WASHINGTON—Biological laboratories using dangerous pathogens do not have adequate protections in place to prevent the theft of those pathogens for use by terrorists in a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) attack, witnesses said Tuesday at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing focused on corrective legislation introduced by Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Ranking Member Susan Collins, R-Me. earlier this month.
The Senators introduced the Weapons of Mass Destruction Prevention and Preparedness Act, S. 1649, September 8 in response to intelligence community predictions and the conclusions of a Congressionally-mandated WMD Commission that a WMD attack was more likely than not to occur within the next four years, and that a biological attack is much more likely than a nuclear or chemical attack.
The legislation establishes a multi-layered approach – with emphasis on prevention, preparedness, and response – to a WMD attacks.
“Anyone who thinks we are being overly zealous, imagining threats that don’t really exist, should look to the arrest this week of two men in the U.S. who apparently were directly tied to al Qaeda and who apparently were planning an attack in the New York area,” Lieberman said. “Terrorists want to do us great harm, and they know that a biological weapon could devastate American society. Our legislation would prevent and prepare for WMD attacks and bioterrorism in particular. Most importantly, our legislation would heighten security at labs working on the world’s most dangerous pathogens and improve our government’s ability to distribute vaccines and antibiotics quickly. We seek to raise our level of preparedness and minimize the consequences of an attack—thus deterring terrorists from attacking in the first place.”
“Clearly, the threat of terrorism is real, urgent and evolving,” said Senator Collins, citing recent news reports. “Despite this threat, some of the world’s most dangerous pathogens are not secure. The fact is that thousands of people in the United States have access to dangerous pathogens. More than 400 research facilities and nearly 15,000 individuals are on the “Select Agent List”—an authorization to handle the most deadly pathogens. And the FBI determined that a cleared scientist at a regulated research lab most likely carried out the 2001 Anthrax attacks on the Senate and the U.S. postal system.
“To counter this threat, the WMD Commission recommends increasing lab security,” she said. “The Commission’s report is a call to action. Our bill is the answer.”
Former Senators Bob Graham and Jim Talent, who chaired the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, testified at the hearing about the WMD threats and the steps that laboratories, governments, and the public need to take to protect themselves from such threats. Both former Senators expressed support for the Lieberman-Collins legislation.
Graham also revealed at the hearing that the Commission plans to issue an interim progress report next month on steps that have been taken to defend the U.S. from a WMD attack.
In addition to Graham and Talent, Gregory D. Kutz, Managing Director of the Forensic Audits and Special Investigations unit of the U.S. Government Accountability Office, spoke about recently-updated GAO research on safety at the laboratories that house the most dangerous biological pathogens and the need for enhanced security measures. Of the five labs GAO studied, only one had fully implemented all of the 15 key security controls GAO examined; two labs had fewer than five of the controls in place. Since GAO made that initial assessment, those two labs have taken steps to enhance security, though many deficiencies remain unaddressed, Kutz said.
Lieberman said he hoped to move the legislation through the Committee next month.