogens, especially civilian labs, are less carefully guarded than nuclear facilities.
Terrorists could obtain the know-how to fashion biological weapons if terrorists find scientists willing to share or sell their knowledge, the commission warns. "The United States should be less concerned that terrorists will become biologists and far more concerned that biologists will become terrorists," the report says.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.