Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

February 24, 2006

Is bioterrorism hype?

Filed under: Biosecurity — by Christian Beckner on February 24, 2006

The LA Times published an op-ed last week by Milton Leitenberg, the author of a recent book entitled “Assessing the Biological Weapons and Biological Threat” published by the Army War College.

In the editorial he notes:

The United States has spent at least $33 billion since 2002 to combat the threat of biological terrorism. The trouble is, the risk that terrorists will use biological agents is being systematically and deliberately exaggerated. And the U.S. government has been using most of its money to prepare for the wrong contingency.

A pandemic flu outbreak of the kind the world witnessed in 1918-19 could kill hundreds of millions of people. The only lethal biological attack in the United States — the anthrax mailings — killed five. But the annual budget for combating bioterror is more than $7 billion, while Congress just passed a $3.8-billion emergency package to prepare for a flu outbreak.

The exaggeration of the bioterror threat began more than a decade ago after the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo group released sarin gas in the Tokyo subways in 1995. The scaremongering has grown more acute since 9/11 and the mailing of anthrax-laced letters to Congress and media outlets in the fall of 2001. Now an edifice of institutes, programs and publicists with a vested interest in hyping the bioterror threat has grown, funded by the government and by foundations.

He then goes on to examine the bioterrorism threat posed by hostile states and terrorists, and argues that the former is rapidly in decline and the latter is unsubstantiated. He then argues that the United States’ strong focus on bioterrorism might actually be exacerbating the threat:

The real problem is that a decade of widely broadcast discussion of what it takes to produce a bioweapon has provided terrorists with at least a rough roadmap. Until now, no terrorist group has had professionals with the skills to exploit the information — but the publicity may make it easier in the future.

There is no military or strategic justification for imputing to real-world terrorist groups capabilities that they do not possess. Yet no risk analysis was conducted before the $33 billion was spent.

Some scientists and politicians privately acknowledge that the threat of bioterror attacks is exaggerated, but they argue that spending on bioterrorism prevention and response would be inadequate without it. But the persistent hype is not benign. It is almost certainly the single major factor in provoking interest in bioweapons among terrorist groups. Bin Laden’s deputy, the Egyptian doctor Ayman Zawahiri, wrote on a captured floppy disk that “we only became aware of (bioweapons) when the enemy drew our attention to them by repeatedly expressing concerns that they can be produced simply with easily available materials.” We are creating our worst nightmare.

These are strong arguments by Leitenberg, and are worthy of debate. I’m inclined to believe that the bioterrorism threat is real, especially if we look at it from the appropriate 15-20 year time horizon. But I also think he has a good point about the relative value of spending money to prevent bioterrorism from a risk assessment perspective. $33 billion is a lot of chips to be putting on one type of threat, when there are a lot of other very relevant threats (both terrorist and non-terrorist related) that we face today. From a risk-based perspective, are we better off spending an additional billion at the margin to develop vaccines for non-contagious threats such as anthrax and ricin, or for programs to secure WMD-related materials in Russia? Or for enhancing our humint capabilities? Or strengthening security at ports? These types of questions need to be asked as part of a strategic approach to homeland security.

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1 Comment »


Comment by William R. Cumming

February 24, 2006 @ 4:13 pm

The $33B amount is highly questionable. The run-down of the public health system since the 1950’s is scary and probably this amount would be needed just to assess and fill critical gaps. The real problem in bioterrorism is that the bulk of the health sector is fully privatized and has no resources to devote to preparedness under current federal assistance and reimbursement guidelines. Another problem is that the stove-piping by HHS and the medical community of both information and decision support systems make it extremely likely that the physicians will be duking it out when the time comes for incident/event management and decisions will be based on medical advice only and not take into effect other resource and funding constraints. Essentially, the step-forward take by passage and enactment of the Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 202 (May 2002)has not resulted in full integration to other emergency management concerns. All MD’s, the four sisters of bioterrorism as commonly referred are sensible, intelligent persons with a great deal of political skill, namely Julie Gerberding of CDC, Margaret (Peggy) Hanburg of the Nuclear Threat Initative, and Amy Smithson of the Stinson Institute, and Tara O’Toole of the Pittsburg/Hopkins consortium. As we hit the five year mark from the anthrax attacks this fall, it will be instructive to determine what exactly has been accomplished for an amount some calculate is less than $15B.

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