Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

November 7, 2006

Natural threats, terrorist intervention?

Filed under: Biosecurity — by Christian Beckner on November 7, 2006

GovExec reports today on remarks by DHS WMD adviser Maureen McCarthy at a conference last Friday on the possibility that foot-and-mouth disease could be used by terrorists:

The Homeland Security Department’s senior adviser for weapons of mass destruction said late last week that the introduction of foot-and-mouth disease on American soil would have a tremendous effect on the U.S. economy, whether the outbreak is intentional or accidental.

Maureen McCarthy, the weapons adviser, on Friday told attendees of the Association for Intelligence Officers’ annual convention that such an outbreak would cost the American agriculture economy “hundreds of billions” of dollars and could shutter some trade borders for “years” if officials deem it necessary.

“It will happen instantly,” she said of the financial and trade impact, “even if there are no deaths.”

During a discussion that in part focused on how biological agents might be used against the United States, McCarthy said foot-and-mouth disease could be used by terrorists. However, she told Government Executive after the discussion that there is no existing intelligence indicating such a plot.

This statement comports with the theory of a recent unclassified/FOUO DHS “Red Cell Report” entitled “Weaponizing Avian Influenza” dated February 2006, which I stumbled across on a Google search a few days ago. (Screen shot of the search result available here.) The document wasn’t still online when I came across the search result, but it clearly suggests that DHS is looking at the possibility that terrorists could leverage a pandemic influenza outbreak to enhance or multiply its effects.

Are these types of scenarios realistic? I’d argue they’re within the realm of possibility, but not among the most likely terrorist plots. But this possibility provides a slightly greater rationale to pay attention to these naturally-occurring threats. And it suggests that strategies focused foot-and-mouth and pandemic influenza need to consider the possibility of manmade outbreaks.

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