Combating Terrorism

Observations on Biological Terrorism and Public Health Initiatives Gao ID: T-NSIAD-99-112 March 16, 1999

The mass casualties resulting from a terrorist attack using biological weapons to spread anthrax, smallpox, and other deadly diseases could potentially overwhelm the U.S. health care system. This testimony focuses on federal efforts to invest in medical countermeasures and preparedness initiatives, one of the few areas in which national security and public health issues clearly intersect. GAO (1) briefly discusses intelligence agencies' judgements about the terrorist threat, (2) highlights the importance and benefits of threat assessments to provide a sound basis for targeting the nation's investment in combating terrorism, (3) provides preliminary observations on the science behind the biological and chemical terrorist threat, and (4) provides observations on public health initiatives that deal with a new national pharmaceutical stockpile and the basis for selecting items to research, product, procure, and stockpile for civilian defense against terrorism.

GAO noted that: (1) the U.S. intelligence community continuously assesses both the foreign-origin and the domestic terrorist threat to the United States and notes that, overall, conventional explosives and firearms continue to be the weapons of choice for terrorists; (2) terrorists are less likely to use biological and chemical weapons than conventional explosives, at least partly because they are difficult to weaponize and the results are unpredictable; (3) however, some groups and individuals of concern are showing interest in biological and chemical agents; (4) the possibility that terrorists may use biological and chemical materials may increase over the next decade, according to intelligence agencies; (5) while biological and chemical terrorism is still an emerging threat, many agencies have initiated programs and activities--with Congress' support and funding--to combat and prepare for this threat; (6) GAO has previously reported on the value of a new, post-Cold War approach of using sound threat and risk assessments performed by a multidisciplinary team of experts for focusing programs and investments to combat terrorism; (7) without such assessments using sound inputs and a multidisciplinary team of experts, there is little or no assurance that programs and spending are focused in the right areas in the right amounts; (8) GAO is looking into the scientific and practical feasibility of a terrorist or terrorist group improvising a biological weapon or device outside a state-run laboratory and program, successfully and effectively disseminating biological agents, and causing mass casualties; (9) much of the information obtained is sensitive, classified, and in the early stages of evaluation; (10) overall, there are serious challenges at various stages of the process for a terrorist group or individual to successfully cause mass casualties with an improvised biological or chemical weapon or device; (11) for its part of domestic preparedness initiatives for combating terrorism, HHS received about $160 million in fiscal year (FY) 1999; (12) these funds are intended for a variety of related preparedness efforts, including research and development and a new national stockpile for pharmaceuticals, millions of doses of vaccines for smallpox and anthrax, antidotes for chemical agents, and other items; and (13) for FY 2000, HHS has requested $230 million for public health initiatives for dealing with bioterrorism.

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