The amazing, endless, bioterror pork conveyor
The war on terror as corporate welfare...
Comment As the final days count down to the US election one can look at the past few years and be deeply disappointed at the country's approach to national security.
Rather than count off every single well-publicized major gaffe and fiasco, it's possible to list more minor things which, when taken together, indicate the country essentially as leaderless and adrift at sea as it is in everything else.
The first example is in the use of the war on terror as a continuous conveyor belt delivering corporate welfare.
As part of this stream, the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency recently tossed $158 million dollars at a management and engineering consulting company usually involved in water and power management, Black & Veatch, allegedly for defense against the threat of bioterrorism in the Ukraine. The company has been on the government teat through the DTRA since at least 1993, but none of its current board of directors advertises any experience in the field of biodefense - international or domestic.
Tossing money away mucking about in counter-bioterrorism in, hmmm, the Ukraine, is presented in local US newspapers as something fine. To view this appropriately, imagine its potential inverse - the Russian government starting up counter-bioterror offices in, perhaps, the state of Texas. That would be popular.
The alert reader has already noticed that the US has been the only country in the world in the last decade to have a minted bioterrorist roaming the street. Now, the travesty is not in the single award to one company for this type of work against an alleged external threat, but in the realization that the giveaway occurs monthly, sometimes even on a weekly, schedule.
Moving right along, since 9/11, every (and that's every) public government and paid-for-by-the-government threat assessment on al Qaeda or jihadi bioterror capability has been spectacularly wrong. To this writer's knowledge, none has ever been corrected. And none of the many assorted experts, analysts and technicians responsible for this empty work has been shown the door. There's no penalty for being wrong all the time.
WMDs - made in America
Conversely, only Americans have used bacteria and toxins regarded as WMDs to cause illness and death. The case of Bruce Ivins has already been well-publicized. But fading into the rear view mirror is the embarrassment of illegal use of botox, unapproved for drug use and long said to be a favorite bioweapon of terrorists. In the real world it's misused by (pregnant pause) US doctors in the cosmetic industry interested solely in money-making schemes through dewrinkling clinics. And the only time* the production of ricin has amounted to anything has been when a lone indigent nut, Roger Bergendorff, poisoned himself, non-fatally, with castor seed powder.
However, through the mythology which has sprouted from the body of threat assessment - that bioweapons are easy to make - various parts of the country now endure a platoon of men in hazmat suits whenever the irate unbalanced choose to vent their spleen. "I'm mad as Hell!" rail anonymous Joe the Nuisances, shaking fists at the TV after they've spooned some flour into envelopes addressed to banks.
In terms of providing a vaccine as defense against anthrax, it's been about cornering hundreds of millions of dollars in guaranteed buys, a big slice from the Bush administration's $6 billion dollar Bioshield legislation.
* Editor's note: George is here talking in the context of the current 'war on terror', and is aware of the case of Georgi Markov referred to by several commenters. Markov was assassinated in 1978 by the injection of ricin weaponised for the Bulgarian secret service. In several previous articles George has covered the sheer impracticality of ricin of this purity being produced by terrorists, or indeed of it being any use to them.
Here's how it went: The US government commissioned a company called VaxGen to furnish a new anthrax vaccine to the order of 75 million doses - the aim being to have something which could immunize most of the American populace. Its rival, Emergent, lobbied successfully to cast doubt on the vaccine and ruin the company. The US government cancelled Vaxgen's contract, the company fell apart and Emergent stepped in to buy the vaccine it had labored to cast doubt on.
Now the process has started again, with another company, Pharmathene, with a different vaccine, bought from a British company, trying to give Emergent the same treatment the latter had pulled on VaxGen.
The last eight years has also seen the belief that some unique combination of American technology will make everything right put to death by reality. Of course, many still cling to it. For example, many like to imagine that Predator UAVs will end the war on terror by picking al Qaeda men out of crowds at opportune moments, blowing them away with surgical missile fire, like eliminating a colored plastic toothpick from a bundle of regular wooden ones. Obviously, this has been working well in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Others prefer to believe the US military is winning a war against improvised explosive devices with robots, computer analysis, eyes in the sky and jammers, despite the regular weekend listing of the dead by roadside bomb in the Sunday newspaper.
The terror gene
In similar witless fashion, the US has been quietly shoveling DNA samples from terrorists, aka detainees, into a database, abusing a basic scientific application and common sense for the sake of a secret bureaucratic process which guarantees another interesting exercise in mislabeling and the generation of ineradicable errors. By 2005, seven thousand were already in it and ten thousand more were "inbound from Afghanistan and Iraq," according to one recent report. Anyway, the word "terrorist" is clearly spelled out in the genome, right? Imagine this one in a Guantanamo court: "Sir, if you aren't a terrorist, why does your DNA match a sample in our database of official terrorists?"
There's also been the regular use of the war on terror as an opportunity to say anything for the sake of getting noticed. The best recent example is from Bill Bratton, chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, who chose to inject himself into politics by writing an essay theorizing John McCain was Osama bin Laden's select choice for president. (Others have done this, too, but for the sake of this article's finale, we'll stick with Bratton.)
"Does our economic implosion make us a tempting target?" wondered Bratton in a New York Daily News op-ed. Perhaps bin Laden was planning to blow up an "economic target," he said.
Bratton mused that the country might expect a late October surprise, an increase in terrorism in coming weeks, and that bin Laden would be for McCain, simply because the Republican party's brand is rubbish worldwide and that's been good for recruiting. Confoundingly, this is diametrically opposite the Republican script, which has been that Barack Obama would be welcoming to terrorists.
The immediate conjecture here is that Bratton really wasn't concerned about terrorism, but he might be interested in signaling it was time to notice him for a job higher up. Head of the Department of Homeland Security, anyone? ®
George Smith is a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense affairs think tank and public information group. At Dick Destiny, he blogs his way through chemical, biological, and nuclear terror hysteria, often by way of the contents of neighbourhood hardware stores.