Bush Administration Releases Unclassified Version of Bioterrorism Preparedness Directive
An unclassified version of President Bush's recently signed directive on biodefense strategy was made public on Wednesday at an HHS news conference, the Washington Post reports. The directive includes 59 separate "taskings" to clarify which tasks agencies will be responsible for; the unclassified version gives "hardly any examples of specific responsibilities given to specific agencies," according to the Post. Administration officials said they did not release specific details because they did not want to "broadcast U.S. vulnerabilities," the Post reports. Officials said the directive aims to improve some efforts to combat terrorism that to date have been "at times ad hoc, temporary or uncoordinated," according to the Post (Mintz, Washington Post, 4/29). President Bush on April 21 approved the directive, titled "Biodefense for the 21st Century," to improve coordination among offices and agencies in preventing a bioterrorist attack. The plan directs the Department of Homeland Security to:
- Establish a National Biosurveillance Group to collect and assess all relevant information about potential threats against the nation;
- Perform a biological "net assessment" every four years evaluating the effectiveness of existing biodefenses;
- Conduct a national risk assessment every two years evaluating new biological threats;
- Provide all assessments to the Department of Defense, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Department of Transportation, Environmental Protection Agency, CDC, FBI and "numerous other agencies";
- Expand international efforts to prevent biological material from reaching terrorists; and
- Develop an "early-warning system" to detect the intentional release of any harmful biological material into the water supply.
Some observers said that making the new policies public during a presidential election campaign is "risky because it implicitly acknowledges the administration had not done everything it could before today," the Post reports. Ridge said agencies had been "aggressively pursing biological defenses" before the directive, "but now their responsibilities have been defined by the president." Frank Cilluffo, former Bush administration homeland security official, said, "I give them kudos for advancing such a tough set of policies in a campaign year when most issues grind to a halt." However, Tara O'Toole, a bioterrorism expert at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said she was "deeply disappointed" by the directive, according to the Post. She added, "It's not a strategy but a list of projects and goals." Rep. Jim Turner (D-Texas), ranking minority member on the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, said in a statement, " More than two years after the anthrax attacks, the administration should have long since decided who is in charge of implementing a biodefense strategy," adding, " We need much more than what was announced today" (Washington Post, 4/29). CNN's "Wolf Blitzer Reports" on Wednesday included an interview with HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson about the directive (Blitzer, "Wolf Blitzer Reports," CNN, 4/28). The complete transcript of the segment is available online. A video excerpt of the segment is available online in RealPlayer. MPR's "Marketplace Morning Report" on Thursday reported on the cost of the directive ("Marketplace Morning Report," MPR, 4/29). The complete segment will be available online in RealPlayer after the broadcast.
In related news, arms control advocates on Wednesday said research planned for a Department of Homeland Security laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md., "would violate the international ban on biological weapons," the Baltimore Sun reports. Research planned for the $200 million National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center includes laboratory studies of genetically engineered germs and procedures to disseminate them as an aerosol spray, according to Lt. Col. George Korch, the center's deputy director, the Sun reports. The center will also study bioforensics, the science of tracing a germ to its source, and will build a database of information on potential biological weapons threats, homeland security spokesperson Michelle Petrovich said. The research is part of the $6 billion allocated by the federal government for biodefense programs. Milton Leitenberg, a University of Maryland scholar studying biowarfare said, "If any other country presented this list of tasks, the U.S. intelligence community would say it's an offensive program." Petrovich said that "everything proposed by NBACC is strictly defensive in purpose, not offensive," according to the Sun (Shane, Baltimore Sun, 4/29).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.