WASHINGTON -- Nearly four years after a congressionally mandated commission warned that bioterrorism poses the greatest threat to the nation, the former Democratic senator who chaired the panel said legislation that would implement its recommendations is "almost assured of failure" because of power-hungry Capitol Hill lawmakers.
"As somebody once said, there is nothing as permanent as a subcommittee of a Senate committee," said former Sen. Bob Graham, who led the WMD Commission. "People build their careers around these committees of targeted influence."
In an interview with The Huffington Post soon after the House Committee on Homeland Security this week passed a bipartisan bill based on his commission's December 2008 findings, Graham blamed the intransigence of Congress for failing to streamline oversight of a department created out of all or part of 22 federal agencies. While the creation of the Department of Homeland Security proved the most extensive reorganization of government since World War II, members of the House and Senate refused to give up jurisdiction over its pieces. Today, 108 committees and subcommittees claim a say over DHS.
"Congress has organized itself in a way to make it impossible for anything related to terrorism to be enacted," said Graham, who noted that the usual partisan bickering plays second fiddle to bureaucratic inertia when it comes to homeland security issues.
More than a decade after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Congress has approved nearly every recommendation of the 9/11 commission -- including most recently the dedication of broadband spectrum to first responders. But there's one more bit of unfinished business -- and it may be the most difficult because it involves Congress itself.
"The Department of Homeland Security was created to consolidate intelligence and security agencies, but Congress didn’t consolidate on its side," President Barack Obama said in January during a speech on the need to streamline government. "So now the Department of Homeland Security reports to over 100 different congressional panels. That’s a lot of paperwork. That’s a lot of reports to prepare. That’s not adding value, it’s not making us safer to file a whole bunch of reports all the time."
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the chairman and ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee -- whose oversight responsibilities have been claimed by rival committees -- also have pressed congressional leaders for action. To date, nothing has been done.
So now H.R. 2356, the WMD Prevention and Preparedness Act of 2011, must go before four other House committees: Energy and Commerce, Transportation and Infrastructure, Foreign Affairs, and Select Intelligence. Then the Senate gets a chance to weigh in.
"This is a darn big issue. There's probably no bigger issue in homeland security" than preparing to prevent, protect against, respond to, and recover from an attack with a weapon of mass destruction, said Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.), the bill's lead sponsor in this Congress and the last. Time ran out the last time and, despite strong bipartisan support, may again.
That worries Graham, who said the bill's provisions to strengthen biodefenses are long overdue.
"The greatest WMD threat facing the United States is not nuclear or chemical or radiological. It’s biological," Graham said. "As our most significant threat, it deserves to have a permanent, accountable, sufficient visibility so that this issue can be kept before the public."
The legislation calls for developing a national biodefense plan and a coordinated budget across departments similar to the way the federal government's handles nuclear and cybersecurity. It also would require the appointment of a special assistant to the president for biodefense, a White House position under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush that the Obama administration has split among several officials.
"The current system is vulnerable," said Graham, who said Obama could name a single point person, but has chosen not to.
"Efforts now are being made to solve most key problems via inter-agency committees. From personal experience during the post 9/11 period, I can attest to the fact that this seldom works well -- if it works at all," said D.A. Henderson, a distinguished scholar at the Center for Biosecurity and a leader in the global effort to eradicate smallpox. "It is like having an orchestra with no conductor, albeit with individual leads for each instrumental section."
Bob Kadlec, who was special assistant for biodefense policy during the Bush presidency, agreed. "We are not well served by decentralization," Kadlec said. "No one’s in charge" and those who share responsibilities "don't always work collegially. "
"This administration has taken a multidisciplinary approach to biodefense, including non-proliferation, preparedness, protection, and response," said Erin Pelton, a National Security Council spokeswoman at the White House. "With a greater number of staff actively involved on biodefense issues than during the previous administration, Obama national security staff members have demonstrated that biodefense is a priority area and made significant progress in a number of areas."
A National Preparedness Report recently released by the Federal Emergency Management Agency focused on shortcomings in cybersecurity even as it gave high marks for improvements in biodefense. But that "doesn’t jibe" with the mostly failing grades in a Bio-Response Report Card issued last fall by the WMD Center, Graham said. He called the FEMA report "an extremely and dangerously optimistic assessment" of the nation's ability to respond to a biological attack.
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