Congress continues to struggle with WMD, bioterror legislation

Efforts to secure the United States from weapons of mass destruction, particularly biological warfare agents, continue to suffer from a lack of funding, coordination and leadership, a panel of witnesses told Congress on Thursday.

At a joint hearing of the Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection and Security Technologies Subcommittee and the Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications Subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee, members sought to move forward a bill on WMD preparedness that stalled in Congress last year.

In testimony before the House, Representative Bill Pascrell, Jr., co-sponsor of the WMD Prevention and Preparedness Act of 2011, called on members to work together in a “bipartisan” manner to “swiftly consider” the bill. In a prepared statement, Pascrell stressed that he hoped “jurisdictional turf battles will not stop the full House and Senate from passing this important legislation as soon as possible.”

Most members and witnesses agreed that the urgency of the bill was matched only by the threat posed to the country from biological weapons. The former 9/11 WMD Commission issued a report last year titled “World at Risk” that warned that a WMD attack is “likely” to occur by 2013. The same report gave the country particularly low grades for bioterrorism preparedness. Since that time, jurisdictional turf battles in Congress and between agencies, funding constraints and a lack of leadership from the White House have hampered efforts to develop a more closely coordinated bioterrorism strategy.

“As the WMD Commission stated in its report, it is unacceptable that now, nearly 10 years after September 11, we do not have a comprehensive national strategy to counter the threat that WMD poses to our country," the committee’s lead-off witness, Representative Bill Pascrell, said. "One year later, and hopefully a little wiser, I hope we will swiftly consider by this committee this legislation, and that jurisdictional turf battles will not stop the full House and Senate from passing this important legislation as soon as possible.”

The vice chairman of the WMD Center, former Senator Jim Talent, praised committee members “for consistently acting with the urgency that we at the WMD Center think is justified by this threat.”   

Recalling the failing grade given biodefense efforts and the dire warnings of last year’s report, Talent revealed that a follow-up report will be issued this fall that will more fully explore the failures to integrate detection and surveillance efforts and the necessity for sacrificing jurisdictional turf among numerous committees in order to make progress in protecting the nation from biological threats.

Robert Kadlec, the former special assistant to President George W. Bush for biodefense, said that the nation has spent approximately $50 billion over the last 10 years on biodefense efforts, but that few improvements are discernible. He also pointed out that he was the last special assistant to the president for biodefense policy and that the Obama administration has not named a successor to that post.   

“We see how biodefense is managed today, it’s not being seen as a national security priority,” Kadlec said.  

Kadlec called for streamlining cross-cutting budgetary proposals across agencies, an emphasis on pre-vaccination of first responders and studies on environmental clean-up efforts should the nation suffer a bioterror attack, arguing that preparedness for biological threats can be a form of deterrence.

At a somewhat more grassroots level, the final committee witness, Sheriff Richard Berdnik of Passaic, New Jersey, one of the six Tier 1 regions considered at greatest risk of a terrorist attack, told House members funding cuts could have a potentially devastating impact on state and local first responders. He added that the nation’s communications system continues to lack interoperability among responders and that there was presently no way to notify the public of a WMD event in a timely manner.

The 2011 bill, introduced on Friday, retains a comprehensive approach to securing the country against weapons of mass destruction, emphasizing prevention, preparedness, protection, response and recovery.  New provisions in this year’s bill include establishing a new Special Assistant to the President for Biodefense responsible for crafting a federal biodefense plan and putting together a cross-cutting biodefense budget, and a provision to allow the secretary of Health and Human Services to make surplus vaccines with short shelf lives from the Strategic National Stockpile available to state and local first responders.  

Ranking Member Laura Richardson (D-Calif.), in a prepared statement, said that efforts to better integrate state and local first responders would be accomplished “through training, exercise participation, intelligence information, grant funding and inclusion in the preparedness planning process.”

The central theme of the committee’s hearing was repeatedly emphasized by former Senator Jim Talent, who said that “nobody is looking at the whole picture,” and that the U.S. has got to “get somebody in charge,” responsible for coordinating efforts, expenditures and priorities.  

Congress and the administration need to reach a degree of uniformity in understanding the urgency posed by biological threats, either man-made or natural, Talent said. Oversight rules by a number of committees continue to make it difficult for agencies to develop the trust and relationships necessary to address the problem, with literally dozens of agencies involved in biodefense issues.

While the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden by U.S. special forces last month was a crippling blow to the organization, former Senator Talent noted that bin Laden's successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was an Egyptian doctor with a background in medicine and infectious disease, “One more reason we worry about bioterrorism.”  

Such a background could lead to a renewal of interest in biological agents as weapons of mass destruction, a much less complicated and cost effective endeavor than efforts to develop or steal nuclear weapons. Kadlec said in his prepared testimony that Zawahiri, is “one who has and likely still aspires to attack the United States with anthrax.”

An additional highlight of the new bill is elimination of the National Bio-Surveillance Integration Center.

“The bill also eliminates the under-performing National Bio-Surveillance Integration Center," Chairman Daniel Lungren (R-Calif.), said. "The goal of the NBIC was to provide early detection of an event of national significance, such as anthrax. While an effective national bio-surveillance capability is an important component of preparedness and response, NBIC has not fulfilled its mandate due in part to the lack of cooperation of other federal agencies. And we have limited evidence that this situation will improve. This bill rightly realizes that continuing to fund NBIC under the current operations scheme will be money wasted and calls on White House leadership to develop a new plan and program that works effectively and efficiently.”

Ranking Member Richardson also emphasized the importance of public participation and ensuring that at-risk populations are included in planning.  

“As the WMD Commission found in its December 2008 report, America needs to move more aggressively to address our vulnerability to a bioterror attack," Richardson said. "As an original co-sponsor of this particular act, I’m proud to take up this bipartisan legislation that addresses this bio-WMD issue from prevention to recovery...One of the key provisions in this bill includes ensuring that we empower our citizens by providing WMD preparedness guidance and early warning systems.”

Overall, the current state of WMD preparedness in the biological sector was bemoaned by Rep. Pascrell, who said that, “As the WMD Commission stated in its report, it is unacceptable that now, nearly 10 years after September 11, we do not have a comprehensive national strategy to counter the threat that WMD poses to our country.”

According to Pascrell, the new legislation “addresses the findings from the Government Accountability Office on the state of our biodefense enterprise. It creates an entirely new top-down approach centered at the White House. This includes establishing a new special assistant to the president for biodefense who will be responsible for crafting a federal biodefense plan and putting together a yearly cross-cutting biodefense budget, which will help streamline agency efforts and improve efficiency. It includes a new provision that will allow the secretary of Health and Human Services to make surplus vaccines with short shelf lives available from our strategic national stockpile to our state and local first responders."

While the WMD Prevention and Preparedness Act of 2011 appears to have a measure of bipartisan support, fiscal constraints and Congressional gridlock make its passage anything but certain.  

"Funding for our various Homeland Security State and Local grant programs that help at-risk areas prepare and secure sensitive infrastructure, are under severe funding constraints," Rep. Pascrell said. "Grant programs for our Cops and Firefighters to purchase equipment and ensure they have adequate personnel are slated for cuts.”