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Bioterrorism project falls into intelligence gap

The launch of Project BioShield, President Bush's $6 billion anti-bioterrorism initiative, shows the weaknesses of information-gathering efforts at the Homeland Security Department, members of Congress say.

Paul Redmond had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day recently. It was the day that Redmond, assistant secretary for information analysis at the Homeland Security Department, testified before the House Select Homeland Security Committee about Project BioShield, President Bush's $6 billion anti-bioterrorism project that's been cruising through the House.

Redmond didn't have an opening statement. He admitted he has only one person working under him to assess the bioterror threat. He said he isn't getting the information he needs from the intelligence community. His description of the bioterror threat was nothing more than what lawmakers had already read in the newspapers. And he wasn't prepared to brief them in a closed session. Redmond eventually made a plea for sympathy: "I'm trying to do my best at this point."

Redmond's lack of preparedness on BioShield is evidence of a potentially grave weakness: Redmond's intelligence cupboard is largely bare, yet the department appears to have no trouble launching big expensive programs without having assessed what the country's highest-priority threats are.

"It's certainly symptomatic of a larger problem," Rep. Jim Turner of Texas, the panel's ranking Democrat, said in an interview. "It was clear that the Office of Information Analysis is not functioning the way it was envisioned [by Congress].... It leaves a real security gap."

Redmond's June 5 testimony-or lack of it-before a joint session of two of the House panel's subcommittees triggered bipartisan dismay. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., in an interview, described his reaction as one of "shock, depression, outrage, embarrassment, and concern." He added, "They're basically acknowledging that they're useless."

Turner reacted by sending a letter to the president spotlighting his major worries, such as: just a single staff member working to assess the bioterror threat; the department's inability to brief lawmakers on the nature of the bioterror threat; and the department's lack of access to certain top-secret information. Turner's letter brands Redmond's entire office "dysfunctional."

Chairman Christopher Cox, R-Calif., says he is reserving judgment until he learns more about what's going on in the new department's intelligence wing. Still, Cox said, "our committee views information-analysis as the central function of the department ... and we all agree it's too important not to scrutinize these issues carefully."

Cox added that he's concerned more with where the department will be in October, if BioShield is launched then as planned, than where it is now. Homeland Security isn't yet able to determine what anti-terrorism measures should be given top priority, in part because setting up its intelligence unit has been a low priority.

"This is the last part of Homeland Security to come into being, as I understand it," Redmond testified.

A former head of the CIA's counter-espionage center, Redmond reported for duty on March 17. Calling the information-analysis office "the nerve center of the department," Turner told National Journal, "that should have been, and should be, a matter of first priority."

As proposed, BioShield would fund pharmaceutical companies in the latter stages of developing vaccines for those bioterror agents deemed most likely to pose a threat to the nation. The problem is that no one at the department responsible for recommending which vaccines to fund appears to be sitting down with the latest intelligence to rank potential bioterror agents, the scariest of which number at least 80.

"The department is focused on all threats," says spokesman Brian Roehrkasse. Presumably this is where Redmond's bioterrorism army of one should come in. Perhaps before the federal government devotes $6 billion to vaccine R&D, it should spend some money on intelligence-modeling to figure out what vaccines are needed most-lest BioShield become a big-ticket handout for pharmaceutical companies.

There was some good news in Redmond's very bad day: By drawing attention to a major homeland-security problem when something can still be done to rectify it, the hearing demonstrated that congressional oversight can matter. Shays plans to talk with congressional appropriators about how the 2004 budget can shore up the department's information branch.

Roehrkasse now says that 20 more analysts will come on board this month. He also says that, by September, Redmond will have four more people to assess bioterror threats. "In three short months, the information-analytical capabilities of the department have grown. However, we realize that they need to continue to enhance their capability," Roehrkasse said.

BioShield comes under the jurisdiction of three House committees. But only Cox's is giving it real scrutiny. The Energy and Commerce Committee passed the measure by a voice vote on the day it was introduced, May 15. When Government Reform marked it up and voted it out on May 22, only two committee members were there.

But because of the Homeland Security Committee's questions, BioShield's congressional fast track has slowed a bit. The BioShield bill had been slated to be marked up this week by the committee, but the panel has postponed that action.

Meanwhile, if the department doesn't adopt a more intelligence-driven strategy for preventing the spread of bioterror agents, it might need to instead focus its R&D efforts on cleaning up after a bioterror attack. And Project BioShield could be renamed. Call it Project BioMop.