Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

July 5, 2011

Legislative Action Isn’t Automatically Good Policy

Filed under: Biosecurity — by Christopher Bellavita on July 5, 2011

Today’s post introduces a first-time contributor to Homeland Security Watch:  Alan Wolfe.  Mr. Wolfe retired recently as a national security policy advisor.


So we’re coming up on an election year, which means it’s time for congressional representatives to show how intrepid they’ve been in securing the homeland from terrorist attacks. And what could be better than enacting legislation that promises to protect Americans from weapons of mass destruction?

From The Hill’s website, we read:

Reps. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) and Pete King (R-N.Y.) will introduce the Weapons of Mass Destruction Prevention and Preparedness Act of 2011 on [July 24th]. The congressmen first introduced the legislation in 2010, but the bill was never considered by the entire House.

The bill would establish a new “special assistant” to the president for biodefense who would create a federal biodefense plan and a yearly budget. The bill also contains legislation that would allow state and local first responders access to surplus vaccine.

In particular, the House Committee on Homeland Security promises to deliver a bipartisan bill that will call for:

  • the appointment of a special assistant to the President for biodefense to coordinate federal biodefense policy
  • the development of a national biodefense plan and a coordinated budget that assess capability gaps and spending inefficiencies
  • a national biosurveillance strategy
  • provisions for our first responders, including voluntary vaccinations and response guidance for chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear incidents
  • authorization of the Securing the Cities program to allow for interdiction of a radiological device in high-risk cities


Interestingly, the title of the bill is the “WMD Prevention and Preparedness Act of 2011,” (you can download it here) and the first thing I would notice is that it does not prevent or prepare one’s city or state for “WMD” at all. It’s strictly aimed at biological terrorism incidents, attempting to address the faults that the Graham/Talent WMD Commission’s “World at Risk” report identified.

A little truth in labeling is always a good thing, but it’s not apparent here.

This isn’t a good bill for several reasons: first of all by its intent to appoint a special assistant to the President to coordinate biodefense policy. We’ve seen “special assistants” come and go, and we do have a “special assistant” for WMD proliferation and terrorism, although he’s much more interested in Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs than biodefense for the military or homeland security.

But more importantly is the colossal mistake of trying to segregate “biodefense,” whatever that means to people, as a distinct issue separate from counterproliferation, combating terrorism, public health, or homeland defense/civil support. You can’t just target a biological disease distinct from its source, man-made or natural. A “biodefense” expert who doesn’t know the context of the threat is going to be useless, an impediment to the national security experts trying to address real threats.

The idea that such a “biodefense czar” (if I may use that term) could develop a strategy and control a budget across existing executive agencies is beyond ridiculous. It’s never been done, and if put into practice, congressional committees would have a field day with the special assistant. We have a proliferation of committees already involved in oversight of the armed forces and homeland security – this biodefense assistant will be more busy in Congress than he would be in actually trying to get his arms around the issues.

In developing a new “national biosurveillance strategy,” the House committee would first kill the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) National Biosurveillance Integration Center (NBIC).  Now it’s clear that NBIC has some significant challenges, but it’s idiotic to tear down an existing center – which is at least in the right government agency – so that you can create another one from scratch, another agency that will have to re-learn all the mistakes that NBIC caused and all the disfunctions of the “whole of government” ideal that we hear about but have not seen in action.

What a bad idea.

The last two bullets are easily shot down. While it is a shame to see millions of doses of biological vaccines be thrown out every year, it ought to be clear from recent history that the state and local first responders really don’t want to receive annual anthrax and smallpox vaccine shots every year (not to mention the research on plague vaccine, ricin vaccine, tularemia vaccine, etc). It’s not something they need, and they don’t want the side effects that come with vaccine shots. And the only reason that the failed, overly expensive “Securing the Cities” initiative is mentioned is because Rep. Peter King (R-NY) really wants to show off the prize federal steer that he’s delivered annually to New York City.

Poor form.

A wise person once observed that “the causes of policy failure are, at root, political.” If politicians were really concerned about the threat of biological terrorism, they’d demand a review of the Project BioWatch, where only thirty-plus cities have active biological agent samplers. And that’s for a very good reason, it would be cost-prohibitive for DHS to suggest expanding the program to the more than 270 cities with over 100,000 inhabitants.

They might demand a more rational approach to Project BioShield than to pour billions of dollars into a pharmaceutical industry that’s really not interested in producing biological vaccines. They might demand a deeper explanation into the perception that a terrorist WMD attack will “more likely than not” occur somewhere in the world by the end of 2013.

But no, that would involve real work.

So instead, we have to put up with people like former Senators Graham and Talent, telling us that “terrorists have ready access to pathogens, the capability to weaponize them, and the means to effectively dispense a biological weapon. There is no question on intent.”

This is ten years after the Amerithrax attacks that were caused by a US government expert in anthrax who had decades of training and ready access to materials and equipment. This is after year after year, seeing thousands of cases where terrorists are effectively using automatic rifles, improvised explosives, and handguns to achieve their goals. We see Dr. Bob Kadlec testifying before the committee, pining for his old job as the former White House homeland security special assistant on biodefense. We see the CBRNE industry rubbing their hands together, delighted that Congress is going to throw them some business after all the hype has failed on WMD terrorism, even as our military service members continue to be attacked by conventional weapons.

We really deserve better.


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Comment by William R. Cumming

July 5, 2011 @ 2:27 am

Nice post with which I largely agree. Another Bill in Congress the equivalent of Dead Man Walking!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

July 5, 2011 @ 6:01 am

Mr. Wolfe:

Do I correctly understand you would support a legislative initiative that mandates the following?

Preparing a national biosurveillance strategy,

Developing a national biodefense plan and a coordinated budget that assess capability gaps and spending inefficiencies,

Reviewing and strengthening NBIC.

Reviewing and strengthening Project BioWatch

Reviewing and strengthening Project BioShield.

Comment by Alan Wolfe

July 5, 2011 @ 11:25 am

Hi Philip:

In fact I would not support legislation as you proposed. I don’t think we need a national biosurveillance strategy as much as we need to insist that DHS obtains the powers required to execute its NBIC charter. DHHS and DOD need to be supporting that effort, not duplicating it. We don’t need a national biodefense plan or coordinated budget, since (as I mentioned in the post) it would cross public health, military strategy, and homeland security boundaries. What we need is to have a sober look at what public health does for natural disease prevention/response, what the military needs to protect its forces from adversarial state biowarfare agents, and what homeland security needs to respond to BW terrorism. These are distinct concerns with differing priorities and resources that do not need to be merged into one uber-construct.

Yes, we need to review and strengthen the NBIC, but projects BioWatch and BioShield are broke. We cannot possibly resource them to the extent needed to protect the nation from all terrorist BW attacks, in all cities and for all people. So either we need to pony up the funds to do it adequately (never going to happen) or stop doing it half-assed (much more practical). Response forces and public health labs need biodetectors but not this idiotic sentinel system that only supports a limited number of major cities.

Biggest mistake of this effort is to assume that the medical community needs to lead. It doesn’t take a medic to recognize good policy or (in this case) bad policy. It takes leadership and good staff. Unfortunately, we have neither. (I meant to note, we already have a Special Assistant to the President and White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation, and Terrorism, but he doesn’t care about HLD, he only has eyes for Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs).

Comment by William R. Cumming

July 5, 2011 @ 4:05 pm

Again agree with Alan! But great question Phil!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

July 5, 2011 @ 5:23 pm

Alan: Thanks for the clarification. If I am now reading you correctly it sounds like some sort of legislation, or Executive Order, or Presidential Policy Directive would be helpful to set out roles, relationships, and priorities. Yes?

Especially given that increased funding is unlikely, I hear you suggesting de-funding BioShield and BioWatch… presumably to more adequately fund less ambitious biodefense efforts? And to enhance NBIC?

Without trying to address the personnel issues you have also referenced, I am trying to frame-up where your positive vision of biodefense differs from the King-Pascrell proposal. At this point I am agnostic and really just trying to get a sense of the options on the table.

Comment by Alan Wolfe

July 5, 2011 @ 8:01 pm

Maybe but it’s not PPD-2, Countering Bio Threats. Horrible strategy, without adequate guidance to the executive agencies that have to cobble something together to answer the document’s guidance. Ridiculous to suggest one would treat the response to a terrorist BW incident the same as a pandemic flu outbreak. It’s not the same thing at all.

If you’re worried about terrorist CBRN incidents, tell the law enforcement and intelligence communities to get on them (and I think the NCTC fits that bill), and educate the state/local responders to look for signs and symptoms. Easy. And yes, fix biosurveillance using DHHS and DHS. If you’re worried about pandemic flu, get DHHS to adequately invest in government production and again, work the biosurveillance with other nations. Easy. Direct DOD to only fund BW vaccine research for validated BW threats that other nations develop in a lab. Easy.

It’s people who try to dump it all together that make it hard.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

July 5, 2011 @ 11:23 pm

I concur with a lot in this post, though I would like to disagree with one statement and ask about another.

My disagreement: “We see the CBRNE industry rubbing their hands together, delighted that Congress is going to throw them some business after all the hype has failed on WMD terrorism, even as our military service members continue to be attacked by conventional weapons.”

Not to be seen as any type of “industry hack,” but the larger issue should be how best to think about and prepare for an unconventional attack on citizens here at home. The point about what threats are currently facing our deployed military personnel(overwhelmingly the “E” in CBRNE) seems to be another issue entirely and one not meant to be addressed by the legislation in question.

My question has to do with the NBIC and why you think it should be in DHS. Not unlike DNDO, this center seems to be an attempt to create anew expertise that already exists in great quantity in another federal department. DHHS for NBIC and DOE/IC for DNDO. I am generally interested in your argument why such a group should be within DHS when none of the components have a natural medical or public health mission outside of OHA.

Comment by US Unpreparedness and the Washington Politcian

July 6, 2011 @ 7:04 am

While the discussion here is crucial, a prerequisite priority to appropriate policy making and addressing reality, I, myself, tired of the politics and partisan ways on both sides of the aisle have little confidence that We as a Republic will flourish or to have the capability to address any such reality. My hope, the EU distracts AQ and the German-led EU supported by the Vatican becomes more engaged and less and less attention is focused on America for our reluctance to stand forthright and directly address Tehran – the “Brutes of Tehran” and the blood of our soldiers on their hands…it will be this Fall when Egyptian government rule leans towards the Brotherhood and more stringent Islamic laws and anti-Euorpean aim.

My flag hangs upside down in distress and frm our perspective here on Main Street USA, bio attack a probability and no We have little confidence in executive or legislature decision-makers, though less worried as Europe apparently will be more at threat as EU policy towards Islam unfortunately prompts more aggressive retaliations and here, spiking oil prices, double dip recession, kids and their families thrown out of their homes and the rate for hungry American kids portraying the failure of entrusted leadership to overcome special interest groups and the self agenda of the “beltway bandits” – it will be intersting to see if a substantial hurricane finally hits the northeast coastline and just how Washington fails once again to address such a circumstance.

I reiterate, the discussion herein amng you all who truly are concerned and offer your qualified expertise, very much needed, yet Washington has not a clue how to truly address the economic woes of this once great nation and it certainly cannot even address a natural disaster, never mid bio attack — We are a weakened leadership and our global marks keep slipping in every category —

Let’s hope we do not have a major earthquake and certainly no bio attack as We the People do not deserve such anguish for we have been so supportive and so willing to reach to so many oppressed, giving unselfishly to others while those we have “entrusted” leadership, blatant disregard for the Constitution and flag, never midn all those who have served and today serve w/honor!

Bio attack – cyber attack – are we really prepared, I (we) doubt much from a government who from one President to the next have only increased our budgetary woes to the extent we are bankrupted nearly 15 trillion federal reserve notes and here on Main Street USA, we damn broke….w/less and less food and nutrition on the table – soon to be followed by the soup lines once seen on Main Street USA not that long ago – this is reality, not how the good ‘ol fellas perceive Life in America….

Christopher Tingus
Main Street USA
PO Box 1612
Harwich (Cape Cod), MA 02645 USA

Comment by William R. Cumming

July 6, 2011 @ 9:34 am

Agree with Arnold! In fall 2005 taught Missouri Police and Fire chiefs about DC and its policy options for public safety. It was after lunch. So to wake them up asked for show of hands of those whose personnel or themselves had knocked over METH LABs! Many raised their hands. Then I asked how many understood that METH LABA were HAXMAT sites? Few raised their hands! Then I asked how many knew that OSHA statute and regulations made it a felony for heads of organizations to put untrained, unprotected workers in harms way? One hand raised in a room of about 150 attendees. I had their attention!

Don’t ask many how many of the FBI’s 35,000 employees have had HAZMAT TRAINING! Last I checked NONE-that is correct NADA–although some have some limited WMD training. And up to 10 Gold Badge agents now with foreign language expertise of 3 on scale of 5 in MENA languages. Reason alone to not confirm Mr. Get along Go Along for two extra years. Must be all those files from background investigations. One for each member of Congress even though all don’t go through Executive Branch procedure for access to classified info. Personnel security remains problematic despite almost 5 Million with clearances and FBI leads the way in failing to have adequate adjudication procedures.

Comment by Alan Wolfe

July 6, 2011 @ 11:55 am

Arnold, I take your point about DNDO and NBIC. All I can say is, DHS has the lead for coordinating the federal response to any state/local request for disaster/incident. As an integration function, it makes sense for DHS and NORTHCOM to coordinate all federal assets. I personally don’t trust DOE to do the DNDO function because they don’t do operations, they do science and technology projects and nuclear weapons development. For that matter, I wouldn’t weep if DNDO went away, it’s similar to Proj BioShield as a futile effort that isn’t sustainable and isn’t the best way to warn about the threat.

NBIC has a lot of federal agencies feeding into it. I know DHHS has its areas of expertise in public health, but again, not traditionally an operations activity. Obviously the DHHS/CDC is the main conduit of public health information, but we also need intel and other sources of info to feed into surveillance. So again, DHS has the lead for response, why not let them integrate the info feed and inform the Homeland Security Enterprise accordingly?

Comment by William R. Cumming

July 7, 2011 @ 5:33 am

Alan! Great response to Arnold. What some might find amazing is that less than people government wide actually understand where technical response expertise is housed in the federal establishment. And also amazingly few in the Executive Branch understand even the funding flows for technical response.

CRS has an interesting new report on adding a catstrophic response title to the Robert T. Stafford Act. This too falls short of analysis of technical vis a vis financial response and information response which now has become highly dependent on 24/7/365 MSM and WH provision of technical emergency public information while still in the dark ages on that subject.

We have now in the last decade at least 5 great examples of the WH blowing emergency public information issues. Try H1N1 and anthrax for starters.

Comment by Tom Russo

July 8, 2011 @ 9:17 am


From your perspective, how did the the WH blow the (H1N1) emergency public information issue?

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