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A biohazards response team outside the U.S. Capitol in October 2001.

A biohazards response team outside the U.S. Capitol in October 2001.

Michael Kleinfeld, UPI Photo Service/Newscom

Report: Put Biden in charge of biodefense

Now that Vice President Joe Biden has decided not to run for president, a blue-ribbon panel wants him to take on a new job: leading the nation’s sprawling $6 billion biodefense program.

“There’s nobody driving this bus,” says former Connecticut Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman. Lieberman joined with former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Thomas Ridge yesterday to unveil a report sponsored by two conservative think tanks on how to improve current efforts spread across a half-dozen agencies. “We’re spending $6 billion a year on biodefense—a number that is not easy to find in the budget, by the way—and we’re not getting our money’s worth,” Lieberman told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. “We need a coordinated, national strategy.”

The 63-page report, which will receive a similar review next Tuesday before the House homeland security committee, asserts that the United States is vulnerable to a bioattack, and that the threat is real. It focuses on improving existing activities, such as fixing or scrapping a decadelong effort to deploy environmental sensors as an early warning system, called BioWatch. It gives short shrift to the scientific aspects of defending the country against both infectious diseases that move from animals to humans and agents used as a bioweapon by terrorists. It does, however, call for a “reassessment” of the program governing the use of these so-called select agents by researchers.

The report’s top recommendation is to put the vice president in charge. Only the vice president has the necessary clout to resolve jurisdictional fights and make sure money is spent on national priorities, the two men explained to the panel, which Lieberman once chaired. “We decided that putting one department in charge probably wouldn’t work” because the other agencies wouldn’t take orders from a peer agency, Lieberman said. “Another idea was to create a biodefense czar. But that would be just one more layer of bureaucracy. So in the end we gave it to the vice president.”

Ridge said that former Vice President Dick Cheney demonstrated the value of such high-level intervention in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks and the wave of anthrax letter bombs the next month. “The vice president made a huge difference,” said Ridge, a fellow Republican who served alongside Cheney in Congress and spent 6 years as Pennsylvania’s governor before joining the Bush administration in 2001. “Cabinet secretaries set budget priorities for their agency, but the vice president looks at the president’s priorities for the nation, and he can suggest moving money around to resolve any inconsistencies.”

 Titles matter in Washington, D.C., Ridge told the Senate panel. Ridge said he would convene meetings of the principals as assistant to the president for homeland security before DHS was created, but that his pleas for cooperation fell mostly on deaf ears because he was only an adviser. “You can’t get anything done in this town without budget authority,” he said.

Money isn’t the problem, Lieberman said, adding that “we think the job can be done with the existing dollars.” That assessment was music to the ears of the committee’s chairman, Senator Ron Johnson (R–WI). “I think that you could actually save money by eliminating the duplication now going on,” Johnson observed. But when Johnson asked Lieberman and Ridge for their advice on which department should be “the go-to” agency for carrying out the vice president’s wishes, both men demurred.

“It depends on the national strategy,” Ridge said. “The Department of Defense has major concerns, because our warfighters are likely to be the ones on the front line in responding to a bioattack. The Department of Agriculture has to be involved, because most of these viruses can be transmitted from animals to humans. DHS has a big role to play, and so does HHS [the Department of Health and Human Services, including the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health].”

Biodefense has slipped off the nation’s radar screen in the past decade, Lieberman and Ridge lamented. Although last year’s Ebola epidemic exposed the cracks in the nation’s biodefenses, they said, it hasn’t translated into a heightened political awareness. “We’re looking for champions,” Ridge admitted. “And we’re hoping that you’ll stand up for us.”

That may happen sooner than either of them expected. As the hearing wound down, the ranking Democrat on the panel, Senator Tom Carper (D–DE), who hails from Biden’s home state, mentioned a meeting next week with the vice president and invited the two witnesses to come along. “I’m going to bring up biodefense,” Carper said. “But I think my words would be more effective if you would join me. How about it?”

Johnson doesn’t even want to wait that long. After the hearing, he urged the co-authors to “break up their report into pieces” so that the committee’s staff could begin drafting legislation “on the least controversial parts” of the report’s 33 recommendations.

Ridge and Lieberman welcomed both invitations. But Ridge noted that real progress may rest on scheduling another White House meeting—one with the running mate of whoever wins the presidency in 2016.