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Informing Public On Potential Threats Is “Urgent” Priority, WMD Commission Chair Bob Graham Says In Interview

March 9th, 2009 · 9 Comments

Former U.S. Senator Bob Graham (D-Fl), Chair of the Commission On The Prevention Of Weapons Of Mass Destruction On Proliferation And Terrorism says that educating Americans on the threat of WMD’s should be an “urgent” priority of the Obama Administration because without an informed citizenry the nation cannot maximize its security.

Graham’s WMD commission released a report, “World At Risk,” late last year which I have written about on the blog previously. Its last chapter, “Role of the Citizen”, emphasizes the important role of the public. In an interview last month, Graham told me the chapter’s placement was intentional. ”We purposely put at the end not as an afterthought or throwaway, but because of its importance to everything before. If you don’t have citizens informed and involved, you are likely to fail in maximizing the security of the U.S.” 

The bipartisan commission offered thirteen recommendations, the last of which is: “The next administration must work to openly and honestly engage the American citizen, encouraging a participatory approach to meeting the challenges of the new century.”

Graham realizes that briefing and preparing the public on WMD’s in order to meet those challenges will not be an easy task as it is a complex and sensitive topic. And, with so many other issues on the nation’s plate is there room for a WMD educational process that could break through to the public?

“Yes we should do it, and yes we can do it,” Graham contends, noting that public education and preparedness has taken a back seat to other homeland security matters: “In this area, there is the urgent and the important. And the important gets pushed behind the urgent.” But he says informing and engaging the public on WMDs is “urgent”.

Graham acknowledges the commission did not come up with an implementation game plan for the last chapter in part because there just isn’t a ready made plan in this area yet: “We didn’t find a lot of people who could do it right now.” (One of the objectives of this blog is to help develop ways of doing so.) There is still work to be done in developing messaging for the public when it comes to WMD’s; some will draw from existing preparedness work and others will require new approaches. For example, I think one challenge is delineating to the public the varying impacts of different WMDs since, as the Commission points out, biological and nuclear are the most dangerous threats whereas chemical and radiological attacks would be very serious but probably not catastrophic societal ‘game changers’.

Graham, a long-time intelligence expert, says the government has to be more open with its citizens if it expects the public to be prepared before, during and after an incident: ”We have massively over classified information under the rubric of national security. It has made us less secure because institutions and citizens who are not adequately informed can’t take necessary actions.”

Graham believes Americans also have a responsibility to hold their government at all levels — local, state and federal — more accountable for what they are doing in regard to WMD preparedness. But he acknowledges that the government has to provide more information so they even know what to ask. In fact, one of the report’s recommended Action Steps is that the government create a WMD checklist:

“The next administration should, as a priority, work with a consortium of state and local governments to develop a publicly available checklist of actions each level of government should take to prevent or ameliorate the consequences of WMD terrorism. Such a checklist could be used by citizens to hold their governments accountable for action or inaction.”

Congress is now working on legislation to turn some of the Commission’s recommendations into law. And Graham says he expects the Commission’s life to be extended for another year to continue to work on these issues.

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Tags: Preparedness Interviews · Preparedness Resources

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