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King Opening Statement at Bioterrorism Preparedness Hearing

October 17, 2019

 King Opening Statement at Bioterrorism Preparedness Hearing

WASHINGTON – Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), Emergency Preparedness, Response and Recovery Subcommittee ranking member, today delivered the following opening statement at a subcommittee hearing entitled, “Defending the Homeland from Bioterrorism:  Are We Prepared?”

Since the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001, the terrorist threat against the United States continues to grow and evolve. In recent years, the desire to use non-conventional weapons has increased. Nation-states, as well as terrorist groups such as ISIS, have sought to employ not only chemical and nuclear materials into their attacks, but have also shown growing interest in using biological warfare.

In 2001, we witnessed first-hand the grim reality of bioweapon use when anthrax powder was delivered through the mail, ultimately killing five people, sickening 17, and shutting down much of the Capitol Complex. In 2014, a laptop reportedly recovered from an ISIS hideout contained general information on the benefits of using biological weapons and included instructions on weaponizing the bubonic plague. Earlier this year, a couple in Germany who bought large quantities of ricin were charged with plotting Islamist-motivated attacks using a biological weapon. Additionally, many have speculated on North Korea’s rapidly advancing biological weapons capabilities.

The President’s 2018 National Biodefense Strategy states that biological threats “are among the most serious threats facing the United States and the international community.” Not only can biological weapons sicken, disable, and kill innocent people on a massive scale, they can also inflict tremendous economic and social disruption. For example, fungal plant pathogens directed against crops to induce crop failure could significantly cripple our agricultural system.

While advances in science bring faster cures, better medicines, and improved quality of life, they also bring new security risks. The rapid evolution of new biological techniques, like the gene editing process, CRISPR-Cas9, can pose significant threats if used by bad actors. A 2018 ODNI threat assessment stated that biological technologies “move easily in the globalized economy, as do personnel with the scientific expertise to design and use them for legitimate and illegitimate purposes.”

The Federal government has recognized the need to enhance the nation’s abilities to counter against certain terrorist threats. Following 9/11, several programs were created to prevent terrorism using weapons of mass destruction. The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office (CWMD) was authorized in December, 2018 to elevate and streamline these efforts. Unfortunately, recent media reports have indicated that the CWMD office has significantly scaled back or eliminated the specific programs put in place to help protect the country. According to reporting, one eliminated practice included work to update a formal, strategic, and integrated assessment of chemical, nuclear, and biological-related risks. This assessment provided guidance on the purchasing of detection-related technologies and medications following an attack.

The CWMD office has also been heavily criticized regarding the BioWatch Program – a monitoring system that collects and tests air samples for biological agents likely to be used in a bioterrorism attack. From numerous false alarms and delayed notifications of lethal pathogens, to a questionable roll-out of the second iteration of the program, Biodetection 21 (BD21), it is clear that the CWMD office needs to do better. The bioterrorism threat is increasing and should be a priority.

In 2015, I was the House sponsor of the First Responder Anthrax Preparedness Act, which requires DHS, in coordination with the Department of Health and Human Services, to carry out a pilot program to provide eligible anthrax vaccines from the Strategic National Stockpile to emergency first responders who may be at high risk of exposure to anthrax should an attack occur. While this is a good step in improving WMD preparedness, there are a litany of threats beyond anthrax facing DHS and our state and local partners.  

It is imperative that our communities and first responders are well positioned to detect, protect, and decontaminate biological warfare agents. As the sophistication of biological weaponry improves, we must be ready. I look forward to hearing from our witnesses on their perspective on the growing threat and how well we are positioned to thwart any attack.

Additionally, I ask unanimous consent to insert into the Record written testimony from Mr. Roger Parrino, Director of Preparedness, Intelligence, and Inspections for the Office of the Chief Security Officer at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Mr. Parrino was supposed to attend today’s proceedings but was unfortunately called away at the last minute.