Participants at a Heritage Foundation forum on Friday in Washington criticized federal agencies for not working together to develop an adequate national strategy to counter bioterrorism attacks, and for not having a clear strategy to educate the public about potential threats and responses.
"There is a fundamental lack of coherent organizational systems, structures and chains of command," said Elin Gursky, senior fellow for biodefense and public health programs at the ANSER Institute for Homeland Security in Arlington, Va.
The ANSER Institute will release a report next week arguing that agencies need to work together to develop standards for a national bioterrorism strategy, Gursky said. The report is based on interviews with federal, state and local organizations, and will make recommendations affecting the operations, funding and personnel of multiple federal agencies.
"What is worse than having 3,000 local health departments without computers?" asked Gursky. "Having 3,000 local health departments with computers that don't talk to each other."
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the federal government has handed out $6 billion in grants to first responders. This month, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced that first responders would get $2.2 billion in fiscal 2004. Another $725 million will be distributed in the form of "urban-area security grants," which will go to 30 large cities roughly in accordance with the security risk that each faces.
But homeland security spending practices are coming under increasing scrutiny in Congress. Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., chairman of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, recently unveiled new legislation that would award first-responder grants solely on the basis of how likely a given location is to be attacked by terrorists.
Gursky acknowledged the political sensitivities of criticizing the federal government for doling out money, but said practices have to change. "Clearly we need a consistent stream of funding, but we have to have standards and build systems nationally," she said.
For example, Gursky said the report will recommend that Homeland Security work more closely with the Defense Department and private industry to develop standards and initiatives.
Gursky said the interviews conducted for the report revealed widely varying health practices and systems across agencies, showing the nation suffers from the lack of a long-term vision and strategy to prevent, deter and manage biological attacks.
"Unless we do a better job of envisioning the threats and the consequences, we will not be able to adequately prepare," Gursky said.
But developing a fully capable national system to deal with bioterror attacks could take five to 10 years, said Robert Clerman, vice president for corporate mission initiatives at Mitretek Systems, a nonprofit research and engineering organization. He outlined the characteristics of a such a system, saying it would consist of detecting syndromes, depicting current patterns, projecting future trends, and activating responses.
Participants at the forum also criticized the federal government for lacking a clear and effective public education strategy.
"Will the government make a decision to go into the public policy forum well in advance of an incident?" asked retired Army Maj. Gen. William Moore, who is a consultant on homeland security and homeland defense issues for Computer Sciences Corp.
Unfortunately, he said, administrations have been reluctant to inform the public about potential terrorist attacks and their consequences. "Administrations don't want to be purveyors of bad news, even though it may be for the benefit of the many," he said. "As a component of our biodefense preparedness, we have to have a deliberate policy with regard to informing people about the severity of a threat and what they should do."