Lewis "Scooter" Libby was a busy man in 2002-2003, pushing the lie that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and targeting those who dared to challenge the Administration. Still, with all the leaking and smearing they were doing, Libby and his "former" boss Dick Cheney found the time to conduct a parallel propaganda war in which they attempted to use the US public as guinea pigs. And once again, Judy Miller served as a crucial PR agent for the cause. In mid-2002, as they struggled desperately to sell the war, these key players in "Plamegate" were engaged in full-out offensive aimed at convincing Americans that the country faced an imminent threat of a smallpox attack. To underscore this "threat," Libby began fanatically pressing to have the entire US population preemptively vaccinated against smallpox (which was declared eradicated in 1980). The proposal was immediately met with opposition from public health experts, including those at the Department of Health and Human Services. They warned Libby that the vaccine could injure, even kill people and that a universal vaccination could in and of itself spark a public health crisis in the US. "The risks of vaccinating the whole country with the existing vaccine were greater than what we saw as the threat," says Jerry Hauer, the HHS official at the time that would have been in charge of implementing the vaccinations. "We felt it was the wrong thing from a public health perspective to do." As the administration did with so many independent experts who said Iraq posed no WMD threat, Libby attempted to sideline those who questioned him.
What Hauer and his colleagues at HHS may not have known is that smallpox was a career-long obsession of Libby's--so much so that his nickname in the administration was "Germ Boy." His 1996 novel, The Apprentice, is about a smallpox outbreak and it was one of Libby's main areas of concern when he worked under Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz at the Pentagon during the Gulf War. In Judy Miller's 2001 book (written with 2 colleagues) "Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War," Libby is described during his time at the Pentagon as "a trim, boyish lawyer" irritated by intelligence reports about Iraqi WMDs containing the words "probably" and "possibly." Miller writes that Libby "told colleagues that intelligence analysts had an unfortunate habit: If they did not see a report on something, they assumed it did not exist."
More than a decade later, Libby was facing renewed frustration with another group of experts challenging his obsession. Hauer says that when he and other public health officials presented their opposition to Libby's "hysterical" universal smallpox vaccination scheme, the pressure from Cheney's office increased. In particular, Hauer says that one of Cheney's top Homeland Security advisers, Carol Kuntz (who worked as Libby's assistant at the Pentagon during the Gulf War), became "downright offensive" toward Hauer, saying "It was very clear that I was not giving her the answers she wanted or telling her what she wanted to hear."
"We got a lot of pressure from Carol and the vice president's office," Hauer recalls. "The vice president went to CDC and was briefed on this and we certainly were under the impression that this was a real threat...Whether or not it was there or not, we were being told it was."
As the battle over Libby's vaccination plan raged on, the Administration amplified the propaganda and received assistance from a reliable ally. In December 2002, Judy Miller penned a story called "Threats and Responses: Germ Weapons; C.I.A. Hunts Iraq Tie to Soviet Smallpox." The source of the story? "The information came to the American government from an informant whose identity has not been disclosed," wrote Miller, reporting: "The possibility that Iraq possesses this strain is one of several factors that has complicated Mr. Bush's decision...about how many Americans should be vaccinated against smallpox."
Eventually, in the face of widespread opposition from within HHS and the broader public health community, Libby and the Administration were forced to compromise. Libby's smallpox vaccine would be offered to "first responders"--hospital, medical and emergency workers--and the military. What happened after the smallpox vaccination plan was released has been well documented. It was met with outright resistance on the part of both first responders and US soldiers alike.
While Libby's smallpox vaccination pipedream failed in one sense, the administration has succeeded in its much bigger battle--siphoning tremendous resources (and experts) from real public health threats like Avian flu and redirecting them toward "war on terror" marketable programs like anthrax and smallpox biodefense. In 2003, the Bush administration asked Congress for just $100 million to prepare for Avian flu, compared to a whopping $6 billion for its war on terror-friendly "Project Bioshield." What's more, Congressional Republicans refused to allocate the money for flu preparations, giving HHS just $49 million--less than half the already ridiculously low request. In early November 2005, Bush finally got around to declaring war on the flu. But many health experts feel it is too little too late. To make matters worse, a powerful group of Republicans, led by Senator/Dr. Bill Frist, is pushing legislation that would strip people injured by vaccines of their right to sue manufacturers and would virtually eliminate pharmaceutical corporate accountability. The legislation would also make the newly created Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency the only federal agency exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.
The bigger picture to all of this is that over the last five years of the Bush administration, many public health professionals and disaster management experts have been replaced by unqualified, compliant yes men. One need not look further than Hurricane Katrina to see the horrible results. "Every single administration in American political history has put cronies and pals and donors into political positions," says Irwin Redlener, Director of Columbia University's National Center for Disaster Preparedness. "But normally those people become the ambassador to Liechtenstein or the deputy undersecretary of commerce. What's striking about this administration is the placement of people into critical positions, where the national security or the public health is at stake."
Now, there is grave concern that the man responsible for coordinating the federal response to a flu pandemic or bioterror attack could well be the next "Brownie." His name is Stewart Simonson--a well-connected, ideological, ambitious Republican with zero public health management or medical expertise, whose previous job was as a corporate lawyer for Amtrak. He replaced Jerry Hauer, the HHS official who stood up to Libby's smallpox vaccination scheme. Hauer says that in replacing him with Simonson the Administration has "somebody they know will go along with pretty much anything they want."
This story is explored in-depth in my article in the current issue of The Nation magazine called "Germ Boys and Yes Men."
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