Thursday, October 13, 2005

Top secret, part 2

Just what we need. It isn't enough Department of Homeland Security, one of the most incompetent agencies in a bevy of incompetent agencies, is claiming the right as lead agency in an influenza pandemic. Now the "intelligence" establishment is involved, too.

Yesterday we posted a story that Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa was briefed on bird flu at a "top secret" meeting. Today Newsweek's Michael Issikoff has more:
Over the last two weeks, the administration has held bird flu briefings classified “Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information” for members of both houses of Congress, according to intelligence and congressional officials. A counterterrorism official indicated that the intelligence community is also studying whether it would be possible for terrorists to somehow exploit the avian flu virus and use it against the United States, though there is no evidence that terrorists have in any way tried to do so.


Three Capitol Hill officials familiar with the contents of the top-secret briefings, which were open to congressional leaders of both parties as well as senior staffers with appropriate security clearances, said there was little if any information imparted during the sessions that had not already appeared in the press. Two officials indicated that the secrets in the briefing related to intelligence raising questions about the thoroughness with which foreign governments were monitoring and disclosing information about the spread of bird flu in their countries.

The briefings were staged [sic] principally by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), but a senior representative of the intelligence community was also present, according to administration officials. A spokeswoman for HHS declined to explain why the department considered the briefings classified. She would only say that the substance of the briefings related to “general issues of avian flu and pandemic preparedness plans.”

An intelligence official told NEWSWEEK: “The briefings did contain classified information. The reason the information is classified is because some of it was acquired through clandestine means. The DNI [the office of Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte] works hand in hand with HHS on a range of issues.”
As we've said here before, not only is there no evidence avian flu is a potential terrorist weapon, but the idea is dumb. Terrorists may be crazy, they may not care about their own lives, they may be fanatics, but almost all of them have objectives--ideological, political or personal. Assuming it could even be done, no objective is served by releasing an uncontrollable virus that would affect one's own group/nation/co-religionists as readily as anyone else. The very few who are just out to kill everyone don't have the expertise or access to use a weapon like this. If there was such a weapon.

But there isn't. The virus, fortunately, does not seem to have acquired the ability for efficient human-to-human spread, a prerequisite for it becoming a pandemic strain AND for it to be used as a weapon. The world's best virologists still don't know how that happens. Only nation states could conceivably have the expertise to figure this out and they wouldn't use a weapon with this kind of blow-back certainty. Non-state actors don't have the resources to do what has defied the best equipped and most expert scientists. It's not going to be done in an apartment in Hamburg or a ranch in Montana. And once the virus acquires the capacity for person-to-person transmission, it will be here soon enough without the help of any terrorist. (Even if a terrorist could accomplish it, everyone would assume it was a naturally occurring epidemic. Taking credit for it would have the credibility of someone taking credit for Hurricane Katrina.)

What makes this whole ridiculous episdoe especially ironic is that it comes just at the time President Bush is calling for transparency on bird flu from every other country.
A leading public-health expert questioned the wisdom of discussing epidemiological policy in secret. Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s school of public health, said, “This is old-fashioned cold war secrecy being applied to a public-health issue--a very bad idea.”
As I said yesterday, what is wrong with these people?