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.

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:

DHS opens $3B in FY2009 grants with less restrictions

From the Washington Post:

The Department of Homeland Security announced plans yesterday to dole out $3 billion in counterterrorism grants next year to state and local agencies with far-fewer strings attached than in past years.

The DHS move marks a response to criticism from a Democratic Congress and increasingly restive state and local leaders. They have complained that the Bush administration’s domestic security officials have focused on terrorism at the expense of other law enforcement priorities, such as fighting drugs, gangs and violent crime.

Among other changes, DHS loosened rules to allow recipients to spend up to 50 percent of homeland security grants for personnel expenses, up from 25 percent; ease a 25 percent local-match requirement for rail, transit and port security aid; lift a three-year limit on funding for intelligence analysts in law enforcement “fusion” centers, which police chiefs nationwide have requested.

The department also agreed to spread aid for immigration law enforcement to states with international water as well as land borders, and to let grants be used to store — not just purchase — emergency supplies such as prepackaged food, water and medicines.

Why HS isn’t an election issue: Voters don’t know what they want

From CQ Politics:

The presidential candidates’ deafening silence on homeland security has a logical explanation: voters have no particular policy preferences on the topic, so there’s no advantage in being specific.

“If you ask [voters] ‘are you concerned about homeland security, are you concerned about terrorism,’ they actually are,” James J. Carafano, a senior homeland security fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said Friday in a speech at George Mason University. “They’re very concerned about that. But the reason why it’s not a campaign issue is because people don’t know what they want. So whatever their candidate wants, that’s OK by them.”

“They know all they have to do is say something and then their constituents will be happy and then they’re done,” he said.

The lack of focus on homeland security should not surprise anyone.

“The point is now there hasn’t been an attack, al Qaeda’s on the run in Iraq” and there haven’t been a lot of attacks in Western Europe, Carafano said. “So Americans are still greatly concerned about terrorism, they don’t think they are going to be the victim of a terrorist attack and they just want to be reassured that somebody’s looking out for them.”

The situation, he said, is “exactly” what transpired during the Cold War.

Opinion: How the Supreme Court Has Undermined Our National Security

An interesting piece from From Family Security Matters about how the Supreme Court may be overstepping its legal authority and overturning historical and international precedents in favor of terror detainees.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the article are the author’s own, and I neither endorse nor disavow them (my personal political views are not what this blog is about).  The site this article comes from has a decidedly conservative emphasis, and the opinions expressed in the article tilt that direction.  However, whether or not you agree with the opinion, the facts presented are worth reading.

Our national security is in the hands of the United States Supreme Court. This is incongruous, since the Constitution expressly instructs that foreign policy should be conducted by the executive and legislative branches, through such provisions as the Treaty Clause, the Declare War Clause, the Foreign Commerce Clause and the Commander-in-Chief Clause. Nonetheless, the current Supreme Court has inserted itself into the middle of anti-terrorism policies. In doing so, it has undermined the decisions of our elected branches and thus has undermined the will of the American people. With our national security at stake, now, more than ever, all Americans should have their eyes on the high Court.

Intel chair says White House withholding info in interrogation probe

The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), accused the White House on Wednesday of withholding documents showing it authorized the CIA to use waterboarding and other tough interrogation tactics on suspected terrorists.

Rockefeller was reacting to a report in Wednesday’s editions of The Washington Post that two White House memos, in 2003 and 2004, gave the CIA written approval for using specific interrogation techniques on al-Qaida suspects.

“If White House documents exist that set the policy for the use of coercive techniques such as waterboarding, those documents have been kept from the committee,” Rockefeller said in a statement.

The top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Kit Bond of Missouri, called the report old news, and the White House declined to comment.

A former senior Bush administration intelligence official told The Associated Press that the White House “definitely, without a doubt” authorized the CIA’s interrogation techniques. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk publicly, was not aware of the memos but said the CIA sought approval for specific methods to protect it from any questions later about their legality.

In March, President Bush vetoed legislation that would have outlawed the use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques during CIA interrogations of terror suspects.

Bush sets up council to work on transition to next administration

From TheHill.com:

President Bush on Thursday signed an executive order creating a Presidential Transition Coordinating Council that “will help to coordinate efforts already under way to ensure a seamless presidential transition.”

In the explanation of the order, one of the reasons cited for why this is important is that we are “working to protect ourselves from future terrorist attacks.”