Collins security bill targets pathogens, not bombs

Posted Sept. 10, 2009, at 8:46 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The term “weapons of mass destruction” may be connected in the minds of many with nuclear warheads and rocket launchers.

But the latest homeland security legislation, introduced by Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent, deals not with giant bombs but with the tiny pathogens that can be found in many labs across the country.

Eight years after the 9-11 terrorist attacks and the anthrax attacks by way of the postal system, the bill, introduced this week aims to improve security and regulation of domestic labs that house pathogens that could be used as biological weapons in an attack.

“America must not become complacent,” Collins, the senior Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said in a statement.

“Terrorists haven’t given up; they haven’t gone away. Our enemies remain fixed on their avowed goal of committing mass murder.”

The bill would provide $50 million for federal grants that would go toward improving the security of labs housing the deadliest pathogens.

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A congressionally mandated commission on weapons of mass destruction and terrorist attacks published its report last December, saying that a WMD terrorist attack is likelier than not to occur by 2013, and that it is likelier to be biological than nuclear.

“Given the urgency of the threat, we enthusiastically welcome [the bill],” said Bob Graham, chairman of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, in a statement. “This act will enable the decisive actions required to defend America from these threats.”

“The commission’s report is a call to action,” Collins said in a statement.

The act targets improving the safety at labs where harmful pathogens are kept, requiring the Department of Homeland Security to designate those labs that keep pathogens that could be used as biological weapons and work with the U.S. Postal Service to quicken the deployment of lifesaving drugs to combat the effects of some of these pathogens in case of an emergency.

A unique partnership among the postmaster general, the Health and Human Services secretary and the Homeland Security secretary would be forged with passage of the act, requiring the three to develop a plan using the Postal Service to dispense medical countermeasures to a bioterrorist attack.

The Postal Service-based program already exists in pilot form, and passage of the act would mandate its expansion to five additional cities within a year and 15 more the next.

The Postal Service could be co-opted quickly for emergency use, say the bill’s supporters. People exposed to pathogens could take shelter in their homes if the exposure was environmental or could be quarantined if necessary. Postal workers, trained in efficient home delivery, would be ideal conduits for transporting lifesaving medicine in a timely manner.

A Government Accountability Office study released July 28 examined the Department of Defense’s readiness to respond to chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and high-yield explosions. The GAO concluded that though efforts at strengthening responses to explosions was under way, a lack of central oversight in the Defense Department made it impossible to conclude how much the project would cost and difficult to track which components of the improved response plan were still unfulfilled.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said in a statement that national security and defense against terrorist attacks has improved since the attacks in 2001 but that there is still work to be done.

“I do think we are safer now than we were before 9-11,” Pingree said, “but we still have a lot of work to do. President Obama has begun the task of creating a more cooperative and humane foreign policy. How we interact with the rest of the world has a direct effect on how safe and secure we are here at home.”

A Gallup Poll released in early July showed that 83 percent of Americans think that the security measures instituted to prevent additional terrorist attacks after 9-11 are still necessary, though fears about terrorism have reached a five-year low. Thirty-six percent said they are very worried or somewhat worried that they or a family member would be a victim of a terrorist attack, down from the high of 59 percent in October 2001.

“Over the last eight years, thousands of Americans, both in and out of government, have worked tirelessly to improve our nation’s security and to protect our people,” U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, said in a statement. “Americans remain steadfast in our determination to disrupt, dismantle and defeat terrorist organizations. However, we must continue to be vigilant as we look into the future and keep working to improve our national security efforts.”

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