Thursday, December 08, 2005

Crying Wolf and biodefense

Having just posted on the Crying Wolf fear regarding bird flu (and suggesting it wouldn't be a problem if the government had properly prepared for the obvious and inevitable threat of epidemic infectious disease in general), we come upon another Crying Wolf claim, this one I think justified.
U.S. biodefense advocates have been “crying wolf” on the potential for catastrophic bioterrorism, playing up worst-case scenarios and driving billions of dollars into developing questionable defenses against questionable threats, a U.S. military analyst said yesterday (see GSN, March 9).

Prominent exercises and arguments since the Sept. 11 attacks suggesting terrorists could effectively use biological weapons to create catastrophic destruction are backed by few facts and little hard, reliable data, said Anthony Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and is a national security analyst for ABC News.

“I’m not convinced that we have been willing to admit the level of uncertainty, the level of difficulty, and the lack of credible data, particularly on an unclassified level,” he said, speaking at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars here.


He said commercial experts have questioned the reliability of data developed by U.S. biological weapons designers on the effectiveness of disseminating such deadly agents.

Cordesman said any future biological terrorism would most likely be on a limited scale, and that the United States should focus more on preparing to respond to such an incident and discouraging panic than on “planning for the end of the world.”

“I think it is much more likely it will be a low-level, very crude attack with physiological, political and economic impacts at least initially,” he said. (Global Security Newswire)
It should be said that Cordesman is not a specialist in biological weaponry, although he has been a long time national security consultant, serving as assistant to Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) on the Senate Armed Services Committee, as intelligence assessment director in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and as civilian assistant to the deputy defense secretary. He is particularly critical of much publicized tabletop exercises like the recent "Atlantic Storm":
“Where are these lethality data coming from? Have you ever read the footnotes on them?” Cordesman said. “It’s a study done years and years ago that was actually using data derived by somebody else and repeating it again and again.”

The Atlantic Storm scenario had terrorists enlisting expert help to build aerosolized smallpox weapons used in one day to ultimately infect more than 600,000 people in multiple countries, killing 25 percent of victims.

While Cordesman did not participate, he was an “observer” to Atlantic Storm’s predecessor, “Dark Winter,” which in the summer of 2001 was conducted by many of the same people. Experts criticized that exercise for assuming an initial smallpox transmission rate of 10 people for every person infected and a 33-percent fatality rate, killing as many as 1 million people.

“I have almost stopped going to biological war games. I don’t find them credible. I don’t find them parametric. I don’t find people are briefing on the uncertainties involved or creating realistic models for decision makers,” he said.

“Time and again, they’re either valid [sic] by focusing on one narrow issue or are simply designed to scare the hell out of everybody and show how important the issue is. The time is over frankly where you should run these models,” he said.
A Report from the Congressional Research Service agrees with his assessment. Cordesman also challenges how money is spent and the lack of accounting. The recent 9/11 Commission report card gave the government mostly F's in its anti-terrorism program, so this isn't a surprise. So far $7 billion has been spent on biodefense with little to show for it. Here he is right on the (huge amount of) money:
On vaccine development and stockpiling programs, which reportedly account for a significant portion of the expenditures, he said, “If you look [at] each of them you can’t figure out the cost and effectiveness.”
“I suspect if nothing else, I could put some of that money into the public health program and stop spending a significant portion of it pretty quickly,” he said.
As I said, none of this is a surprise--unless you are a member of Congress. There, any fable is believable as long as it involves terrorism.