Biological terrorism warnings gaining increased attention

Concerns about the risk of biological attack on the United States have led the list of potential threats in 3 important reports released in December, making it increasingly likely that both policy and technology to combat biological terrorism will be at the forefront of HS policy in the Obama administration.

  • WORLD AT RISK: The Report of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism: The bi-partisan Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism released this long-awaited report on December 4th about the current state of the WMD threat against the U.S..  The report states that the odds are greater than ever that the world will see an attack using a biological or nuclear weapon in the next five years, with biological weapons considered the greatest threat.
  • Ready or Not? Protecting the Public’s Health from Diseases, Disasters, and Bioterrorism: Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) released the sixth annual Ready or Not? report, which finds that progress made to better protect the country from disease outbreaks, natural disasters, and bioterrorism is now at risk, due to budget cuts and the economic crisis.  In addition, the report concludes that major gaps remain in many critical areas of preparedness, including surge capacity, rapid disease detection, and food safety – all of which could increase the damage from a biological attack.
  • DHS Homeland Security Threat Assessment for the years 2008-2013: This intelligence assessment predicts that in the next five years, terrorists will try to carry out a catastrophic biological attack.
    • NOTE: This assessment was marked “for official use only,” but was leaked to the media the week of Dec. 22.  Since I don’t condone leaking details of reports not intended for public distribution, I won’t include any links to the report or to any details of it until/unless it’s officially released for public distribution.
  • Update 01/08/2009: The threat of biological terrorism was emphasized at at a Washington Institute Special Policy Forum Wednesday, with speakers including current Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Ken Wainstein and former CIA Counterterrorist Center department chief Charles “Sam” Faddis.

Public Exposure: Both the WMD Commission report and the DHS threat assessment received widespread coverage on mainstream media outlets, including Fox, CBS, MSNBC, and the Los Angeles Times.

Expectations: In my post on the WMD Commission report, I said to expect alot more focus on biological terrorism, including legislation and funding for both R&D and increasing capabilities.  In addition, as these reports gain more public exposure, and as voters become more numb to bad financial news, expect alot more political attention on homeland security and biological terrorism, especially from U.S. Senators who will be up for re-election in 2010.

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Report: Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism

The bi-partisan Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism released a long-awaited report on December 4th about the current state of the WMD threat against the U.S..  The report received fairly wide coverage in both the main-stream press and on the Internet.  I’ve summarized information from a number of sources here; I haven’t read the full report yet myself, but I’ll update this post again after I’m finished reading it.

Summary:

The report:

  • States that the odds are greater than ever that the world will see an attack using a biological or nuclear weapon in the next five years.
  • Criticizes Bush administration domestic and foreign policy.
  • Offers wide-ranging recommendations on controlling biological agents and containing nuclear proliferation.
  • Offers recommendations for Congress to solve problems with oversight and funding.
  • Singles out Pakistan as the top security priority for the United States.

Recommendations:

Here are many of the key recommendations in the report:

  • Overall Terrorist Threat:
    • Work with Pakistan and other countries in the region to eliminate terrorist safe havens through military, economic and diplomatic means.
    • Secure nuclear and biological materials in Pakistan.
    • Counter and defeat extremist ideology.
  • Biological Terrorism:
    • Call an international conference of countries with major biotechnology industries to promote biosecurity.
    • Strengthen global disease surveillance networks.
    • Press for universal adherence to the Biological Weapons Convention.
  • Nuclear Terrorism
    • Constrain a nascent nuclear arms race in Asia.
    • Take steps to prevent Iran and North Korea from possessing uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing capabilities.
    • Set strong penalties for violators who withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
    • Strengthen the International Atomic Energy Agency.
    • Employ further counter-proliferation efforts.
    • Work with Russia to secure its nuclear materials.
  • Presidential Oversight:
    • Create a new post in the White House to oversee government efforts to prevent a WMD attack.
  • Congressional Oversight:

    • Empower the Homeland Security panels in the House and Senate as the sole oversight committees for these issues (as opposed to the 16 House committees and 15 Senate committees that share jurisdiction on these issues now).
    • Create a new Intelligence Appropriations Subcommittee to fund both national and military intelligence.
      • From CQ Politics: Congress ignored similar recommendations from the original 9-11 commission, which issued its report in mid-2004.

Criticisms:

There has been some skepticism and criticism of the report, and a down-playing of the report conclusions, both by homeland security veterans and members of Congress.  Much of the criticism stems from the reports’ tone of urgency and lack of emphasis on explosives and other low-tech threats.  As mentioned in Homeland Security Watch, “There’s a noticeable demotion of chemical and high explosives in the WMD threat embraced by the report.”

Official Reactions:

Senate: In a hearing Thursday, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee indicated a willingness to consider legislation to strengthen safety and security at private and federal laboratories that work with deadly biological pathogens.  Read here for more details on the committee hearing.

UPDATE 12/22: Chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, Joseph Lieberman (ID-CN) and Ranking Member Susan Collins (R-ME) announced plans to introduce legislation to tighten oversight of high containment laboratories around the country that could handle deadly biological pathogens.  Click here to view the press release.

Bush Administration: Despite the report’s criticisms of US policies, the White House welcomed what it said was proof of Bush’s strong security record.  “Under President Bush’s leadership, extensive progress has been made on securing the world’s weapons of mass destruction and protecting our citizens from a WMD attack,” White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said.

Obama Administration: There is some expectation that many of the reports’ recommendations will be accepted and implemented by the Obama administration.  As reported by CQ Politics: “Several of the commissioners have advised the Obama campaign or transition, and several recommendations square with Obama’s policy views. Among the panel members, Wendy Sherman is a national security “team leader” in Obama’s transition, and Richard Verma serves on his defense transition team.” The Boston Globe reported that President-elect Obama will probably implement the recommendation for creating a position of WMD anti-proliferation chief at the White House, citing three unnamed Obama advisers.

Overall Summary:

The report will probably influence homeland security policy and funding for the next 4 years.  Diplomatically and militarily, expect an increased focus on Pakistan.  In the U.S., expect greater focus and spending on defense against biological attacks, including new legislation and rules to prevent pathogens from falling into terrorist hands through labs.  Consider preparing plans and grant requests to improve detection of and response to biological attacks.  Expect an increase in R&D funding for technology to detect and identify biological threats and verify adherence to nuclear and biological non-proliferation agreements.

Links:

Additional articles and posts about the report:

Presidential candidates answers about plans to combat bioterrorism

Excerpt from Nature magazine article: US election: Questioning the candidates:

Barack Obama accepted Nature’s invitation to answer 18 science-related questions in writing; John McCain’s campaign declined. Here are Obama’s answers to additional questions that did not appear in our print magazine. Wherever possible, Nature has noted what McCain has said at other times on these topics.

What would you do that would make America less vulnerable to bioterrorism in 2012 than it is today?

Obama: It’s time for a comprehensive effort to tackle bioterror. We know that the successful deployment of a biological weapon — whether it is sprayed into our cities or spread through our food supply — could kill tens of thousands of Americans and deal a crushing blow to our economy. Overseas, I will launch a Shared Security Partnership that invests $5 billion over 3 years to forge an international intelligence and law-enforcement infrastructure to take down terrorist networks. I will also strengthen US intelligence collection overseas to identify and interdict would-be bioterrorists before they strike and expand the US government’s bioforensics programme for tracking the source of any biological weapon. I will work with the international community to make any use of disease as a weapon declared a crime against humanity.

And to ensure our country is prepared should such an event occur, we must provide our public-health system with the surge capacity to confront a crisis and improve our ability to cope with infectious diseases. I will invest in new vaccines and technologies to detect attacks and to trace them to their origin, so that we can react in a timely fashion. I have pledged to invest $10 billion per year over the next 5 years in electronic health information systems to not only improve routine health care, but also ensure that these systems will give health officials the crucial information they need to deploy resources and save lives in an emergency. I will help hospitals form collaborative networks to deal with sudden surges in patients and will ensure that the United States has adequate supplies of medicines, vaccines and diagnostic tests and can get these vital products into the hands of those who need them.

We also have to expand local and state programmes to ensure that they have the resources to respond to these disasters. I will work to strengthen the federal government’s partnership with local and state governments on these issues by improving the mechanisms for clear communication, eliminating redundant programmes and building on the key strengths possessed by each level of government. I introduced legislation that would have provided funding for programmes in order to enhance emergency care systems throughout the country. I will build on America’s unparalleled talent and advantage in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] fields and the powerful insights into biological systems that are emerging to create new drugs, vaccines, and diagnostic tests and to manufacture these vital products much more quickly and efficiently than is now possible. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has failed to take full advantage of the Bioshield initiative. Because of the unpredictability of the mode of biological attack, I will stress the need for broad-gauged vaccines and drugs and for more agile and responsive drug development and production systems. This effort will strengthen the US biotech and pharmaceutical industry and create high-wage jobs.

McCain, in response to a ScienceDebate2008 question about a potential H5N1 avian influenza epidemic, outlined a four-part strategy to deal with pandemics or deliberate biological attacks; key aspects are preparedness, communication, surveillance/detection and response/containment. In terms of specifics, he called for more research into next-generation automated sensors to detect biological agents and real-time information sharing with first responders.