A decade after anthrax attacks, U.S. biodefenses need improvement

Nov 18, 2011 Issues: Weapons of Mass Destruction

The Star-Ledger -- by Peter T. King and Bill Pascrell Jr.

Ten years after envelopes containing anthrax spores were dropped into a mailbox in Princeton, we still have a long way to go to improve our nation’s biodefenses.

The anthrax attacks — in which five people died and 17 were sickened — signaled one of the greatest challenges we face in securing our homeland: a terrorist attack using biological weapons.

In a 2008 report to Congress, the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism predicted terrorists would strike with a weapon of mass destruction somewhere in the world by the end of 2013.

The WMD Commission has said the greatest threat we now face is a biological one, and its most recent progress report indicates that much work remains.

That is why we have reintroduced the “WMD Prevention and Preparedness Act of 2011.” This bill establishes a process for detecting biological and radiological materials, providing medical care and identifying the source of a bioweapon used against the United States.

It provides for the appointment of a special assistant to the president for biodefense. This person would coordinate the dozen departments and agencies that focus on our nation’s biodefenses, and ensure that tax dollars are spent in a cost-effective manner. The bill also creates a voluntary program to provide vaccinations for first responders before a biological weapons attack.

In addition, the bill requires the Department of Homeland Security to assess and compare the risks of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats so that limited federal resources are allocated based on greatest risk.

Preparing for a biological attack will improve response to any naturally occurring public health threat, such as pandemic flu. Preparing for a dirty bomb attack will strengthen law enforcement and first responders’ capabilities and relationships for any attack or disaster.

After 9/11, Congress mandated the establishment of the WMD Commission to “provide a clear and comprehensive strategy and concrete recommendations.” Congress must now fulfill its duty to act upon those recommendations.

We hope our colleagues will support this legislation to better target our limited resources and protect Americans from the threat of weapons of mass destruction. Inaction would be unacceptable.

Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) is chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security. Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-8th Dist.) is an original member of the committee.