- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 26, 2004

The tragedy of our homeland security effort is not that we can’t seem to find a suitable appointee to assume the awesome responsibility of the Cabinet post, but that the government knows full well what is needed to protect us from a terrorist attack, yet nothing significant seems to be done.

In a catalytic Wall Street Journal op-ed Dec. 16, “Our hair is on fire,” former Sens. Warren Rudman and Gary Hart, former Council on Foreign Relations president Leslie H. Gelb, and Stephen Flynn, author of the “bible” for the course, “America the Vulnerable,” all members of the U.S. Commission on National Security in the 21st Century, warned “our leaders have done little or nothing to prepare us for survival and recovery.”

Strong language, but justified because so many of our homeland security problems may be solved easily. Let’s take agroterrorism — an attack on our food supply. The government spends roughly $1 billion to safeguard the food supply; yet, food-borne diseases cause some 5,000 deaths and 325,000 hospitalizations each year. No, we haven’t had any documented incidents of agroterrorism since September 11, 2001, but our spotty methods often make it difficult to distinguish between intentional and accidental contamination.

The food supply is an attractive terrorist target. Food production accounts for 13 percent of gross domestic product; the food industry employs 18 percent of all U.S. workers; and agricultural exports are twice the total of other industries at $140 billion a year. The economic, not to say human, impact of an agro-attack could be devastating.

As a stark reminder of our vulnerability, when just one Holstein in Washington came down with mad cow a year ago, 30 nations promptly banned importation of U.S. beef. The potential for disruption, panic and erosion of confidence in the government is self-evident.

Such an attack, moreover, is relatively easy to accomplish. According to a Rand Institute report to the defense secretary published earlier this year, there is a large smorgasbord of freely available agents to choose from. The Office International des Epizooites lists at least 15 pathogens with the potential to cripple agricultural production or trade. None are the focus of U.S. livestock immunization programs.

Unlike bioterrorism, agroterrorists take very little risk handling the pathogens, which generally are not harmful to humans. Very little training is required to prepare or administer the disease agent and no special wizardry to weaponize it. Indeed, because of our agricultural concentration, a small amount of pathogen could have a high terror yield. As the Rand report notes, “no issue of weaponization … needs to be addressed because the animals themselves are the primary vector for pathogenic transmission.”

Finally, it is virtually impossible to trace an act of agroterrorism to the perpetrator unless it is admitted. The very fact the infection was intentional, as opposed to an accident, may be unprovable.

No wonder when axed Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy G. Thompson gave his recent farewell, he expressed mystification that terrorists have not attacked our food supply “because it is so easy to do.” There was nothing new about this warning. Mr. Thompson had delivered essentially the same message in testimony to Congress shortly after September 11.

Mr. Thompson’s former assistant for counterterrorism, Jerry Hauer, recently said someone could readily drop bacteria into a single tanker truck filled with milk on its way to a pasteurization plant and, because routine processing would neither detect nor destroy the poison “there could be 50,000 tainted cartons available in the stores within a few days.” In January 2003, a disgruntled worker at a Michigan supermarket laced ground beef with large amounts of nicotine, and 92 people fell ill. Sobering.

Contamination need not even occur in the United States. More than half the food consumed here is imported, but less than 5 percent is inspected, according to the Health and Human Services Department. This startlingly minuscule level of inspection, moreover, is mostly visual: examining packaging and labeling, with virtually lab testing for contamination.

This is particularly alarming as it is very well known in the government and easily and inexpensively remedied. The Agriculture Department can develop electronic tagging and related data bases to track livestock from farm to slaughterhouse — and beyond. Scanning and tracking would serve well even in a natural disease outbreak. Such scanning is done in Europe, where mad cow disease is a major concern.

Institutional structural change is also needed. Critics have long deplored that food safety responsibility is dispersed among the Agriculture Department, Health and Human Services and local and state agencies, not to mention Homeland Security, Justice and local law enforcement.

Stephen Flynn says, “A major outbreak could easily involve dozens of agencies with no one clearly in charge.” The Rand report concludes we must “unify the patchwork of largely uncoordinated bioemergency preparedness and response initiatives that presently exists in the United States.”

Other reasoned measures have been proposed, and all should be carefully considered. Just as the September 11 Commission report moved Congress to overhaul and coordinate the intelligence services, so should Mr. Thompson’s dire warning lead us not to panic but to expeditious reform. Ignoring the alarm would be criminal negligence on the policymakers’ part.

James D. Zirin is a lawyer in New York and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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