Shades of Grey: "Grading" the Obama Administration on Biological Threats

Originally published here.

There’s a saying in journalism: “If it bleeds, it leads.”

The saying traditionally applies to crime reporting, but can be expanded to describe how the traditional media and many blogs approach any story they perceive as “dramatic”, or better yet, “dangerous”.

Last week’s national security headlines were a classic example of drama triumphing over careful, in-depth reporting. I’m talking about this particular headline, and all the variations thereof, describing a “report card” issued to the Obama administration:

US gets ‘F’ in preparation for threat of biological terrorism, report concludes

The Washington Post outlines what sounds like a dire situation:

More than eight years after the deadly 2001 anthrax attacks, the United States is still unprepared to respond to the threat of large-scale bioterrorism, a congressionally appointed commission said Tuesday in a report that gave the government mixed grades overall for how it has protected Americans from weapons of mass destruction.

The report, which measured the government’s performance in 17 key areas, gave the White House and Congress “F” grades for not building a rapid-response capability for dealing with disease outbreaks from bioterrorism, or providing adequate oversight of security and intelligence agencies.

Sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it?

The problem is, that article, and many others, are misleading in a number of ways; their superficial, black-and-white treatment of a very important subject misses some critical points that really need to be highlighted.


Back in 2008, at the behest of Congress, former Senators Bob Graham (D-FL) and Jim Talent (R-MO) co-chaired a commission that assessed the potential use of biological and nuclear weapons by terrorists. The commission ultimately issued a report that contained recommendations regarding these threats, ultimately concluding that it is more likely that a terrorist will use a biological weapon rather than a nuclear device.

After the 2008 report was issued, the original commission underwent a number of changes, including hiring new staff members. It is these staff members who advised Graham and Talent on the recent “report” card, not the original commission. In fact, the 2010 “report card” [pdf] is signed only by Graham and Talent, so the articles referring to a “commission” grading the Obama administration are misleading right from the start, in that respect.

The background of several of the staff members is also worth pointing out, because two of the members (Dr. Gigi Gronvall and Ret. Colonel Randall Larsen)  are originally from a biosecurity think tank that has run several bioterrorism scenarios/simulations that have been criticized as unrealistic and somewhat alarmist.

Keep all that in mind as we move on to discussing the “report card”.

Challenging The Grades: An Assessment of the “Report Card”

So, how accurate is the “report card”? How is the Obama administration actually doing when it comes to addressing biological threats?

These are some of the questions I had in mind when I contacted chemical and biological weapons expert Dr. Jonathan Tucker, who is a Senior Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Here’s his take; I’ve inserted links, for reference:

I think it’s a bit unfair to give the Obama administration an “F” for bioterrorism preparedness. They have kept in place most of the Bush policies, which focused on post-attack response and mitigation. At the same time, President Obama’s new National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats, released in December, calls for filling some of the major gaps on the prevention side, such as global disease surveillance.

It’s true that there have been some problems in recent years with respect to the development of medical countermeasures, such as vaccines and therapeutic drugs for anthrax, smallpox, and other diseases of bioterrorism concern. But on December 1, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced a major review of medical countermeasure development. The government agency that directs such efforts is an office within HHS called the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA.

So I think that the “F” is based on unrealistic criteria. The Obama administration plans to review the whole area of medical countermeasure development and make it more effective.

He went on to point out that the “F” grade wasn’t the only one the Obama administration got in the area of biological threats and biodefense (click here to see the rest).


In the Graham-Talent “report card,” the F grade for bioterrorism preparedness and response is too low, while the B+ grade for strengthening the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) is too high. In fact, the Obama administration’s efforts to date to strengthen the BWC have been minimal. In December, Undersecretary of State for International Security and Arms Control Ellen Tauscher gave a speech at a BWC meeting in Geneva in which she declared that the U.S. will not reverse the Bush administration’s decision to reject a draft verification protocol for the Convention, which still lacks any formal inspection measures.

Instead, Tauscher said that the administration is prepared to offer a few token transparency measures, such as inviting one foreign official to tour the U.S. biodefense research complex at Ft. Detrick in Maryland, and a pending decision to post future U.S. annual “confidence-building” declarations of BWC-related facilities and activities on a publicly available website. Even here, however, Tauscher cautioned that the administration would “move toward” posting the U.S. declaration online, providing some wiggle room in case the final decision goes the other way. The reason is that there is still no interagency consensus on taking meaningful steps to increase the transparency of the vast and secretive U.S. biodefense program, which many other countries view with suspicion.

The Heart of the Matter: The BWC

Dr. Tucker and I discussed the Obama administration’s “National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats” in an extended interview that I posted about a month ago. Since then, he has published a must-read article in Arms Control Today. In it, he:

…reviews the background of the [Obama administrations BWC] decision, assesses the main elements of the new national strategy, and provides some suggestions for the way forward.”

His article highlights the complexity of the issue; it’s not something you can boil down to a simple “report card”, especially given the fact that the current global approach to the BWC (which is also the new US approach) takes into account the full range of biological threats, including biological terrorism. His suggestions for “a way forward” include a number of technical details, as well as an interesting proposal for a speech similar to the one Obama gave in Prague about nuclear weapons:

To its credit, the Obama administration’s new strategy recognizes the threat posed by biological weapons in the hands of state and nonstate actors and lays out a comprehensive and cooperative approach for countering the full spectrum of biological risks. Yet despite the existence of the strategy document, it remains to be seen if the administration will give the biological weapons threat the priority it deserves and whether, in a budget-constrained environment, Congress will allocate sufficient funds for the measures needed to implement the strategy effectively. Such measures would include a global pathogen surveillance bill and assistance to developing countries for IHR implementation.

Having paid lip service to the biological threat, will the Obama administration now take concrete action or will it resume the exclusive focus on the nuclear weapons agenda that characterized its first year in office? How will the White House choose to balance the greater likelihood of biological terrorism against the greater devastation of nuclear terrorism?

A key step forward would be a “Prague II” speech by the president that underlines the salience of the biological weapons threat and the recognition that major outbreaks of infectious disease, whether natural or deliberate, endanger U.S. and international security. Such a speech would also reinforce the strategy document by setting out a concrete set of policy initiatives, while making clear that the administration is willing to allocate appropriate political and budgetary resources to the development of effective preventive measures.

With respect to strengthening the BWC, the Obama administration’s reluctance to return to the protocol is understandable, given that the flawed negotiating mandate still exists and the spread of dual-use biotechnological capabilities around the globe has exacerbated the difficulty of distinguishing illicit from legitimate biological activities. Nevertheless, the recognition that traditional verification is unrealistic in the biological weapons context is not an excuse for inaction. To move beyond the legacy of the failed protocol, the administration must think seriously about building confidence in BWC compliance through meaningful transparency measures.

(Emphasis mine.)

Seeing biological threats through the lens provided by Graham and Talent doesn’t give the most complete picture of the situation, and the media as well as the blogosphere would do well to realize that. The “report card” is useful in that at least it highlights the fact that biological threats are still a concern.

However, it is far too simplistic, and obviously rather inaccurate, when you get down to the real meat of the matter, which is the BWC. That cannot be emphasized enough. It’s hard to issue a “report card” when a story is not yet finished. Or, as Tucker says at the end of his article:

The BWC’s preamble declares that the states-parties “are determined… to exclude completely the possibility of bacteriological (biological) agents and toxins being used as weapons, [and] convinced that such use would be repugnant to the conscience of mankind and that no effort should be spared to minimize this risk.” Although the new strategy to counter biological threats is an important first step, it remains to be seen if the Obama administration and the Congress are prepared to follow through by taking the concrete actions needed to achieve biosecurity without verification.

Indeed, the issue is hardly black-and-white, but more shades of grey. Bloggers, and the media, would do well to note that.

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