Monday, February 20, 2006

What did we buy for $33 billion -- and why?

Milton Leitenberg, a researcher at the University of Maryland, knows biological weapons. He wrote a book about them, Assessing the Biological Weapons and Bioterrorism Threat, which you can download from the US Army War College website. And here's what he had to say in the LA Times this week:
The United States has spent at least $33 billion since 2002 to combat the threat of biological terrorism. The trouble is, the risk that terrorists will use biological agents is being systematically and deliberately exaggerated. And the U.S. government has been using most of its money to prepare for the wrong contingency.

A pandemic flu outbreak of the kind the world witnessed in 1918-19 could kill hundreds of millions of people. The only lethal biological attack in the United States — the anthrax mailings — killed five. But the annual budget for combating bioterror is more than $7 billion, while Congress just passed a $3.8-billion emergency package to prepare for a flu outbreak. (LA Times)
Indeed an entire bioterrorism industry has grown up around a threat whose probability and magnitude we can guess only dimly but which would have difficulty equalling even a mild influenza pandemic in lives lost. Among the chief fear bioterrorism mongerers are the principal agents for Big Pharma in the Congress, among them Senators Bill ( Dr. Quackenbush) Frist, Senate Majority Leader, and Joe Lieberman, alleged Democrat of Connecticut. Here is Leitenberg's read:
Last year, for example, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist described bioterrorism as "the greatest existential threat we have in the world today." But how could he justify such a claim? Is bioterrorism a greater existential threat than global climate change, global poverty levels, wars and conflicts, nuclear proliferation, ocean-quality deterioration, deforestation, desertification, depletion of freshwater aquifers or the balancing of population growth and food production? Is it likely to kill more people than the more mundane scourges of AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, measles and cholera, which kill more than 11 million people each year?


At a conference in Tokyo this week, bioterrorism experts called for new programs to counter the possibility that terrorists could genetically engineer new pathogens. Yet three of the leading scientists in the field have said there is no likelihood at this time that a terrorist group could perform such a feat.


There is no military or strategic justification for imputing to real-world terrorist groups capabilities that they do not possess. Yet no risk analysis was conducted before the $33 billion was spent.
But if terrorists don't have the skill, knowledge or facilities to perform these complicated experiments, they don't really need them. Because the $33 billion has bought that expertise in the form of "biodefense" laboratories whose main goal is to defend ourselves against non-existent weapons (for example, by designing detectors, vaccines or antivirals against them) in ways that require those same laboratories to first make the agents. Suddenly the weapon that was impossible for a terrorist to make and which didn't exist has come into being. Now all a terrorist needs to do get his hands on them. This is a lot easier than the science of creating them and not impossible, as the 2001 anthrax attacks illustrate. Most people believe that weapon came from within the biodefense world itself.

So the situation is worse than Leitenberg makes out. Not only has the money been misspent and priorities distorted, but the spending has the potential for making us less safe than if the money had been simply flushed down the sewer.

Heck of a job, George.