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Report: ‘F’ for Obama Administration’s Biological Attack Readiness

January 26, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Margaret Warner speaks with former Senators Bob Graham and Jim Talent about a new report that grades the U.S. ability to respond to a terrorist attack utilizing weapons of mass destruction.

MARGARET WARNER: More than eight years after the deadly anthrax attacks, the U.S. still isn’t prepared to protect the public against a biological terrorist act. That was the word today from the congressionally chartered Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation.

In an earlier 2008 report, this panel warned that it was likely that, before the end of 2013, a weapon of mass destruction would be used somewhere in the world by terrorists. It recommended 17 steps to counter that.

In today’s report, the commission gave the White House and Congress an F in three of those areas: developing rapid response capability, providing effective congressional oversight, and recruiting the next generation of national security experts.

It gave them four A.’s in other areas, including reviewing current programs to secure dangerous pathogens and adopting an interagency bioforensic strategy.

And, for more, we’re joined by the panel’s chairman, former Democratic Senator Bob Graham, and its vice chairman, former Republican Senator Jim Talent.

Gentlemen, welcome. Thank you for being here.

BOB GRAHAM: Thank you.

JIM TALENT: Great to be here.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s start with your assessment, actually, 14 months ago. Is there any doubt in your mind — and I will begin you with, Senator Graham, but either of you — that the threat remains as you assessed it then, that, within the next four years, it is likely, or more likely than not, that some terrorist somewhere in the world will use a weapon of mass destruction?

BOB GRAHAM: If anything, the odds that we gave a year ago, which was more likely than not, have probably gone up in the past 14 months. That is, it is higher than just a straight slightly more than 50/50 that some place on Earth, a terrorist group will use a weapon of mass destruction between now and the end of 2013.

The reason for that is that accessibility, particularly of biological materials, has increased, the sophistication of al-Qaida, as we saw on Christmas Day, has become, if anything, greater and more diffused. We believe that the risk is real and growing.

MARGARET WARNER: And this was a unanimous finding?

JIM TALENT: Yes, and will reduce — will reach a probability by around 2013. And, of course, we don’t have intel telling us the attack is going to occur in 2013. But, if you look at the trend lines, it’s a short-term risk. That was our point. This is not the next generation that has to worry about this.

MARGARET WARNER: And when you say trend lines, briefly, what do you mean?

JIM TALENT: Well, although we are doing things, we are making progress in particular areas, as a government and with allies, they are active also. And it’s like we’re running, but they’re running faster.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, so let’s take one the — the F that I think made everyone the most nervous, which was that a system still hadn’t been developed to respond quickly to a bioterror attack.

Are you talking about, what, preventing mass casualties? What do you mean by that?

BOB GRAHAM: Oh, first, we mean deterrence. The reality is that, if a terrorist gains access to a biological weapon, they’re going to ask themselves, where can we use this weapon to the greatest effect?

So, the degree to which you are prepared to respond to it becomes a significant amount of your deterrence that it will not be used against you. But, if you are attacked, the adequacy of your response capabilities can reduce the number of casualties into the thousands, not the tens or hundreds of thousands, and, therefore, make it something less than a mass destructive event.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Senator Talent, what is missing in that area? What hasn’t been done?

JIM TALENT: Well, unfortunately, about everything is missing. I mean, we have not stockpiled the countermeasures. We didn’t even have enough vaccines for H1N1 with six months’ notice. We don’t have planned systems for distributing the countermeasures in the event of an attack.

Many cities won’t know whether an attack has occurred. We don’t have the devices to tell us that. We don’t have the capacity to clean up afterwards. I mean, this is why we gave them an F, because every link in the chain of response — we call it a chain with links — is inadequate.

And there’s really no reason for that. The chairman likes to point out, correctly, this is something we can do on our own. And we don’t really need international partners to do it, and we should be doing it.

MARGARET WARNER: So, why hasn’t it happened?

BOB GRAHAM: It hasn’t happened, I think, first, because there’s been a tendency to want to deny the existence.


BOB GRAHAM: People view a biological attack as seven letters sent in October of 2001. That was a terrible thing, but it — in scale, it was much less than a mass destruct…

MARGARET WARNER: A mass event.

BOB GRAHAM: What we’re talking about is a terrorist putting a slurry of anthrax in the back of a truck with a dispensing device which makes it almost invisible, driving it through a major American city, and potentially affecting hundreds of thousands of people.

That’s the scale that we think we’re going to be dealing with, unless we take some immediate action to raise our barriers against the attack or to be able to reduce its consequences.

JIM TALENT: I would say, our establishments are used to the nuclear threats, so new administrations hit the ground running. And we gave the Obama administration pretty good grades on nuclear. But they’re very slow to recognize bio. And it was true for Clinton. It was true for Bush. And, unfortunately, it’s true for Obama.

We have been trying to tell them for the last year that they need to mount the learning curve more quickly.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you did, though, Senator Talent give them a more mixed set of grades on steps that would prevent an attack. For instance, at least they have assessed where the dangerous pathogens are.

Just describe that a little bit. Have they done at least some preventive work?

JIM TALENT: Well, yes, they have. That’s in the nature of a study, though. And it was our recommendation, and they did it. And, so, we gave them an A on that. We have to see how they implement it.

There are some senators in the government that are doing better. There’s a committee in the Congress, Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins’ committee, that have been aggressive in pushing legislation that would cover a lot of these areas. But that’s one committee in one house of Congress. And that’s not good enough. We’re just on too short a time frame.

MARGARET WARNER: So, for instance, on prevention, I noticed you gave them just a D or a D-plus for actually tightening government restrictions on the labs where these pathogens are being used.

BOB GRAHAM: Yes. Well, we have done several studies of what needs to be done. And they’re very consistent. We need to reduce the number of pathogens that we are subjecting to the highest scrutiny today.

We’re trying to monitor 80. We think, in fact, there are about eight that are the most likely to be used by a terrorist group in a weapon. We also are suggesting that there be significant increases in uniformity. We have multiple agencies now that are assessing these labs, and the standards from one lab to the other can be quite different.

Third, we think that at the international bioweapons convention, which will be held in 2011, the United States needs to lead by example. We need to say, here’s what we have done. You, other countries of the world, should see our standard as that to which you will aspire.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Senator Talent, your former colleagues on Capitol Hill also came in for some criticism here. You basically gave an F for adequate committee oversight. What is the problem there?

JIM TALENT: Well, one of the reasons we’re behind in bio as a government is that decision-making in the bio area is fragmented.

There’s — there’s over two dozen officials in the executive branch, Senate-confirmed officials, who have a piece of the bio responsibility, but none of them are full-time. There’s no senior political appointee on the NSC whose experience is primarily bio.

And Congress is trying to oversee the Department of Homeland Security, which has most of this jurisdiction, through 70 — I mean, Bob knows — 75 or 80 different committees or subcommittees at this point.

Well, that renders oversight into not only not helpful, but a negative. And we’re not the first commission to tell them to change that. And, this time, we said, you have got to do it. And we just gave them an F. They’re not even trying to change it.

MARGARET WARNER: So, this is your first report card on this administration. Are you going to keep monitoring this?


Our commission expires at the end of February, but we’re going to set up a nonprofit bipartisan entity to continue to work with the Congress, with the administration, implementing our recommendations. We’re particularly going to be focused on the role of the citizen, what can we do to better prepare individual Americans to defend their own homes, as well as contribute to their communities’ defense. And we’re going to issue another report card early in 2011.

MARGARET WARNER: So — and, very briefly, have you gotten indications from the White House and Congress that they actually welcome this, Senator Talent?

JIM TALENT: Well, I think the — I think the president is going to talk about the need for better biopreparedness in the State of the Union address, which is a good sign.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Senator Jim Talent, Senator Bob Graham, thank you very much.

BOB GRAHAM: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: Thanks for your work.

BOB GRAHAM: Thank you.