These are frightening times, but we can reduce the likelihood and the impact of terrorism that uses bioagents and nuclear explosions. Against bioterrorism, the most feasible and urgent remedy is one that does not depend upon the details of the threat: the deployment in homes and offices of filtration and positive-pressure protection systems. That, in addition to masks, education on personal hygiene and contingency plans, can essentially eliminate what could otherwise be devastating epidemics caused by contagious bioagents. In the longer run, the war against bioterrorism would benefit from the development and production of vaccines-not only in the United States, but abroad-and the development of antitoxins and other treatments.To protect against radiological dispersal devices, we should improve the security of radioactive sources used in industry and the health sector. And since such devices for the most part pose limited immediate harm but constitute a serious economic threat and can lead to panic, we should have contingency plans and public-education programs that forestall precipitous and dangerous movements among people who face no significant short-term hazards. Against the terrible threat of destruction by a smuggled nuclear weapon or an improvised nuclear explosive, much more must be done to secure at their source the materials indispensable to such devices-plutonium and highly enriched uranium.
Still, even these feasible partial remedies will not be in place when they are needed unless the United States creates a technical organization with responsibility for evaluating the terrorist threat, prescribing remedies and evaluating how we are doing at implementing them. This needs to be done with wartime urgency, the same urgency that drove the creation during World War II of the radar lab at MIT and of the Manhattan Project. For the most part, however, the work of this new laboratory would not need to be so highly classified. It could begin simply by carving out sections of a small number of existing government or national laboratories and putting them under the firm control of a homeland-defense analogue of J. Robert Oppenheimer-a person with technical leadership and total dedication to the cause of reducing the vulnerability of our society.
Indeed, a homeland security institute is one of the major recommendations of the National Academies’ Committee on Science and Technology for Countering Terrorism, in a report released on June 25, 2002. I served on that committee and on its panel on nuclear and radiological issues. The proposed Department of Homeland Security (perhaps headed by a 21st-century counterpart to General Leslie R. Groves of Manhattan Project fame) can in principle realize some of the near-term remedies I have advocated. It could also mount a longer-term research and development program to reduce the likelihood of catastrophic terrorism and-in the case of bioweapons and radiological dispersal devices-to reduce the economic and human costs in the event of an actual attack. The solution is not simply more organization but letting competent people do their jobs.