The U.S. government is unprepared for a chemical attack against the homeland, a new report shows, even as the Islamic State takes responsibility for more terror attacks around the world and inches closer to gaining access to Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile.
America is ill-equipped to handle the spread of a deadly virus, much less the exposure of U.S. citizens to biochemical weapons, said Ellen Carlin, one of the participants of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, which will release a final report this fall.
The spread of Ebola from a sick Liberian national to Texas nurses Nina Pham and Amber Vinson last year shows the government needs to reconfigure — and possibly replace — the leadership and management structure surrounding its biodefense enterprise, Ms. Carlin said.
The panel has identified a number of gaps that cause the nation to be underprepared for biological threats, she said, including that it is unclear who is in charge of biodefense, a problem that became obvious during the Ebola crisis.
“Ebola was a wake-up call that we’re not doing enough,” she said. “I mean, the White House brought in an Ebola czar [who] we think wouldn’t have been necessary if the structure had been in place.”
The panelists also are alarmed by the U.S. government’s lack of a comprehensive biodefense strategy, she said. Over the years, government officials have crafted dozens of policies, directives, strategies, plans and statutes that require myriad responsibilities to be carried out by the departments and agencies that make it difficult to form a cohesive strategy, she said.
“Taken together, these documents spell out hundreds, if not thousands, of requirements for federal officials over thousands of programs,” she said. “It shows on the one hand that executive action and statute have been applied in well-intentioned efforts to facilitate progress, yet the staggering number of them leaves the entire enterprise in a state of disarray and confusion, particularly as administrations pass from one to the next, and ownership over documents and the institutional knowledge that goes with them is lost.”
Panelists are now in the process of deciding what the U.S. biological and chemical defense infrastructure should look like and will recommend ways in which the White House and Congress should address the nation’s “unnecessary” preparedness gaps, Ms. Carlin said. Those recommendations will not be made public until this fall, she said.
Lawmakers are already ringing the alarm bells that the U.S. is not prepared for a major biochemical threat.
The Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIL and ISIS, is looking to acquire and use military-grade weapons, and reports indicate the terror group has used chlorine gas in their attacks this year, Rep. Martha McSally, Arizona Republican and chairwoman of the House Homeland Security Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications Subcommittee, said in a March hearing.
“We find ourselves at a pivotal time in our fight against terrorists around the world,” Ms. McSally said. “ISIS is better resourced, more brutal and more organized than any terrorist group to date. We must ensure we work to prevent any attacks on U.S. soil, but we must also be prepared should one occur.”
Concern over national security vulnerabilities is spiking just as chemical attacks in Syria are on the rise.
Human rights activists say between March 16 and June 9, Syria’s civil defense teams responded to 23 air raids, which dropped 46 barrel bombs containing chlorine gas on civilians.
There are hundreds of pieces of evidence — including photographs, videos and testimonies — that prove that gas spreads from the aerially dropped barrel bombs, usually delivered by helicopters, MayDay Rescue Program Manager Farouq Habib told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs during a June hearing on chemical weapons attacks in Syria.
“These TNT-filled weapons, which eject nails, metal scrap and other random cheap and harmful shrapnel, take dozens of innocent lives every day, but, for many Syrians, have become merely traditional weapons compared to the more advanced ones the regime developed by adding chlorine gas, which is inexpensive and readily available,” he said.
Although the U.S. military helped to remove chemical stockpiles from Syria in 2013 and 2014 as part of an international effort to eliminate the country’s chemical weapons program, it appears some of those weapons were hidden away during the elimination process, said James Phillips, a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs at The Heritage Foundation.
“It’s not clear how much of Syria’s chemical arsenal was held back from the inspectors, or from international agencies that were collecting the weapons, but it is clear that Syria has been using chlorine gas against rebel-held areas, and that is a violation of the treaty that Syria signed in 2013, when it agreed to give up its chemical weapons,” he said.
Now analysts are worried the Islamic State may be inching itself closer to those stockpiles. The Syrian government’s continued use of chemical weapons is not only “an inconvenient truth that the Obama administration has turned a blind eye to” as it moves toward trying to seal a nuclear deal with Iran, but a tempting asset to Islamic State militants working to gain traction in Syria, Mr. Phillips said.
“To me, the greatest danger is that these weapons could fall into the hands of ISIS and other extremist groups as they continue to whittle down forces loyal to Syrian President [Bashar] al-Assad,” Mr. Phillips said. “If they overrun some of the facilities where the weapons are stored, then they could try to use those weapons, not only against the Assad regime but against U.S. or Iraqi forces inside Iraq or even outside the Middle East.”
The U.S. military is also concerned about that outcome, but has yet to see an indication that those weapons are in danger of falling into the hands of Islamic State militants, said Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren.
“We’re always concerned about chemical weapons,” he said. “Certainly, there’s no question that ISIS would use the chemical weapons if they were able to acquire one.”
Earlier this year, the U.S. military tracked down the Islamic State chemical engineer Abu Malik and killed him in an airstrike near Mosul, Iraq.
Mr. Malik had previously worked at Saddam Hussein’s Muthanna chemical weapons production facility before affiliating with al Qaeda Iraq in 2005, according to a U.S. Central Command statement. Pentagon officials say that he eventually linked up with the Islamic State and began using his training and experience to help the group pursue its goal of obtaining a chemical weapon capability.