U.S. efforts against nuclear, chemical terrorism defended

DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff cites progress Bush administration has made after independent report gave the U.S. a "C" for the measures it has taken to prevent future attacks.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff today defended steps the Bush administration has taken to prevent terrorists from obtaining nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, even though a new report found gaps in the nation's security and concluded that the threat of another major terrorist attack on the country is still very real.

Comment on this article in The Forum.A report from the independent, bipartisan Partnership for a Secure America gives the government an overall grade of "C" for efforts to prevent terrorists from obtaining and using chemical, biological or nuclear materials in another attack.

"While progress has been made in securing these weapons and materials, we are still dangerously vulnerable," states the report, which is expected to be released Wednesday on the eve of the seventh anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. "That is why our next president, in close cooperation with the U.S. Congress, must elevate to the highest priority our efforts to secure these weapons and materials at their source, and prevent their transit into the United States," the report adds. The partnership is comprised of Republicans and Democrats, including former members of the 9/11 Commission.

Speaking at a conference in Washington today, Chertoff outlined actions the administration has taken to protect the country from weapons of mass destruction. But he acknowledged more work needs to be done.

"To me, a report like this should energize us to complete the work that we've already made a very good start on," Chertoff said.

The government received its worst grade of "D" for efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism, according to the report. That grade was given for gaps in integrating government programs and for an inability to sustain those programs over time. The best grade of "B" was given for efforts to detect and interdict nuclear weapons, deny terrorists access to biological agents, and improve public health preparedness and response. The government received a "B" for efforts to demilitarize chemical weapons and for efforts to detect and mitigate an attack using chemicals.

Chertoff said the Bush administration has developed "robust" programs to screen materials entering the United States. He noted, for example, that the Homeland Security Department screens almost all cargo at U.S. seaports for radiological material. He said biological agents are harder to detect, but the government is putting countermeasures into place. He said he hopes the report will remind the public and critics of the need for such defensive measures, especially those who complain that they are too restrictive.

His department has been one of the most vocal critics of a congressional mandate to scan all U.S-bound sea cargo at foreign ports before it is shipped to the United States. Under a mandate established by the Democratic-controlled Congress, Homeland Security must ensure that all sea cargo is scanned for weapons of mass destruction by 2012. The department contends the mandate is not needed because the government already targets high-risk cargo shipments.