Congressman concerned about attack in U.S. with Syrian chemicals

McClatchy Washington BureauSeptember 13, 2013 

— A North Carolina congressman is warning that Syrian chemical weapons, if gotten into terrorists hands, could be used to attack port cities such as Wilmington, N.C., Charleston, S.C., or Boston, killing hundreds of thousands of people.

Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-N.C., the chairman of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, said the chemicals also could be placed on trucks and driven inland to such cities as Charlotte or Raleigh, N.C., or Washington and wreak more damage.

“They could be brought anywhere,” Pittenger said Friday, three weeks after hundreds of Syrians were killed in an alleged chemical attack blamed on President Bashar Assad. “What Assad has done is barbaric and evil. But what could be done with these chemicals and biological weapons would be horrific if they fall into the hands of these terrorists.”

Pittenger’s warnings of an attack on U.S. soil, which have raised skeptical eyebrows from several defense experts, came as Assad formally agreed to surrender his chemical weapons arsenal. The move is part of Russian negotiations to head off a U.S. military strike against Assad’s regime.

Syria is thought to have one of the largest stockpiles of nerve and mustard gases in the world.

Pittenger said he was hopeful but that he had little faith in diplomatic negotiations with Russia. He wants the White House to consider another option. The Obama administration should lead efforts to equip and train tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who are living in Jordan and elsewhere “to fight and take back their own country,” he said.

Pittenger, like other members of Congress, has raised concerns that military strikes on Syria might lead to a collapse of its government. In the ensuing chaos, terrorists might capture weapons stockpiles.

Neighboring countries, such as Israel and Jordan, also have worried that these weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists, including al Qaida.

But experts such as Jeffrey White, a defense affairs fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, doubt that it’s likely these weapons could be used on U.S. soil.

Many terrorist groups aren’t capable of using chemical weapons to their full effect, the experts say, partly because they can be difficult to transport and weaponize.

“It’s not like Kool-Aid and you can walk around with a bottle of it,” White said. “They decay. You have to have a means of dispersing them. If you bring a ship into Wilmington, how does the agent get released? Do the people on board know what to do with it?”

But Pittenger, who said he’d had several classified and non-classified briefings on the issue, said the weapons could be transported. And he said terrorists understood cyber-warfare and the science behind chemical and biological weapons.

“We should be so naive to think that they wouldn’t be considering how they could transport them across the ocean into any port in the United States,” Pittenger said. “If we’re that naive, well, you know, God help us.”

Many terrorist groups already have tried to use chemical weapons and failed, said Daniel Byman, an analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

“Even militaries screw them up the first few times they use them,” Byman said. “Terrorists have a lot of ways of killing people that are already tried and proven.”

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