Institute for Homeland Security director calls for increase in bioterror response

Randy Larsen, director of the Institute for Homeland Security and national security advisor at the Center for Biosecurity, addressed how the government intended to improve its rapid response to prevent biological attacks during the BioDefense 2010 conference in Washington, D.C., on May 4.

Recently, the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism gave the U.S. government an ‘F’ for “enhancing capabilities for rapid response to prevent biological attacks from inflicting mass casualties.”

“We were trying to look at the actions we need to take to improve this 'F' grade,” Larsen said, Homeland security Today reports. “A lot of people really disagree with the 'F' grade. Some of them cannot say it in public because they work in the government. But we are not ready to respond to a biological attack. There is pretty much general agreement on that.”

Larsen elected to continue to the mission of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, forming a new nonprofit corporation with former Sens. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Jim Talent (R-Mo.) to carry on its work after its mandate expired March 1.

Larsen said about 70 percent of the new group’s effort will be on education.

“We feel that too many senior leaders in the legislative and executive branches of federal, state and local government--as well as many leaders in the private sector--really don't understand the threat,” Larsen said of the new Bipartisan WMD Terrorism Research Center according to “Until they have a better understanding of that, we shouldn't expect them to be taking appropriate actions that we think need to be taken.”

Larsen offered two assessments with two qualifiers and one caveat.

”The assessment on the near-term bioterrorism threat is sometimes overrated,” Larsen stated. “The assessment on the long-term bioterrorism threat is frequently underrated.”

The two qualifiers? When referring to short-term threats, Larsen is looking ahead to only the next 12 months. When referring to long-term threats, he is talking about 2013 and beyond -- the cutoff point originally pinpointed by the WMD Commission in its report, "World at Risk," in December 2008 for when a WMD attack likely would occur somewhere in the world without urgent action.

”Now normally in the national security community, when people refer to long-term threats, they are talking about a couple of decades,” Larsen said, Homeland Security Today reports. “But I'm only talking about a very short timeframe -- 2013 and beyond. That is because of the very rapid pace of change in the biotechnical revolution. What Nobel prize-winning microbiologists are working on today, graduate students will be working on in two years. There is an incredibly rapid pace of change, which means the threat is only going to worsen as we move forward.”

The caveat? Larsen confessed he could be wrong about the short-term threat. An attack could occur tomorrow, as the short-term threat is only sometimes overrated in his estimation.

Larsen highlighted the key differences between being able to prevent an attack with biological agents and an attack with nuclear weapons.

”If we locate, lock down, and eliminate all of the loose nuclear material in the world, terrorists cannot make a nuclear weapon,” Larsen said, reports. “They cannot enrich uranium. It's difficult for small countries to do, and certainly non-state actors cannot do it. They have to buy highly enriched uranium or they have to steal it. So if we do a really good job on prevention--locating, locking down, eliminating loose nuclear material--there will not be a mushroom cloud over an American city.