WASHINGTON — A CIA-affiliated think tank is predicting that America is “likely” to be hit by bio-terrorist attacks at some point in the next 15 years. According to two recently released reports from respected think tanks, the country is still unprepared for strikes involving biological agents such as anthrax and smallpox.
Taken together, the think tank reports paint an ominous picture of a nation highly vulnerable to deadly strikes. Among the most damning conclusions is that the ability of health care professionals and first responders to effectively confront a biological terrorist attack is being impeded by a lack of clearly defined standards, resources, vaccine and antidote stockpiles, qualified medical personnel and rapid nationwide communication systems.
“Biological agents are more readily available to terrorists than nuclear materials,” said Richard Danzig, who served as secretary of the Navy in the Clinton administration and now serves as a consultant on bio-terrorism to the Pentagon and to other government agencies.
“Biological agents have the potential to be much more life threatening [than nuclear materials], much more rapidly and for much larger numbers of people,” Danzig told the Forward. He added that America’s “fragmented and stressed” health care system is structurally unfit to respond to such attacks adequately.
The warning of a “likely” biological terrorist attack came last week from the National Intelligence Council, in a report produced by a think tank that generates intelligence forecasts for the CIA director but is not officially a part of the agency. The report drew national attention, but mainly relating to its finding that Iraq, since the American invasions, has become a breeding ground for terrorists — a place they go not only to act with relative impunity, but also to hone their military skills.
“There are concerns that homeland security in general is suffering, not necessarily in terms of dollars, but of people, because the same people who are called up from the reserves or the National Guard are often critical to first-responder-type plans in communities,” said Leif Wellington Hasse, a fellow at the New York-based Century Foundation and chief author of the report “Breathing Easier?” This report is one of the two recent studies warning that the country is ill prepared to cope with a bioterrorist attack.
The CIA-linked study, a national-security projection for 2020, predicts a surge in militant Islamic terrorism and states that terrorists have been recently intensifying their “search to obtain weapons of mass destruction.” As a result, the report continues, “our greatest concern is that these groups might acquire biological agents or, less likely, a nuclear device, either of which could cause mass casualties.”
“Bioterrorism,” the report explains, “appears particularly suited to the smaller, better-informed groups. Indeed, the bioterrorist’s laboratory could well be the size of a household kitchen, and the weapon built there could be smaller than a toaster. Terrorist use of biological agents is therefore likely, and the range of options will grow. Because the recognition of anthrax, smallpox or other diseases is typically delayed, under a ‘nightmare scenario’ an attack could be well under way before authorities would be cognizant of it.”
Most “nightmare scenarios” involving terrorists using weapons of mass destruction — such as the one outlined in the 9/11 Commission report — focus on nuclear material rather than on biological agents. But bioterrorism experts say that biological weapons are more attractive, more accessible and easier to transfer. “Many of the biological agents are accessible. They are in the hands of bio-weaponeers,” said Dr. Elin Gursky, senior fellow for bio-defense with the security-oriented think tank Anser. “Those materials could be and probably already are in the hands of people who could use them for nefarious purposes,” she said. “Biological weapons have the advantage of causing fear and affecting populations on a very large scale. Epidemics will result in economic and civil chaos — exactly the goals of terrorists.”
While the nation’s last experience with bioterrorism, 2001’s anthrax attacks, left only five people dead and 11 injured through inhalation, “it brought the entire country’s public-health system down on its knees,” Gursky said.
Following the 2001 attacks, Congress passed legislation that authorized an immediate appropriation of $4.3 billion to develop new vaccines and other medications, improve capacity in hospitals, and upgrade state and local public-health departments. It was the single largest investment in public-health infrastructure since World War II. Additional appropriations of $1.5 billion were made for the 2004 and 2005 fiscal years. In all, spending on civilian bio-defense since 2001 reached $14.5 billion through last year. The president requested another $7.6 billion for the 2005 budget.
This massive infusion of cash, experts say, had to make up for three decades of gross under-funding on the public-health system. When the envelopes with the white powder were discovered less than four years ago, many public-health departments across the nation — with only rotary phones and no computers or fax machines — had no effective way of communicating with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Two separate studies on bio-preparedness, which coincidentally were published on the same day as the NIC’s “Global Future” report, show that despite the increased funding, public-health departments are still far from prepared to confront bioterrorism. One report, an annual study of America’s response to the bioterrorist threat, issued by Trust for America’s Health, found that “states across the country are still struggling to meet basic preparedness requirements.” That is mainly because “preparedness planning still lacks strategic direction, well-defined priorities and appropriate levels of resources.”
“Breathing Easier?” is the other study. Authored by a panel of leading experts and published by the Century Foundation, the study found that without central coordination, the increased federal funding for state and local authorities may only “reinforce the existing divisions” between the various levels of government, making America “less, not more, prepared” for an attack.
An April 2004 White House memo described the Bush administration’s strategy as “developing comprehensive plans that provide for seamless, coordinated federal, state, local, and international responses to a biological attack.” But experts doubt if the state and local public-health systems are capable of doing their part.
Experts who work with government agencies say they are frustrated by government officials’ inability to imagine what a catastrophic biological attack would look like. In a study for the administration, Danzig laid out a series of possible bioterrorism scenarios. “I wanted to get them all to focus… on what could happen,” Gursky said. He added: “In all my research I continue to see glaring evidence that we do not understand the biological threat…. Why? Because it has been a long time since the 1918 influenza pandemic. We have not had a catastrophic infectious disease in this country for almost a century.” Which is why, she said, adequate preparations may not be made until the threat of a catastrophic attack materializes.