Panel sees mounting bioterror risk

The possibility that a rogue scientist working at a U.S. laboratory could steal and weaponize a deadly pathogen is the most likely threat that needs to be addressed by the biotechnology industry, the leaders of a congressionally chartered commission said on Tuesday.

Such an insider threat would be hard to counter because the scientist would have already gone through security checks, former Sens. Bob Graham, D-Fla., and Jim Talent, R-Mo., said during a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Graham pointed to the case involving Bruce Ivins, a microbiologist who worked at Ft. Detrick, Md., and who federal investigators believe was probably responsible for mailing letters containing anthrax spores in late 2001 to news outlets and two Senate offices. Ivins died of a drug overdose in 2008.

"The more likely [scenario] is the one that has already occurred, which is a rogue scientist," Graham said.

The hearing was called to consider legislation introduced by Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., and ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine, to implement recommendations of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, which Graham and Talent co-chaired.

The bill would give the Homeland Security Department authority to set security standards at federal and private labs that handle the world's deadliest biological agents and toxins.

Lieberman said he intends to mark up the bill next month. "We're going to really move it quickly," he said.

The commission's report, issued in December, concluded an attack is likely to occur somewhere in the world by 2013 involving a weapon of mass destruction, and the most likely scenario would be a biological attack.

Notably, Graham said the possibility of an attack involving a weapon of mass destruction may be greater on Tuesday than when the report was released. He said the commission plans to issue a progress report on U.S. government efforts to prevent and mitigate an attack next month, followed by a final report early next year.

"We have the opportunity to change the probability based on action," he said.

Graham and Talent also called on Congress to overhaul and streamline congressional oversight of national security. Graham noted that the Homeland Security Department now reports to 82 congressional panels.

Lieberman said an effort to streamline congressional oversight of U.S. intelligence agencies was undertaken in 2004, but added that "we suffered a total and embarrassing failure."

"This gets into turf battles," he said.

But he said he and Collins do not intend to give up, and called on Graham and Talent to help them try to make changes. "Hope springs eternal," Lieberman said. "You encourage us to be even more stubborn."

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