Directive defines agency roles in battling bioterrorism

Three top Bush administration officials Wednesday announced a presidential directive that sets out the U.S. strategy to prepare for possible bioterrorist attacks in the United States or overseas.

The publicly released directive, an edited version of a longer classified document, orders no new major programs but specifies the responsibilities of U.S. agencies in preventing, detecting and responding to acts of bioterrorism.

The full document, entitled Biodefense for the 21st Century, was not released in order to prevent disclosing information about U.S. vulnerabilities, according to senior administration officials who spoke at a press briefing at the Health and Human Services Department.

HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz formally introduced the new directive that President Bush reportedly signed last week.

"With today's announcement, the president has put forward a new initiative that will fully integrate our current bioterrorism efforts across the public health, medical, law enforcement, intelligence and homeland security community," Ridge said.

Jerome Hauer, a former senior HHS official and sometime critic of U.S. bioterrorist response policies, praised the new directive, saying that poor interagency coordination had inhibited U.S. readiness efforts in the past. The new directive should enhance U.S. ability to develop new technologies, share intelligence and speed reporting of possible incidents, he said.

The directive is "more to show continued coordination and cooperation" among the agencies than to announce new programs, Hauer told Global Security Newswire.

He also applauded Thompson's efforts, saying the former Wisconsin governor recognized the bioterrorist threat soon after taking his post in 2001. Thompson's department "has done an enormous amount in the last three years, and a lot of that started before Sept. 11," Hauer said.

Under the initiative, HHS would take the lead responsibility for anticipating future biological threats, including ways in which terrorists might use biotechnology or new toxins. In addition, the department would coordinate development of medical countermeasures in the United States and preparing for the medical response needed to treat mass casualties.

In particular, Thompson said his department is "working to create a national surge capacity" to quickly provide hospitals and agencies with medical supplies to treat large numbers of stricken patients. This capacity would supplement existing "push packages" that can deliver supplies to any medical facility in the nation within 10 hours.

Efforts to be led by the Homeland Security Department include the BioWatch surveillance program, a network of environmental sensors designed to detect biological agents. Ridge said the department requested $118 million in fiscal 2005 to fund and expand the BioWatch program and added that his agency would lead a new interagency group, the National Biosurveillance Group, to integrate threat information and distribute it to appropriate officials.

The plan calls for the Defense Department to continue leading an effort to build a "national bioforensics analysis" facility at Fort Detrick, Md., where scientists would work to identify the origin of biological agents discovered or used in the United States.

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