- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 14, 2001

Whether or not al-Qaeda terrorists planted anthrax in Florida, the incident ensures, as it should, that Congress will fund a major upgrade in the nation's defenses against biochemical attack.

The White House budget office had been quibbling over Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson's request for $800 million for the task. Now that Florida is home to anthrax cases, it seems almost certain that more funding will be approved.

Sen. Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, told me in an interview that he's confident the administration will support the $1.4 billion he and Sen. Edward Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, have proposed primarily to build up state and local health and emergency agencies.

With the addition of overdue improvements to food-safety inspections, the total is likely to come to $2 billion, according to aides to Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees HHS.

The money is likely to be approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee within a week and be attached to the Defense Department's appropriation.

However, it does not contain what one outside expert considers a vital bureaucratic change: making the Defense Department the lead agency responsible for combating bioterrorism.

Sue Bailey, assistant secretary of defense for health in the Clinton administration, told me that the lead agencies now are the FBI and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but she explained that neither has the assets needed to respond to a serious attack.

"The military has the transport capacity and the communications," she said. "It has the hospitals base hospitals and mobile ones and it has control of the vaccines we'd need. It also has the troops, if it comes to that, for quarantines and crowd control."

The military is prohibited by law from performing civilian police functions, but Dr. Bailey's idea deserves attention. After all, the attacks of Sept. 11 were acts of war on American soil, and they undoubtedly won't be the last.

An anthrax or nerve-gas attack could kill tens or hundreds of thousands of people millions, in the case of highly contagious smallpox and plague.

Dr. Bailey, who oversaw anthrax vaccination of all U.S. military personnel in the 1990s and took the shots herself, said the recent mini-outbreak of inhalation anthrax in South Florida was "an apparent deliberate release an act of terrorism.

"Unless a herd of sheep came trotting down the hallway of that office building [the headquarters of American Media Inc. in Boca Raton], there's no reasonable way this could have been a natural release," she said.

Dr. Bailey did not blame the al-Qaeda terrorist network of Osama bin Laden, but it's a fact that one of the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks, Mohammed Atta, attended flight school in nearby Delray Beach and inquired about crop-duster aircraft, a potential vehicle for spreading anthrax.

"Even if it turns out not to have been done by the Islamic terrorists," she said about the Florida cases, "it's a harbinger that ought to spur us to action."

Besides making the Pentagon the lead agency to combat bioterrorism, Dr. Bailey ticked off a list of other things that need to be done, some of which haven't been widely discussed in Congress.

"Every hospital in Israel has a decontamination room to protect the rest of the hospital from chemicals and biological agents," she noted. "Hardly any of our hospitals do."

Subways, stadiums and major public buildings, Dr. Bailey said, should be equipped with detectors that will signal the presence of biological and chemical agents, as well as set off computerized alarms for local and federal authorities.

"People have to know who's in charge ahead of time. And the first responders firemen, police, emergency workers and hospital personnel ought to be vaccinated as soon as possible in order to take care of other people," she said.

Dr. Bailey also suggested that subways and major buildings, including the Capitol, have filters installed in their air-conditioning systems to remove biological agents.

She was not alone in her criticism of Mr. Thompson for saying on television and before Congress that the U.S. government "could respond to any [bioterrorism] contingency and control it."

"Unfortunately, that's simply not the case," Dr. Bailey said. "Our public health system has no anthrax vaccine inventory and would be overwhelmed by a large-scale biochemical attack if it happened today."

Although a biochemical attack might be the deadliest, Frist said poisoning the nation's food supply with bacteria might be the easiest evil act for terrorists to pull off. American agents currently inspect only 1 percent of imported food, he explained.

Thanks to Mr. Frist and Mr. Kennedy, who helped pass a bioterrorism-response bill last year, the nation isn't starting from scratch in its defenses. And Mr. Thompson, to his credit, has been working on federal responses since January.

However, one reminder of how unprepared local areas are was furnished last week at a hearing by Sen. Robert Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, who said that his wife recently had to wait all day to be seen at Fairfax Hospital's emergency room for pneumonia. Imagine the situation if the Washington area had been hit with anthrax.

Morton Kondracke is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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