A bipartisan, independent commission on stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction says that the Obama administration has failed in its first year in office to do enough to prevent a germ weapons attack on America or to respond quickly and effectively should such an attack occur.
In a 19-page "report card" being published today, the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation and Terrorism, chaired by former Senators Bob Graham, a Democrat from Florida, and Jim Talent, a Missouri Republican, gives the new administration the grade of "F" for failing to take key steps the commission outlined just over a year ago in its initial report.
Specifically, the commission concludes that the Obama administration, like the three administrations before it, has failed to pay "consistent and urgent attention" to increasing the nation's ability to respond quickly and effectively to a germ attack that would inflict massive casualties on the nation.
The commission repeated its warning that unless nations acted decisively and urgently, it was "more likely than not that a WMD will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013," and that the terrorists' weapon of choice would be biological, rather than nuclear.
The administration's delayed response to the H1N1 virus, the report concludes, demonstrated that the United States was "woefully behind in its ability to rapidly produce rapidly vaccines and therapeutics, essential steps for adequately responding to a biological threat, whether natural or man-made."
Even with time to prepare, the report noted, the epidemic peaked "before most Americans had access to vaccine."
And a bioattack, it warned, would have "no such warning."
The administration's lack of urgency was also reflected in its lack of priority on producing and distributing enough vaccines and other medical countermeasures for Americans, its reluctance to insist that hospitals have enough surge capacity to treat people who would be infected in a bio-terror attack, and the lack of a national plan to coordinate federal, state and local efforts following a bioterror strike, the document asserts.
Ultimately, the commission chairman and vice chairman say, the "lack of preparedness" and "consistent lack of action" reflects "a failure of the U.S. government to grasp the threat of biological weapons."
Unlike its effort to prevent a nuclear attack, the Obama administration has shown "no equal sense of urgency" about preventing or responding germ warfare that might cause comparable death and suffering, the commission concludes.
The report assigns 17 grades that it says highlight the issues of greatest priority in protecting Americans from WMD. The commission gave the administration a "D+" for its efforts to tighten oversight of high-containment labs in which experiments involving the deadliest pathogens are conducted. There were still far too many Federal, state, and local agencies regulating germs in sometimes conflicting ways, it states.
The commission also gave Congress a failing grade for failing to consolidate the estimated 82 to 108 committees and subcommittees that oversee some part of the Department of Homeland Security.
"Virtually no progress has been made since consolidation was first recommended by the 9/11 Commission in 2004," the report asserts.
The Graham/Talent WMD Commission, as it is known, is a legacy of the 9/11 Commission, which recommended its creation to examine WMD proliferation threats in its own report. In December, 2008, the WMD commission concluded in its final report that American national security faced ever growing threats from unconventional weapons, and from biological weapons in particular.
Its report, "World at Risk," unanimously concluded that bioterrorism was the most likely WMD threat the nation confronted given the exponential growth of biological technology and the stated desire of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups to acquire such weapons. It called upon the administration to take 13 steps to reduce America's vulnerability to such an attack. The new report card assesses the progress that the Obama administration has made in implementing its recommendations.
The report is not uniformly negative. It gives the Administration high marks – an "A" – for the reviews it has conducted into how best to store and secure dangerous pathogens, and two "A-" grades for appointing a WMD coordinator and restructuring how the White House oversees homeland security issues.
But it warns that such steps are not commensurate with the threat the nation faces from terrorist groups searching for unconventional weapons in asymmetrical warfare.
Robert Kadlec, President Bush's former special advisor on bio-defense policy, declined to comment on the commission's failing grade in the area in which he worked, saying there was still "ample opportunity to provide more focus and resources" for bio-preparedness in the administration's remaining three years. "This is a hard problem which deserves high priority," he said.
Two defenders of the administration's policies, both of whom asked not to be identified by name because they were speaking without authorization, said that the Obama White House gave biodefense and countering nuclear proliferation high priority.
One official said that Obama's second presidential security directive – the first being the reorganization of the White House national security apparatus – mapped out a national strategy to defend the nation against biological attacks. He also predicted that the administration would seek increases in its new budget for bio-defense and global surveillance programs.
He predicted that the administration would seek budget increases in its new budget for nuclear non-proliferation and bio-defense programs.
Having been extended for one more year of work in 2009, the 9-member WMD Commission is disbanding after issuing this final report card. But staff members said that its chairman and vice-chairman intend to form a non-profit organization to continue pressing the government to do more to counter WMD threats.