Senators Hear Security Warnings About Labs, Bioweapons

(Dec. 12) -Former U.S. Senator Bob Graham (D-Fla.) yesterday defended a commission’s finding that a WMD terror strike is more likely than not in the next five years (Alex Wong/Getty Images).
(Dec. 12) -Former U.S. Senator Bob Graham (D-Fla.) yesterday defended a commission’s finding that a WMD terror strike is more likely than not in the next five years (Alex Wong/Getty Images).

Congress might need to pass legislation to improve the safety and security of private and federal laboratories that work with deadly biological pathogens to help ensure they do not fall into the hands of terrorists, officials at a U.S. Senate hearing said on Thursday (see GSN, Dec. 4).

Members of a congressionally chartered commission established to help prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction defended their assessment that a terrorist attack using nuclear or biological weapons is likely to occur somewhere in the world by 2013.

The commission, led by former Senators Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Jim Talent (R-Mo.), concluded that an attack using a biological pathogen is more likely than one using a nuclear weapon.

"As grim as it may be, I believe it is a credible assessment," Graham said during the first congressional hearing on the commission's findings. Graham said some believe the commission's report is too alarmist.

"Obviously that is a judgment," he said. "It was a judgment reached, in part, by the wide net that we put out to people that we thought were capable of having sound judgment."

He said National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell backed up the assessment in recent public comments.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and ranking member Susan Collins (R-Maine) said they were particularly concerned about terrorists obtaining biological pathogens. Graham said he agreed with Lieberman that biological pathogens are less expensive to weaponize than the cost of obtaining a nuclear weapon and easier to smuggle into the United States.

"Bio is easier to weaponize and easier to reload," Talent said.

The United States is generally regarded as a leader in securing laboratories that work with the world's most dangerous pathogens. But the Government Accountability Office found security holes at some labs, according to the commission's report.

"Security gaps at laboratories that store and work with dangerous pathogens, both in the United States and around the world, are worrisome because of continued interest in biological weapons," the report said.

But one problem is that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regulate labs that use human pathogens while [the Agriculture Department] regulates labs dealing with animal pathogens, Collins said.

"Neither the CDC nor the Department of Agriculture brings a homeland security perspective to the regulation," she said. "It also leads to inconsistent levels of regulation."

Collins added: "This is an area where I personally believe we need to have a mandatory regime, but one where the federal government works with the private labs as well as the government-funded labs."

Commission member Robin Cleveland said a key improvement would be putting one agency in charge of regulation. She said labs should be allowed to develop voluntary best practices, but agreed that mandatory safety requirements are likely "inevitable." But she cautioned that Congress must be careful not to put U.S. labs at a disadvantage, compared to labs in other countries, by imposing burdensome security requirements.

Also on Thursday, Senators Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) sent a letter to Senate leaders urging them to support the allocation of $905 million next year to increase homeland security preparedness and combat the effects of a potential bioterror attack or influenza pandemic.

December 12, 2008
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Congress might need to pass legislation to improve the safety and security of private and federal laboratories that work with deadly biological pathogens to help ensure they do not fall into the hands of terrorists, officials at a U.S. Senate hearing said on Thursday (see GSN, Dec. 4).