By J. Taylor Rushing - 09/08/09 08:54 PM EDT
Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) on Tuesday used the forthcoming eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to begin their push for a Senate bill boosting the country’s readiness for a second strike.
Lieberman, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Collins, the committee’s ranking Republican, appeared at a press conference to announce the bill with former senators Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Jim Talent (R-Mo.), who headed a bipartisan panel studying changes to national policy and procedure. Congress created the panel in the wake of recommendations by the 9/11 Commission that studied the nation’s readiness to the 2001 attack.
Lieberman described the Weapons of Mass Destruction Prevention and Preparedness Act of 2009 as the best way to ensure the lives lost in the 2001 attack were not in vain. He also noted that the country’s “margin of safety is shrinking, not growing.”
“In this case complacency, born of short memories, is not an option,” he said. “The bottom line is this: We’ve got to be direct and honest with the American people about the risks facing this country from a terrorist attack using weapons of mass destruction. We know that the threats against the American people are still out there and they are evolving.”
The bill aims to tighten security at laboratories that handle dangerous pathogens, using a “tiered approach” that is more stringent on facilities with more dangerous chemicals; order federal agencies to develop a national strategy for distributing antibiotics and medicine throughout the country in the event of a biological attack; improve communications to the public regarding responses to an attack and promote local-level education regarding a potential attack. The bill’s total cost is so far unknown.
The recommendations came from the Commission for the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, chaired by Graham and Talent. Both former senators offered the same dire warnings about a lack of preparedness.
“We are losing ground in terms of our protection against a weapons of mass destruction being used,” Graham said. “It’s not a function of our being derelict or slow to respond, but more that our adversaries have been moving at a quicker pace.”
Talent painted an even more dramatic picture.
“Just think in a very concrete way: A Fourth of July celebration with tens of thousands of people together, and somebody driving back and forth in a pickup on the roads nearby with a shell and a hole in the top of the shell with a paint sprayer, shooting powdered anthrax up in the air and letting the wind circulate that. You’re talking about killing tens and tens of thousands of people,” he said.
Graham and Talent both said many of their recommendations were commonsense ideas that should have already been implemented but that the Bush and Obama administrations have been unable to do so because of a general lack of coordination, murky legal authority and bureaucratic infighting.
Lieberman said he hopes to have committee hearings on the bill this fall, but acknowledged there is no companion bill yet to emerge in the House and that the bill is still far from assured of passing the Senate. Lieberman said he expects opposition from the scientific community because of the crackdown on security rules, and from some executive branch agencies who are wary of losing authority.
“We expect some opposition, but the urgency of the threat of a bioterrorist attack on the United States is so much greater that I’m optimistic that we’re going to get this done by the end of this year,” he said.