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Talent warns of bioterrorism threat, backs new approach to thwart it

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 24, 2011 - WASHINGTON - Nearly a decade after the deadly anthrax mailings that the FBI later traced to a government scientist, former U.S. Sen. Jim Talent is warning that the nation remains vulnerable to a far more serious anthrax attack by foreign terrorists.

In testimony to a U.S. House Homeland Security panel on Thursday, Talent -- vice-chair of the bipartisan WMD Terrorism Research Center -- said it is significant that al-Qaida's new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is an Egyptian surgeon with a past interest in potential agents of germ warfare.

"The old leader of al-Qaida [Osama bin Laden], who recently met his just deserts, had a background in construction. And I don't think it's any accident that the [terrorist] plans he developed involved attacking buildings," Talent said. "The new leader of al-Qaida's background is in medicine and infectious diseases." That fact, he warned, is "one more reason we worry about bioterrorism."

At the same congressional hearing, Dr. Robert P. Kadlec, a former special assistant to the president for biodefense, called Zawahiri "a less than mediocre leader ... who has and likely still aspires to attack the United States with anthrax." Various reports over the years have linked Zawahiri to efforts by al-Qaida operatives to obtain and weaponize virulent anthrax strains.

Kadlec said that a White House policy directive says that an unmitigated biological attack "could place at risk potentially hundreds of thousands of deaths and cost the nation over a trillion dollars. The letter attacks experienced in 2001 were just a small indication about the potential power of these weapons."

Talent, at St. Louis Republican, and former Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat, co-chaired the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, which issued a report in December 2008, called World at Risk, warning that the U.S. government needed to bolster its preparations to thwart bioterror attacks. A followup "report card," issued in early 2010, gave the government an "F" grade in the category, "rapid and effective response to bioterrorism."

Last year, Graham and Talent joined with key staff members of the now disbanded WMD Commission to form the non-profit WMD Center, which focuses most of its research efforts on bioterrorism -- advocating new approaches to detecting bio-attacks, bolstering vaccine stockpiles and ensuring that hospitals are prepared for an attack.

During his testimony Thursday at a joint hearing of two Homeland Security subcommittees, Talent said the WMD Center planned to issue a major report in October to assess the nation's capability of responding to a large-scale "biological event," whether a terror attack or an epidemic.

That timing nearly coincides with the 10th anniversary of the "Amerithrax" anthrax attacks, during which letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to news media and two Democratic U.S. senators, killing five people and infecting 17 others. After a massive inquiry, the FBI in 2008 linked the attacks to Bruce E. Ivins, a former top researcher at the government's biodefense laboratory at Fort Detrick, MD.

A decade later, bioterror remains a concern to some experts in Washington. On Friday, leaders of the House committee introduced a new bill, the "Weapons of Mass Destruction Prevention and Preparedness Act of 2011," which would implement some recommendations of the Graham-Talent WMD Commission. A companion bill is expected to be introduced in the U.S. Senate by Sens. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and Susan Collins, R-Maine.

Among other provisions, the bill calls for the appointment of a special assistant to the president for biodefense, who would coordinate federal biodefense policy. The legislation also would require the development of a national biodefense plan and improvements in the nation's biosurveillance efforts to detect possible attacks. Other provisions would bolster the tools available to first responders, including voluntary vaccinations and response guidance for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear incidents

Talent said he and the WMD Center supported many of the provisions of the legislation, adding that he would give priority to requiring the White House to name a top adviser for biodefense -- a position that Kadlec held until it was abolished two years ago.

"It is well within the capacity of our nation to address this threat. The issue here is less a question of resources or knowledge than it is one of leadership and purpose," Talent said in his written testimony. "Our nation must recognize that the danger of a bio-attack against the American homeland is a high priority threat."

Some critics of massive federal spending on biodefense -- which has been estimated at about $50 billion over the last decade -- argue that the only major attack in this country was perpetrated by a scientist in the biodefense establishment, in part to call attention to the threat and to convince Congress to devote greater resources to it.

But Talent said that "if the FBI is correct in its assertion that Dr. Bruce Ivins was the sole perpetrator of the 2001 anthrax letter attacks, then a single individual with no training or experience in weaponizing pathogens, and using equipment readily available for purchase on the internet, was capable of producing high-quality, dry-powdered anthrax. The only difference between producing enough material for several envelopes and enough material to attack a city is just a matter of a few months production work in a laboratory, rather than the few hours of late night work cited by the FBI investigation."

The former Missouri senator, who was defeated in his re-election bid in 2006, added: "The bottom line on the feasibility of bioterrorism is quite clear. Today, terrorists have ready access to pathogens, the capability to weaponize them, and the means to effectively dispense a biological weapon. There is no question on intent."

Asked whether he was worried about possible terror attacks originating from Pakistan -- which had been a safe haven for bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders -- Talent said he was concerned that Pakistani security services "have been penetrated pretty effectively" by groups hostile to the U.S. and questioned why bin Laden had been able to live there undetected for so long.

Both Talent and Kadlec said they were worried about the potential costs of removing deadly pathogens and cleaning up contamination after a major biological attack. "If we're hit with anthrax, [cleanup costs] may be the biggest long-term issue," Talent said. "And we have no idea now what standards should be followed."

Kadlec agreed that "not enough consideration has been given to the cost of clean up. As witnessed during the 2001 anthrax letter attacks, cleaning a couple of buildings cost over a billion dollars. The cost of cleaning a city or subway system following a large-scale anthrax release is mind boggling. It is not clear that we know the costs of environmental cleanup or even how to do it."

Overall, Talent said, the threat of potential bioterrorism "is an issue that's going to be with us for a long time." He added that "we need a national intelligence strategy for dealing with biothreats -- and we don't have it."

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.

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