THE BLOG

Feeling Safer Now?

02/13/2006 04:34 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

We continually are being reminded that making our communities safer is a complicated, expensive, and time-consuming job. Our government tells us that it just doesn't have the resources to carry out activities such as properly checking ships entering our ports for hazardous cargo. We do not have enough mine inspectors to protect mine workers from tragic and preventable accidents. We can't afford the public health resources needed by the World Health Organization to contain avian flu on the front lines where it is spreading.

And there has been a huge battle in Congress over how to allocate homeland security funds. Should we concentrate on places likely to attract terrorist attacks, like New York, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco, or should we spread the money out to every community on the basis not of need but of Congressional logrolling and pork-barrel politics?

The opponents of concentrating the money in likely targets argue that there are security threats all over America. It's evidently a good argument. The latest threat to our national security has cropped up in an unlikely place: the northern boundary of Yellowstone National Park. Here, wild bison migrating in search of forage are being rounded up for slaughter by the National Park Service. The reason given is that the bison might spread brucellosis, a cattle disease, to neighboring livestock herds. There is no evidence that such spreading occurs, and no one is rounding up elk in the area, which also migrate and which also carry brucellosis -- so the program is, on its face, an atrocity and a boondoggle.

But evidently there is an undisclosed and critical reason for the massacre: homeland security. Could the government have information that Al Qaeda has targeted Yellowstone's bison as a possible biological weapon? Since brucellosis is only very mildly contagious to humans, with about 100 cases a year, mainly in slaughterhouse workers, this might suggest that Al Qaeda really has been robbed of more potent weapons and that we are, indeed, on the verge of winning the war on terrorism.

But whatever the terrorists might have been planning to do with the bison, the availability of homeland security funding in states like Montana has foiled them. Agents of the Department of Homeland Security have been escorting the captured bison up to 500 miles to the slaughterhouse. If Homeland Security must spare agents to escort these bison, then clearly the bison threat must be supercritical -- since there aren't enough agents to guard facilities such as chemical plants in crowded urban areas.

Just how seriously our government takes the threat of brucellosis as a weapon of terror, and why, might be revealed in the following excerpt from the Idaho National Laboratory's website, in which new technologies to detect traces of explosives and find hidden weapons are listed right along with those to detect brucellosis:

"Laboratory scientists, with specialized skills in ion mobility and secondary ion mass spectrometry, are conducting research and performing testing on trace explosives detection systems for DHS and other federal agencies. They perform explosive forensic analysis, design improved sensors and develop detection testing protocols and standards.

"Additionally, we perform work in chemical and biological countermeasures by developing and validating a suite of DNA signatures for rapid detection of the pathogen Brucella. Our molecular microbiologists have developed a quick, safe, accurate method to detect the brucellosis strain, B. abortus, in the field, using a field-portable, real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) system. Brucellosis is an infectious bacterial disease caused by the brucella species and can be transmitted from animals--such as cattle--to humans. A strain of brucella, B suis, was the first microorganism developed in the former U.S. biological weapons program.

"Some of the other technologies we've developed for homeland security applications include our Hazmat Camera system which provides wireless, real-time footage to National Guard Civil Support teams responding to chemical and biological emergencies, our Concealed Weapons Detector which identifies the presence and location of hidden weapons, and the Idaho Explosive Detection System which can detect smuggled explosive devices hidden in cargo trucks."

This vital work is not confined to Idaho. As part of the Department's efforts "to protect America and our way of life from terrorism" Texas A&M has received $18 million to work on combating various diseases of animals including some, like hoof and mouth disease, which do not infect humans at all!

Only a cynic would wonder whether these programs might reflect not Al Qaeda's interest in hijacking bison to use against America, or its interest in spreading hoof and mouth disease, but rather the ability of Idaho and Texas congressional delegations to hijack federal dollars to benefit local livestock interests and payrolls.