WEST LAFAYETTE, IND. — Sen. Barack Obama on Wednesday criticized the Bush administration for failing to protect the American people from weapons of mass destruction and said he would take aggressive measures as president to lessen the threat from nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and from cyber-terrorism.
Obama unveiled what he described as a comprehensive national security strategy in a speech at Purdue University here, while leading a panel of academic experts and present and former politicians whose views of global threats largely tracked his own.
The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee also released a nine-page document on "Confronting 21st Century Threats," in which his campaign said the White House, Congress and some U.S. allies had succumbed to a mind-set of "conventional thinking [that] has failed to adapt to a world of new threats."
"The danger . . . is that we are constantly fighting the last war, responding to the threats that have come to fruition, instead of staying one step ahead of the threats," Obama said.
He was joined in the panel discussion by two potential running mates, Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), who has spent much of his career lobbying for safeguards against the proliferation of nuclear weapons and materials.
Some of the initiatives described were characterized by current and former U.S. counter-terrorism officials and experts as being expensive, unrealistic or already underway.
"It sounds good on paper, but I get the sense that this is being put out to shore up his national security credentials," said Arthur Keller, until 2006 a CIA expert on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. "This would take a serious investment of time and money and a major diplomatic effort. It's like saying everyone should eat well; it's not going to happen necessarily, and it's easier said than done."
The Obama camp acknowledged some of the criticisms, but the candidate said: "We're spending $10 billion a month in Iraq. . . . If that same amount of money were spent over the course of the next four years, we could lock up all the loose nuclear material."
"In terms of how realistic it is," said a senior campaign advisor who declined to be named because he didn't want his full- time employer associated with the campaign, "we will never eliminate nuclear weapons until we start trying. It's going to take a long time and a large effort, but we are never going to get there unless we start."
Obama has spent the last two days talking at length about national security issues, part of a campaign push to challenge public perceptions that he wouldn't make as strong a commander in chief as his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released this week showed that whereas 72% of Americans -- and most Democrats -- believe McCain would make a good commander in chief, only 48% think the same of Obama.
Many of the new proposals unveiled Wednesday focused on the need to reduce the dangers of nuclear terrorism.
Obama pledged to increase U.S. funding by $1 billion a year to more aggressively secure nuclear weapons materials, and to strengthen policing and interdiction efforts aimed at dismantling nuclear trafficking networks. He also vowed to convene a summit on preventing nuclear terrorism and set the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.
In addition, the Illinois senator pledged to invest $5 billion over three years to improve cooperation between U.S. and allied intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and to expand an existing bioforensics program to track the sources of biological weapons.
And Obama pledged to "harden our nation's cyber infrastructure" to better protect against hackers and terrorists using the nation's computer networks to commit terrorist attacks or other crimes.
Afterward, some experts criticized Obama's initiatives.
Bryan Cunningham, a former federal prosecutor, CIA officer and counter-terrorism official in the Clinton and Bush administrations, said Obama's proposals focused almost entirely on "hardening the obvious targets," such as nuclear weapons stockpiles, without addressing the far thornier problem of identifying and catching those who would want to attack the U.S.
Cunningham also said that "the idea that all of these are new ideas or new priorities is just not true" and that Richard Clarke initiated many of them while he was the counter-terrorism czar in the Clinton and Bush administrations.
Rand Beers, one of the highest-ranking counter-terrorism officials in both administrations, praised Obama for trying to address so many intractable issues in one position paper.
"There's no question that they would be a challenge, and there's no question that they would cost money," said Beers, who has consulted for the Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton presidential campaigns but has received no money from Obama. "But nothing ventured, nothing gained."