House lawmakers on Tuesday heard new warnings about the nation’s ability to protect against outbreaks of deadly diseases and terrorists wielding biological weapons, which critics describe as a blind spot.
Former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge appeared in the House to present the results of a new 100-page report claiming the country is “dangerously vulnerable” to an epidemic.
“[As] I look back, it surprised me that we haven’t, thank God, experienced a bioterrorist attack in this country of any significance since the outbreak of the war against Islamic extremism,” said Lieberman.
A weaponized version of a killer virus is “relatively easier to put together” than other weapons of mass destruction, he added.
“This is not a threat that we’re creating. This is real,” he warned. “We better get ahead of it before it gets ahead of us and we’re running to catch up.
“We’re not ready for the threat now.”
Lieberman and Ridge released their report along with other members of the bipartisan Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, which was set up late last year to assess the government’s actions on epidemics and bioterrorism in the years since Sept. 11, 2001.
Despite multiple laws and actions to beef up the U.S.’s biological security, Lieberman and Ridge warned on Tuesday, excess redundancy and lack of coordination created needless waste.
The country spends about $6 billion per year on biodefense, according to the report. “We don’t think we’re getting our money’s worth, in part, because it’s not adequately coordinated,” Lieberman said.
Concern about biological vulnerabilities spiked a week after 9/11, when envelopes containing anthrax spores were sent to multiple news outlets and congressional offices, ultimately killing five people. Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s (D-S.D.) was one of the offices targeted by the attacks, and Daschle sits on the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense.
More recently, last year’s outbreak of Ebola in West Africa prompted new fears about the U.S.’s resiliency to a deadly outbreak, whether or not terrorists are involved. The outbreak killed more than 11,000 people in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, and sparked alarm in the U.S.
“As we saw with Ebola … just a handful of cases can cause a widespread panic and fear,” said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas). “It’s palpable.”
Ten people were ultimately treated for Ebola in the U.S. Two of them died.
Despite the miniscule number of cases, fears about Ebola taking root in the U.S. were rampant.
In the midst of the storm, President Obama appointed longtime political aide Ron Klain as a temporary “Ebola czar,” evidence of the growing concern about the government’s inability to respond.
“Last year, the Ebola crisis showed us that we are not fully prepared to confront biological risks,” McCaul said on Tuesday.
In his remarks, McCaul referenced an FBI sting operation to interrupt arms traffickers looking to sell weapons of mass destruction to Islamic extremists in the Middle East. He characterized the operation — revealed in an Associated Press report last month — as proof that groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are eyeing weapons that could be used against Americans.
“We have seen groups like ISIS use makeshift chemical weapons on the battlefield and boast about plans to smuggle radiological material into the United States,” McCaul said. “With recent FBI stings in places like Moldova, we know that there are sellers ready to supply the ingredients for these tools of terror.”
The AP report said that it was unclear if any of the attempted sales of nuclear material were successful.
The Blue Ribbon report made 33 recommendations to increase the country’s focus on biological threats.
Instead of comprehensive legislation, however, Lieberman and Ridge pushed for a broad plan out of the White House, which they said the rest of Washington should support.
“Ultimately, if we’re serious about biodefense [we need an] integrative, comprehensive approach with somebody with budget authority located in the White House right next to the president of the United States,” Ridge said.
“It’s a threat that already exists,” he added. The question is, “Are we prepared to respond to the threat?”