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?
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.
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.