- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 25, 2003

The largest threat to national security is too small to see — the microbes and viruses of bioterrorism. Biological agents are almost an ideal weapon for terrorists because of the relative ease with which they can be made and dispersed. It is little wonder that al Qaeda operatives have tried to acquire them. It is probably just a matter of time before they do.

Vice President Dick Cheney said recently that one of his greatest concerns is that terrorists will acquire “a biological weapon of some kind, or even a nuclear weapon.” Advisers to Mr. Cheney have played critical roles in a systemic examination of the gaps in the nation’s bioterrorism defenses — and their potential policy patches — currently being prepared by the White House. Numerous senior officials have contributed to the classified report, which is being directed by retired Gen. John Gordon of the Homeland Security Council. The study is expected to be finished soon, and its recommendations should give better direction to agency personnel and help in establishing priority for agency budgets.

It is encouraging that the administration understands the gravity of the bioterrorism threat. However, several recent studies have revealed that there is a long way to go.

A study issued last week by the Trust for America’s Health found spotty progress. It discovered that states have better communications capabilities, improved bioterrorism response plans and better-equipped laboratories than they used to. However, it also found that red tape has hindered states from fully drawing on federal bioterrorism funds, that only two states are fully prepared to distribute and administer emergency treatments from national stockpiles, and that many states will soon be facing a shortage of trained pubic health personnel.

Similar concerns were raised by the final report of the Gilmore Commission, which was issued last Monday. The commission warned that the momentum to protect the country against terrorism may have waned. It made a wide range of recommendations for improving bioterrorism preparedness, such as simplifying the funding applications process and improving communications among first responders, government representatives and law enforcement officials.

Communications problems prevented first responders from properly responding to the biological and radiological attacks simulated in Chicago and Seattle last May. An unclassified summary of a study of the exercise was released earlier this week. In addition to troubled communications, the report also found that stockpiles of treatments were not utilized effectively because emergency responders were confused about how to access and distribute them.

In some ways, those findings are a sign of progress, since the purpose of Gen. Gordon’s highly classified assessment was to discover and deal with such difficulties. Clark Kimerer, the head of operations for the Seattle Police Department, said, “We found, literally, hundreds of fixable things.”

While it is critical for such gaps in the nation’s biodefenses to be found, it is, of course, even more critical that they be filled as fast as America’s war footing allows. Like soldiers already under enemy observation, policy-makers must redouble their efforts to prepare for the fire that might come at any moment. Minutes lost in preparedness now might well be paid for in blood and lives later.

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