Friday, November 11, 2005

Hacks and supercriminals

When President Bush announced to the nation bird flu was a matter of homeland security, he also announced his intention to have sufficient influenza vaccine production capacity to immunize everyone in the country. There has been some buzz about the political hack in charge of that, Stewart Simonson:
He's the official charged by Bush with "the protection of the civilian population from acts of bioterrorism and other public health emergencies"--a well-connected, ideological, ambitious Republican with zero public health management or medical expertise, whose previous job was as a corporate lawyer for Amtrak. When Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell, recently speculated, "If something comes along that is truly a major pandemic, you are going to see the ineptitude of this government in a way that will take you back to the Declaration of Independence," many of those professionally concerned with such scenarios couldn't help thinking of Simonson. They recalled his own unsettling words at a recent Homeland Security subcommittee hearing on government response to a chemical or biological attack: "We're learning as we go."

"Great. What we need in the middle of a crisis is somebody learning on the job at that high level of government," says Jerry Hauer, Simonson's immediate predecessor at the Office of Public Health Emergency Preparedness (OPHEP) and a veteran public health expert who served as Rudy Giuliani's director of emergency management from 1996 to 2000.

"If I was in charge, he wouldn't be in that position," says Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. "We don't have the best and brightest in the key positions, and this leaves us in a very, very precarious situation." (Jeremy Scahill in The Nation)
If you want the sordid details of how someone like Simonson got the job, go to the excellent Nation article linked above. But I want to revisit a question I raised here early in EM's life, now that our daily readership has grown to a quite respectable size. I'm talking about the last time the President promoted a national vaccination program: for smallpox. Again, from Scahill's article in The Nation:
In mid-2002, as the White House aggressively sought to convince the world that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, it was engaged on another front of the propaganda war at home: convincing Americans that Saddam was poised to deploy biological weapons in an attack on American soil. It was a battle that would pit Vice President Cheney and his now-indicted chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby against a team of public health experts at HHS, led by then-OPHEP chief Jerry Hauer. Inside HHS it was Simonson who emerged as the White House's key strategic ally.

From his days as Defense Secretary during the Gulf War, Cheney was intensely interested in biological warfare. Libby, who worked for Cheney as an under secretary from 1990 to '92, shares his boss's obsession with biowar. Known in the Administration as "germ boy," Libby was obsessed with pre-emptively vaccinating the entire population against smallpox. (The fixation even extended to Libby's 1996 novel, The Apprentice, about a smallpox epidemic.) Shortly after 9/11 Cheney and Libby were briefed on a war game called Dark Winter, which simulated a smallpox attack on the United States. Interestingly, New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who penned a book called Germs, had taken part in the exercise, playing a reporter covering the attack. "It's a dramatic briefing," Libby told the Washington Post, "but we were well on this road already." Libby said that Cheney advocated "a forward-leaning position on protecting Americans from this threat."
What has been lost in the recriminations following the "discovery" that there were no WMDs, including smallpox, is the horrific consequences that would have ensued if Cheney's claim had been correct. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that Cheney's suspicions that Saddam had smallpox was correct. I, for one, am willing to believe that Cheney believed it. It was well-known in the public health community that Cheny was aggressively pushing the new smallpox vaccination program. Bad enough if he were only doing it as another kind of fear mongering we have come to expect from these thugs. But I think it's worse. I think he really thought Saddam had smallpox and that Cheney envisioned that, faced with certain death or capture, Saddam might enact a Samson scenario and pull the temple down around everyone's ears.

If Cheney and company did really believe it, they are even worse criminals than anyone has given them credit for. Because if US military actions had actually provoked Saddam to release smallpox on this earth--and there would have been no way to stop it if he intended to do it--it would have easily been the worst crime against humanity in history, a crime Bush, Cheney, Powell and company would have been fully complicit in by virtue of poking the hornet's nest with a sharp stick, if they believed there were deadly hornets within.

Make no mistake. Loosing smallpox on an immunologically naive planet would make avian flu look like a mild cold. No one has been vaccinated since 1973, and while some of us may still have residual immunity from previous vaccinations, most don't. The United States has neither the public health infrastructure (thank you Ron, both Georges and Bill for that) nor was there enough vaccine to deliver to the population. And we don't live on this planet alone, although we may act like it. Most of the world would hve been doomed. Moreover the smallpox vaccine is a live virus vaccine, so tens of millions of HIV positive people the world around couldn't use it and would be endangered by those that did. It is no exaggeration to say we might expect a billion deaths and billions more disfigured and blinded.

Indeed the consequences are so catastrophic (the word hardly does justice to it), that any deliberate policy that knowingly raised the probability of this happening even a little is criminal. And criminal is too pale a word.

So it comes down to this. Either Bush and Cheney lied about Saddam and the possibility of smallpox and are the kind of rotten thug we all know him to be for the other lies they told to hoodwink too gullible politicians into going to war. Or worse. They weren't lying about their belief he had smallpox and are world class thugs whose crimes would be of a human dimension that would make the Holocaust look small.