U.S. lacks a broad plan to combat bioterrorism

Arguably 'one of the gravest dangers facing mankind' is being met with little, if any, centralized policy.

Books: The Argument

January 16, 2000|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Sun Staff

In the ancient city of Ephesus, there lived a particularly loathsome fellow named Herostrat, who burned the local temple simply out of hatred and because he wanted his name to live forever.

Terrorism expert Walter Laqueur draws a parallel between Herostrat and today's new breed of terrorist, who seems less interested in using terror for political ends than as a tool for sheer animus. Today's terrorist would not be content with merely burning a temple, but in causing death and destruction on a massive scale.

From the Oklahoma City bombing by right-wing militias who despise the U.S. government to Islamic fundamentalists who target the Western infidel by toppling U.S. embassies in Africa, Laqueur sees troubling days ahead.

Yesterday's "nuisance" of small car bombs, kidnappings and assassinations brought to you by the IRA or the PLO is fading into memory, he notes in "The New Terrorism, Fanaticism and the Arms of Mass Destruction" (Oxford University Press, 312 pages, $30).

Terrorism is now evolving into "one of the gravest dangers facing mankind," Laqueur and other experts argue, because the hatred is being combined with the technical skill needed to construct a weapon of mass destruction, particularly chemical or biological weapon that could kill thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people.

More ominously these acts might never leave the tell-tale fingerprint of a bomb or nuclear device. Are these deaths being caused by a natural outbreak of some disease? A food-borne illness? A terrorist act? Officials may be scratching their heads as more die.

President Clinton has pushed the federal bureaucracy to deal with this growing threat, his concern heightened two years ago after he read "The Cobra Event" (Random House, 352 pages, $25.95), Richard Preston's gripping novel about a crazed scientist who unleashes a bioterrorism attack in New York City as a way to address overpopulation.

"You asked me what keeps me awake at night, and that bothers me ... this biological issue," Clinton said last year. This year the federal government will spend $10 billion on terrorism, a $3 billion increase from last year.

But a good deal of this money is being misspent. About half is devoted to the Pentagon and the national security community, while short shrift is being paid to the medical community -- the hospitals, public health agencies, laboratories and federal health agencies -- that has both the expertise and equipment to deal with the after effects of an attack, particularly a biological incident.

Jessica Stern, a former National Security Council staffer who specialized in nuclear smuggling, said that since the medical aspects of chemical and biological attacks can be reversed if victims receive immediate attention, more money should be devoted to this end.

"Preparing to meet this threat, for example by stockpiling pharmaceuticals and training police and firefighters, could save thousands of lives," she writes in "The Ultimate Terrorists," (Harvard University Press, 214 pages, $22.95)

While the Pentagon is training these first responders in 120 cities and has increased that training budget by $611 million this year, the money devoted to creating a national stockpile of vaccines, antidotes and other medicines needed in the event of a terrorist attack is miniscule.

Some $51 million was set aside last year to begin creating a stockpile and $52 million for the current year. That is a small percentage of the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to create and maintain what will be necessary in the event of an attack, according to experts.

Dr. Donald A. Henderson, director of the Johns Hopkins' Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies, said he is troubled by how the federal budget is allocated. "I don't think it's being spent well," he said.

Besides a lack of money to create a national stockpile of medicines, Henderson noted that only in September was the Department of Health and Human Services able to set aside about $45 million for two crucial projects.

The first is a series of national federal labs that could quickly test samples of chemical or biological agents, rather than have the samples sent to existing facilities at Aberdeen, Md., or Atlanta. Another is a communications link between local health departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, allowing officials to track suspicious outbreaks of disease or sickness.

"More money should be spent on the medical side," agreed Chicago's Deputy Fire Chief Frank Moriarty, the deputy coordinator for emergency preparedness and disaster services.

To make matters worse, added Henderson, the federal "first responder" training which began two years ago for firefighters, police and city officials rarely included local hospitals in the planning.

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