Friday, December 11, 2009


This post has been updated

At midweek Undersecretary of Defense Ellen Tauscher announced the National Strategy to Counter Biological Threats for the Obama administration, delivering it before diplomats in Geneva. The short version is the strategy is a fob, essentially the same as the Bush administration's except with different public faces delivering it.

It is another disappointing example of the Obama administration making itself functionally no different than what was in place before it came to power.

At Armchair Generalist, Jason Sigger summed it up on Thursday.

"I've been told by fellow insurgents and progressive sympathizers that the failure of the National Strategy to Counter Biological Threats should not be blamed on the State or Defense staffers who actually do give a damn about this issue," he wrote. "The NSC does, in fact, have hold-overs from the previous administration who bulldozed this report through the system with little to no interagency input, with a very short suspense. Under Secretary of State Tauscher was not really interested in the details of the issue or in developing any nuances other than what was on the script. She is, at heart, a nuclear weapons advocate, not an arms control advocate.

"The arms control and nonproliferation communities see this as just a check against the Graham-Talent WMD Commission's list of recommendations - nothing to be taken seriously."

But what had the Graham-Talent commission been doing to inspire such a counter reaction?

From the public record, during the months prior to the issue of the Tauscher strategy, the Graham-Talent commission had been assiduously seeding opinion pieces into newspapers and criticizing the Obama administration for being slow to step up efforts to counter bioterrorism.

For example, USA Today allowed Graham-Talent to play the fear card and bonk the Obama administration over the head in October.

"The Obama administration is working hard to curb nuclear threats but failing to address the more urgent and immediate threat of biological terrorism, a bipartisan commission created by Congress is reporting today ..." wrote the newspaper.

From an informed standpoint -- not one often seen in newspapers -- observers in the field know that Graham-Talent is no real bipartisan organization.

It is a 'commission' taken over and vampirized by the extreme end of the smallish biodefense lobby.

More accurately, its public faces -- Bob Graham and Jim Talent -- are little more than fuglemen for the Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and a small consortium of biodefense firms called the Alliance for Biosecurity. And the 'commission's' top two staffers are indistinguishable from the Center for Biosecurity.

The special interest group known as the Graham-Talent commission, though, does have a script it efficiently delivers.

It's an apocalyptic one, a dire and extreme claim delivered free of correspondingly extreme or convincing evidence in support of it. It lives on the idea that if enough people can be rounded up to repeat it in press, it will be taken as fact by others who should perhaps know better.

USA Today delivered it in October:

"[Anthrax spores] released by a crop-duster could 'kill more Americans than died in World War II' and the economic impact could exceed $1.8 trillion in cleanup and other costs."

An anthrax attack, in other words, would make World War II and the economic collapse seem like walks on a sunny day.

On Friday of last week, a former Republican staffer used it in an editorial pumping Graham-Talent at the Baltimore Sun.

"A recent study from the intelligence community projected that a one-to-two kilogram release of anthrax spores from a crop duster plane could kill more Americans than died in World War II (over 400,000)," wrote Douglas MacKinnon. "As a follow-up to that sobering news, they reported: 'Clean-up and other economic costs could exceed $1.8 trillion.'"

And Bob Graham astro-turfed it onto the Miami Herald's opinion pages on Sunday.

"Is the biothreat overblown?" Graham asked. (The correct answer is "Yes." And he has been one of the parties overblowing it.)

"No," continued Graham's opinion piece. "Just two or three pounds of anthrax scattered over a major city could kill more Americans than the number who died in World War II, according to the National Counter Terrorism Center. Cleanup and other economic costs could exceed $1.8 trillion."

And on December 1, Deroy Murdock -- a fellow at the right wing Hoover Institution, used it in an editorial for the far right website, Human Events. It was also distributed to newspapers by the Scripps Howard news service.

"In an October 21 progress report, [Graham-Talent] cautioned that 'a one-to two-kilogram release of anthrax spores from a crop duster plane could kill more Americans than died in World War II,' specifically, 380,000," Murdock wrote.

"Clean up and other economic costs could exceed $1.8 trillion.

" 'Dark Winter,' a June 2001 high-level simulation exercise, assumed that a covert smallpox attack would infect 3.3 million Americans, one-third fatally."

The Dark Winter exercise has been shown as one of the shining examples of hyping the threat of bioterrorism. See here for a summation at the Carnegie Endowment.

And Murdock's piece was issued from the redoubt of an affair conducted by the far right Heritage Foundation on November 16.

Opinion writer Clifford D. May repeated the Graham-Talent anthrax script for the National Review and other newspapers on November 30.

May was also writing from the Heritage Foundation meeting to discuss WMD scenarios, one in which Graham-Talent's claims were furnished. That original piece is here.

"A scenario perhaps even more frightening: terrorists using biological weapons, setting off epidemics of smallpox, Ebola virus or other hemorrhagic fevers; a crop duster spreading 10 pounds of anthrax causing more deaths than in World War II," wrote May.

"[An attack] dispersing just a kilogram or two of anthrax from a crop duster 'could kill more Americans than died in World War II' and cost nearly $2 trillion to clean up," opined the Arizona Republic even earlier, on November 22.

The Obama administration needed to pay attention to such a threat, it continued.

May's piece, according to Lex-Nex, was published in a number of newspapers: the Corpus-Christi Caller Times, the San Angelo Caller Times, the Ventura County Star, and the Times Record News of Wichita Falls, Texas.

"Bioweapons could catch U.S. cities off guard," was the title of another opinion piece emitted from the Heritage Foundation national apocalypse seminar at Colorado Springs. Published by the Ft. Worth Star Telegram, it is here.

Pumping the script of Graham-Talent, writer J. R. Labbe also brought Clifford D. May into the mix.

"The point of terrorism is not just to claim victims but to terrorize everyone around them," said May via Labbe.

Graham-Talent's anthrax claim was commonplace, cropping up in newspaper databases perhaps as many as 100 times during the last ninety days, multiplying through the news practice of duplicating content for multiple source feeds. It was delivered in sales pitches for smallpox and anthrax vaccines, criticisms of the Obama administration's failure to act -- or both.

Readers see where this is going.

The biodefense industry lobbying organization known as the Graham-Talent commission, one which is not averse to pitching the most apocalyptic of scenarios to gain traction in the news, took forward a rigidly scripted talking point for the advancement of its agenda.

And it was successful in shotgunning it into the mainstream news media.

However, the same lobby has no observable specific interest in things like compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention. Its interests are more basic -- to secure more funding for biodefense, most helpfully for new vaccine and biodefense nostrums development at the school and companies for which it goes forth.

However, generally speaking, the US public has essentially ignored Graham-Talent's blandishments, being more concerned, if one can take polling reliably, in healthcare reform and the war in Afghanistan. In other words, there is certainly no demand in the street for a continuation of the kind of leadership and advice on defense against bioterrorism of the kind supplied during the Bush administration.

So Graham-Talent also tried to rephrase its arguments slightly by making a baldly opportunistic video showing a kind of sham concern for H1N1 flu vaccine shortages in the United States in early November.

But back to the Obama adminstration's National Strategy.

It is certainly a sorry thing that its current policy has been influenced by the recommendations of a special interest lobby which has never mustered any real grass roots support.

Amy Smithson, Ph.D., issued one of the most incisive views of it:

"Tauscher tabled a modest, constructive set of proposals, but given the $49 billion in U.S. biodefense spending since 2001, the international community will want more in terms of transparency from Washington than just posting the US confidence-building declarations-already available to all member governments-on the web and inviting one person to Ft. Detrick. New money earmarked for building international disease surveillance and reporting capacities would have more emphatically conveyed U.S. support for thorough implementation of the International Health Regulations. If the Obama administration hopes to claim the leadership mantle in the biological nonproliferation arena, they will have to bring something much bolder to the table. The sooner they do, the better."

Marie Isabelle Chevrier, Ph.D., a member of the Scientists Working Group on Biological and Chemical Weapons at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, issued this statement:

"Ellen Tauscher’s speech to the Meeting of the States Parties of the Biological Weapons Convention was much anticipated by delegations. Yet there was little excitement or enthusiasm by the delegation following her speech. Delegations and NGO observers welcomed the change in tone from earlier US interventions during the Bush administration, contrasting it, in particular, with the strident address by John Bolton to the 5th Review Conference in 2001. Nevertheless the lack of specificity of proposals in Tauscher’s address was notable. People wondered about the meaning of language in the statement such as 'compliance diplomacy' and 'robust bilateral compliance discussion.' Optimists greeted the statement with hope that the statement will be followed by real engagement absent the arrogance of the past while pessimists found little if anything in the statement that would lead to real policy changes from the Bush administration ..."

Paradoxically, a news report on a draft edition of "World at Risk," the Graham-Talent group's 2008 report on weapons of mass destruction and bioterrorism did apparently contain some attention to the Biological Weapons Convention and compliance.

A Washington Post article on the pre-release draft of the Graham-Talent report read: "Efforts to strengthen the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention were dealt a symbolic blow in 2001 when the Bush administration withdrew its support for a new accord that had been under negotiation for six years."

That news piece, by Joby Warrick in November of 2008, is here.

While there originally had been something, contributed by staffers, on BWC compliance and verification, the final release changed things.

This turn-around was explained by someone familiar with inside details. Essentially, Senator Bob Graham read the original draft and said we'll have none of that, removing all of it.

The New York Times reported on the Obama administration's strategy at midweek:

"The United States, [officials] said, will pledge to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention, a 1975 treaty barring the development, production and stockpiling of biological and toxin weapons. But Ms. Tauscher will declare that the Obama administration does not support efforts to create a mechanism for monitoring compliance with the treaty because, a senior administration official said, supplies of biological weapons are 'too difficult to verify.' In 2001, the Bush administration abruptly withdrew from lengthy negotiations to create a verification regimen. It cited, in part, the regulatory burdens that verification would place on the American pharmaceutical industry and on the military’s bio-defense research activities."

"Violations of the BWC are extraordinarly difficult to verify," reads the Graham-Talent final report from 2008. "These concerns remain valid today ..." it continued.

Sensitive US information might be jeopardized if the US consented to BWC inspection, claimed the Graham-Talent report. And therefore, the Bush administration's decision to withdraw support for it was seemingly justified, it reasoned.

However, the US would hold annual politcal and expert talks focused on the prevention of bioterrorism, it said in 2008.

News item:

"Shares of vaccine makers PharmAthene Inc. (PIP) and Emergent BioSolutions Inc. (EBS) tumbled a day after the Department of Health and Human Services changed its approach in requesting anthrax vaccines," reported the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday.

"HHS canceled a request for proposals on recombinant protective antigen anthrax vaccines because it didn't believe vaccine developers submitting proposals could have product ready for licensure by the Food and Drug Administration within eight years. Anthrax is a bacterial disease that humans can get through skin contact, inhalation or ingestion. Inhaled anthrax can be fatal and is more difficult to treat."

Notably, PharmAthene and Emergent are part of the Alliance for Biosecurity special industry interest group/lobby.

The Alliance is the UPMC Center for Biosecurity and a collection of companies which, for the most part, have been remarkably unsuccessful at bringing anything to market, although they are touted as using all the newest molecular genetic and biochemical technologies for vaccine and drug manufacturing.

One member -- DOR Biopharma -- has been laboring on a ricin vaccine since around the beginning of the war in Afghanistan. It recently changed its name to Soligenix, perhaps to make it easier to attract potential investors.

Siga Technologies, Inc., another Alliance for Biosecurity firm, recently announced it had received a rather small amount of money -- $1.6 million from the National Institutes of Health -- to look into something it calls Human Bioarmor, a kind of silver bullet for bioterror agents. These funds were announced as having been part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Another firm, Nanoviricides, Inc., has nothing in the market but three nanomolecular 'Cides -- FluCide, HIVCide and RabiCide -- in development, with none beyond animal safety testing.

And the Alliance's intriguing named Unither Virology, is said by business publications on the web to have an annual operating budget of $100,000 and a staff of one.

All on the same page.

The cached copy of the UPMC Center for Biosecurity with a special topics link to the Alliance for Biosecurity is here.

The Center appears to have scrubbed itself of its Alliance for Biosecurity page, perhaps due to attention from this article published in the Washington Times in September.

"President Obama's nominee at the Department of Homeland Security overseeing bioterrorism defense [Tara O'Toole of the Center for Biosecurity at UPMC] has served as a key adviser for a lobbying group funded by the pharmaceutical industry that has asked the government to spend more money for anthrax vaccines and biodefense research," it reads.


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