Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 18, 2011

Flunk the Graders, Not the Country

Filed under: Biosecurity,WMD — by Alan Wolfe on October 18, 2011

Last week, former Senators Bob Graham (D-FL) and Jim Talent (R-MO) released an assessment of the U.S. government’s preparedness for a biological terrorism event. The timing of its release, so near to the Hollywood drama “Contagion,” was not an accident. They wanted a reaction based on fear of a fictional global outbreak of a super-disease. Similar to their past report cards, this assessment was not a good news story.

“Today we face the very real possibility that outbreaks of disease — naturally occurring or man-made — can change the very nature of America,” the report concludes. Technology is also making it easier for terrorists to create deadly mischief, the report says.

A small team of individuals with graduate-level training and readily available equipment “could produce the type of bio-weapons created by nation-states in the 1960s,” the report warns.
The center stressed that one key to improving the nation’s preparedness is leadership.

“We have recommended that there should be someone in the federal government who has (bioterrorism preparedness) as their sole responsibility,” Graham said. “That someone should be an individual who has the capability to direct and influence actions by the multiplicity of agencies that are involved and provide leadership to non-federal entities.”

The office of the vice president would be an appropriate spot for that job, Graham suggested.

Funny thing, former Vice President Dick Cheney and his advisor “Scooter” Libby were the original proponents for pushing a significant biodefense strategy for the United States, a strategy that has put about $6 billion per year into the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, and Defense Department for the past ten years. The fact that this biodefense strategy has failed to protect the United States from a range of biological agents, due to lack of oversight, poorly chosen goals, and limited resources, doesn’t seem to faze Graham and Talent from suggesting putting that office in charge again.

The report card can be found at the former senators’ new digs, the “Bipartisan WMD Terrorism Research Center” or WMD Center for short – which ironically, doesn’t address WMDs, just biological terrorism. I don’t understand why they didn’t call it the “Bioterrorism Center” – it would have been more honest. But I suppose they miss all the attention given to them in their role leading the Congressional Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism.

This report card gives the U.S. government 15 “Fs”, 15 “Ds”, and no “As” in its assessment of both small- and large-scale biological terrorist incidents.

The executive summary cautions the reader to view each grade on its own:

“it should not, however, be interpreted by calculating a grade-point average (GPA).”

You know, I used to tell my mother that when I brought home my report cards from junior high school, but she didn’t seem to view it that way.

It’s a strange assessment, one that seems to ignore the development of a National Biosurveillance Integration Center and the nation-wide Laboratory Response Network to give the nation a “D” for biosurveillance preparedness.

Not prepared enough, the report says, but “promising.”

Really? I thought a “C” would have been acceptable for “promising.” The way they assess the diagnostics and reporting process, you’d think that they were reporting about some third-world nation instead of the nation with the largest and most expensive health care system in the world.

Amazingly, the report says that it is “unclear” whether Project BioWatch, with its air samplers in 30+ cities, is worth the long term financial investment required to protect the nation.

Clearly it is not a sustainable program to expand to other cities, and the much vaunted “Gen III” detector has been in testing for some time. It’s not going to be cheap, just like DHS’s attempts to field next-generation radiological monitors in its “Global Nuclear Detection Architecture.” Are they trying to protect DHS’s S&T Directorate, which appears heading for significant budget cuts?

The report’s assessment on attribution capabilities is riddled with carefully parsed definitions to justify the failing grade that it provides the government. There are a few direct statements, but too many “probably” and “unknown” statements here for my taste.

Again, I am not sure why there is a National Bioforensics Center at Fort Detrick, one that includes participation from the FBI, DHHS, and DoD, but I imagine that it doesn’t deserve the charges that this report lays out.

The report’s assessors don’t seem to take into account the billions of dollars that DHHS is prepared to provide in the development of “private-public partnerships” for two new vaccine development centers. Yes, it will take a few years to build the centers and for the FDA to approve them, but still, not good enough to address a large-scale (multiple cities) outbreak. Yes, our past successes with pandemic disease outbreaks must have been flukes.

You can make up your own minds. From what I see, this is not an honest assessment of what the nation’s capability is to prepare for and respond to a bioterrorism incident. We are intended to overreact to this “lack” of preparedness because the report suggests bioterrorism is so easy. The report actually suggests that the success of Bruce Ivin in 2001, releasing his letters filled with anthrax, means that any general terrorist out there can do the same.

Yes, a man with more than 20 years experience working with anthrax on a regular basis in a well-prepared government lab; just the same as the man on the street. Really.

Fortunately, no one appears to be paying much attention to these Cassandras. They predicted in 2008 that there would be a bioterrorism incident prior to 2013. That’s only two years away. When this date comes and goes without such an incident, maybe we can shame them into retirement. We really don’t need these amateur-hour scare tactics. We have more important things to do with the billions of dollars poured into this money sink.


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Comment by William R. Cumming

October 18, 2011 @ 2:53 pm

Just your rebuttal facts Alan please and not surmises based on your point of view? And have you seen movie “Contagion”?

Comment by Alan Wolfe

October 18, 2011 @ 3:00 pm

Hi William – I think a proper response to the Graham/Talent report card would be too expansive for a blog post. I could, as you say, rebut the report’s findings, but in essense, this is not a well-written report. It’s sloppy, general in its accusations, and lacks academic rigor. As a professional in the WMD field, I just don’t find it credible and I believe other motivations are behind it. But I’ll choose not to defame the authors at this time without more evidence, just a hunch.

I have not seen “Contagion” yet. I have seen “Outbreak” and “The Stand” and other equally dramatic fictions of global disease outbreaks. Does that count? Sorry, I want to live in the real world where the govt is expected to do things, not in Hollywood’s imagination.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

October 18, 2011 @ 3:49 pm

I have to admit I haven’t seen “Contagion” yet either, but there are a lot of reports speaking to CDC involvement in the film. So perhaps, as these things go, not all imagination.

Regarding your experience in the WMD field, would you mind elaborating a little bit? I don’t mean to pry, but it would help in understanding your point of view and background, just as the background of other bloggers on this site informs their views. For example, you can easily Google me and learn about my mentors and experience and extrapolate a point of view.

Comment by Michael Brady

October 18, 2011 @ 3:50 pm

Alan, I don’t disagree that Graham and Talent have chosen a weird hobby, but “Contagion” is worth a couple hours of your time. There is little action (none in the Holloywood sense), just a sober and surprisingly realistic portrayal of a variety of public servants doing battle with a deadly, inexorable, and invisible foe. It draws heavily on the scientific and political responses to the 1918 Influenza, HIV/AIDS, SARS, and H1N1. Relegating “Contagion” to the same hopper as “Outbreak” and “The Stand” is unimaginative.

Comment by Alan Wolfe

October 18, 2011 @ 6:23 pm

Michael, I will see “Contagion” sooner or later. I’m sure it shows the CDC doing a great job in responding to a global crisis. Yea Team America. But here’s the thing. It’s still a fictional account about a fictional virus. It’s not the best source for developing government policy on how to address this threat in the context of homeland security/public health, unless you want to use a movie plot to convince Congress that reducing public health funds, specifically biosurveillane, is a bad idea. And oh yeah, Congress is reducing those funds, don’t think the movie is going to convince them otherwise.

Graham/Talent are using scare tactics based on poor analysis in an attempt to advocate for more industry funding from Congress. I think it’s bullshit, it’s corporate welfare. It’s certainly not sound analysis. They have a stage because they’re former senators. Doesn’t make them bioterorrism experts, despite that “board of advisors” named in the report.

Arnold, Arnold, Arnold. I’m no one important. Just a guy who spent his career being a quiet, subdued government civilian who once did WMD things and, in retirement, can now talk about these things. I am but a bug. You can choose to agree or disagree. All I intend to do is point things out and let people discuss the issues.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 18, 2011 @ 6:57 pm

I asked a Graduate class last night how many had seen “Contagion”? Perhaps a handful but did recommend it. I pointed out that there was no effective time line in the second half of the movie. The miracle of a vaccine licked the problem. I mentioned that problem with egg based vaccines and they are all [vaccines] designed to protect the “herd” not the individual. Also discussed N-95 masks and usage. Also discussed lack of domestic vaccine manufacturing capability. So believe the movie was of some help in fomenting class discussion. I pointed out that 65% of all medical personnel in the USA were killed by the 1918-1919 flu outbreak and the medical profession in the USA recovered only very shortly before WWII.

Comment by Donald Quixote

October 19, 2011 @ 1:54 pm

U.S. Isn’t Ready for Large Biological Attack, Officials Say

October 18, 2011, 12:25 PM EDT

By Jeff Bliss

Oct. 18 (Bloomberg) — The U.S. isn’t prepared to respond to a pandemic or large biological attack, federal officials said.

“We’re not ready for a global catastrophe involving” a pathogen, Tara O’Toole, undersecretary for science and technology at the Department of Homeland Security, said today at a Senate Homeland Security committee hearing.

Vahid Majidi, an assistant director at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said the U.S. would struggle to respond to a pandemic.

The views reflect the conclusion of a bipartisan report released last week.

–Editors: Justin Blum, Leslie Hoffecker


Comment by Alan Wolfe

October 19, 2011 @ 7:34 pm

So what does the DHHS and CDC think, the agencies actually involved in working with the international community on global health crises? Ah, something different maybe? Dr. O’Toole, formerly of the Center for Biosecurity of UPMC, has a bias there. She believes an anthrax attack on a major city would be worse than a nuclear accident. I like Vahid, he’s a smart guy, but I don’t accept the FBI’s conclusions on public health issues. It’s not their field of expertise.

We’re not prepared for a major asteroid hitting the United States or for California slipping into the ocean or for the melting of both polar ice caps, resulting in the loss of much of the east coast. But somehow we make do. So will our ability to counter these manufactured bio-disaster crises.

Comment by Prepared Or Not....

October 19, 2011 @ 9:52 pm

Alan you are certainly indeed quite optimistic!

First of all, a tsunami originiating off of Spain and rolling over our eastern seaboard is a more likely scenario than the asteroid scenario….and Noo we are no way near prepared.Far too much disconnect from federal to state and within the ranks of the inept State legislators…

Sir, We here on “Main Street USA” see quite clearly just how many problems truly exist, far too many….

Comment by Arnold Bogis

October 19, 2011 @ 10:51 pm

Alan, Alan, Alan,

So I hope you don’t mind, but given the lack of professional or biographical information, I am left to imagine that you strongly resemble Harvey Keitel and that during especially difficult cases involving WMD (perhaps with other analysts too wrapped up with the nuclear terrorism threat?) the call goes out (it might seem strange if you are unfamiliar with the movie, but this is a compliment…):

Marsellus Wallace: Yeah, I grasp that, Jules. All I’m doing is contemplating the ifs.

Jules: I don’t wanna hear about no mother_____ ifs. All I wanna hear from your a__ is, “You ain’t got no problem, Jules. I’m on the mother_____. Go back in there and chill them _____ out and wait for the cavalry, which should be coming directly.”

Marsellus Wallace: You ain’t got no problem, Jules. I’m on the mother_____. Go back in there and chill them ____ out and wait for the Wolf, who should be coming directly.

Jules: You sendin’ the Wolf?

Marsellus Wallace: Oh, you feel better, mother_____?

Jules: Sh____, yeah, _____. That’s all you had to say.

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