updated 10/22/2009 5:40:09 AM ET 2009-10-22T09:40:09

A special U.S. panel asserted Wednesday that an attack on the United States or its allies by terrorists with biological weapons is a more worrisome and urgent threat than the spread of nuclear weapons.

The Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation and Terrorism, said the United States was making better progress in regard to the nuclear threat than it was preparing for possible bioterrorism.

"The nation's level of preparedness for dealing with the threat of bioterrorism remains far lower than that of the nuclear threat," the commission said in a lengthy report titled "The Clock Is Ticking."

The panel, which was created by Congress, said the government needs to move more aggressively to address the threat of bioterrorism, and the threat is misunderstood by many.

"Unlike nuclear weapons, which require highly advanced technology, massive infrastructure and rare materials that can be closely monitored and secured, biological weapons materials occur naturally, require no significant infrastructure to produce and can be found in nearly every part of the world," the commission said.

"As technology advances, the ability to prevent biological attacks diminishes."

'Rapid recognition'
The commission lauded the White House's National Security Council for creating a bioweapons prevention strategy, which the panel said was the first of its kind. But it said the NSC needs a senior official whose sole responsibility is to improve the country's capability to defend against a bioweapons attack.

"The near-term biodefense goal of the United States should be to limit the consequences of a bioweapons attack," the panel said. "The long-term goal should be to improve post-attack capabilities for rapid recognition, response and recovery to a level that bioterrorism would no longer be considered a weapon of mass destruction."

The commission did not discount the significance of the nuclear threat but called it less urgent.

"The current trends, if left unchecked, will increase the odds that al-Qaida will successfully develop and use a biological weapon or a nuclear device against the United States or its allies," it said.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned Wednesday of dire consequences from the spread of nuclear weapons.

Troubling trends
In a speech outlining the Obama administration's nuclear arms agenda, Clinton cited a range of troubling trends abroad, including a failure to stop North Korea from developing a nuclear bomb and weakness in the United Nations agency that is responsible for monitoring nuclear programs worldwide.

"Unless these trends are reversed, and reversed soon, we will find ourselves in a world with a steadily growing number of nuclear-armed states and an increasing likelihood of terrorists getting their hands on nuclear weapons," Clinton said. Atop Clinton's list of key challenges in the spread of nuclear weapons technology was North Korea, which has an active nuclear weapons program in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

"The international community failed to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons," she said.

While reiterating the administration's willingness to hold one-on-one talks with North Korea, Clinton said it would be insufficient for that country to simply return to negotiations over its nuclear program.

"Current sanctions will not be relaxed until Pyongyang takes verifiable, irreversible steps toward complete denuclearization," she told members of the U.S. Institute of Peace, a think tank. "Its leaders should be under no illusion that the United States will ever have normal, sanctions-free relations with a nuclear-armed North Korea."

Clinton also faulted Iran, which asserts that it has no intention of building nuclear weapons, for ignoring calls by the U.N. Security Council to suspend its enrichment of uranium. Iran says it is enriching uranium to make fuel required to run a network of electricity-generating nuclear reactors.

She called for prompt action by Iran to execute an emerging plan to use its own low-enriched uranium to refuel a research reactor in Tehran, which would greatly reduce the amount of enriched uranium available to Iran for potential further processing and illicit use in making a nuclear weapon.

Clinton did not mention talks Wednesday in Vienna, Austria, meant to work out such an arrangement. Iranian negotiators expressed support for the deal , as long as it is accepted by their leaders. International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei said negotiators from Iran, the United States, Russia and France had accepted a draft deal and that he hoped for final approval from all four countries by Friday.

More on: bioterrorism

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