U.S. not prepared to respond to bioterror, expert says

Retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Randall J. Larsen recently told the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security that the U.S. is not prepared to respond to the threat of biological terrorism.

"America has spent a lot of money in the past 16 years in the name of biodefense, but progress has been incredibly slow, disjointed, and misdirected," Larsen said. "This lack of progress leaves us highly vulnerable. This vulnerability will increase in the years ahead as the biotechnical revolution provides capability to a growing number of non-state actors, both foreign and domestic."

Larsen has served as the chairman of the Department of Military Strategy and Operations at the National War College and the founding director of the Institute for Homeland Security. Additionally, he has served as the executive director of the Congressional Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism.

Larsen currently serves as the CEO of the not-for-profit research and education organization WMD Center created by former Senators Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Jim Talent (R-Mo.). He said that, since 1994, he has studied the threat of bioweapons and the technologies, organizations and systems required to defend against them.

The WMD Center was created by Sens. Talent and Graham to continue the work of the WMD Commission, which released its WMD Commission Report Card on January 26 that gave a failing grade to the nation for preparedness to respond to bioterrorism.

The report card, Larsen said, was meant to be a wake-up call to the administration and Congress. Instead of spurring activity, however, the BioShield Strategic Reserve Funds were stripped by a House of Representatives vote.

Removing funds from the BioShield SRF, Sens. Talent and Graham wrote in a letter to President Obama, would “drive a stake through the heart of America’s fledgling biodefense program.”

The removal of funds was stopped by a bipartisan effort in the Senate, but the White House remained silent on the issue.

Larsen said that the attempt against the BioShield SRF was a symptom of a much larger problem.

"Many leaders in this town, both Democrat and Republican, fail to understand the growing threat of bioterrorism," Larsen said. "That was best demonstrated when the bipartisan leadership in Congress created the WMD Commission. The words biology, biological, and bioterrorism did not appear in the enabling language. It was as if the U.S. Congress thought WMD was an acronym for nuclear."

The lack of bioterrorism in the language of the creation of the WMD Commission, Larsen said, is indicative of misunderstanding of WMDs and stems from a lack of leadership.

"Unfortunately, this lack of leadership goes all the way to the White House. Both the Clinton and Bush Administrations had a Special Assistant to the President for Biodefense to coordinate efforts across the federal government," Larsen said. "The Obama Administration eliminated this position and the Biodefense Policy Coordinating Committee that was the forum to ensure that US Government was focused on the problem. This leadership and senior-level coordination deficiency is critical since there are more than two dozen Presidentially-appointed, Senate-confirmed individuals in the executive branch with some responsibility for biodefense. However, no one has it for a full-time job, and no one is charge."

Currently, there is not a single Presidentially-appointed, Senate-confirmed individual with full-time responsibility for America's biodefense efforts. There is also no part of the executive branch, except for the president himself, where the lines of authority converge on a single individual.

"Imagine how these facts will read when some future commission investigates the failed response to a biological attack on our homeland," Larsen said.

To better prepare against the threat of biodefense, Larsen said, all members of the subcommittee should receive the Population Threat Assessment briefing prepared by Dr. Elizabeth George at the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Science and Technology.

The Population Threat Assessment, Sens. Talent and Graham said, was one of the most important briefings that they received during the two years of the WMD Commission.