Jewish World Review Oct. 18, 2001 / 1 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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Pentagon may be best lead agency in bioterror war -- WHETHER or not al Qaeda terrorists planted anthrax in Florida, the incident ensures, as it should, that Congress will fund a major upgrade in the nation's defenses against biochemical attack.

The White House budget office had been quibbling over Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson's request for $800 million for the task. Now that Florida is home to anthrax cases, it seems almost certain that more funding will be approved.

Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) told me in an interview that he's confident the administration will support the $1.4 billion he's proposed with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), primarily to build up state and local health and emergency agencies.

With the addition of overdue improvements to food-safety inspections, the total is likely to come to $2 billion, according to aides to Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees HHS.

The money is likely to be approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee within a week and be attached to the Defense Department's appropriation.

However, it does not contain what one outside expert considers a vital bureaucratic change: making the the Defense Department the lead agency responsible for combating bioterrorism.

Sue Bailey, assistant secretary of defense for health in the Clinton administration, told me the lead agencies now are the FBI and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but she explained that neither has the assets needed to respond to a serious attack.

"The military has the transport capacity and the communications," she said. "It has the hospitals, base hospitals and mobile ones, and it has control of the vaccines we'd need. It also has the troops, if it comes to that, for quarantines and crowd control."

The military is prohibited by law from performing civilian police functions, but Bailey's idea deserves attention. After all, the attacks of Sept. 11 were acts of war on American soil, and undoubtedly won't be the last.

An anthrax or nerve-gas attack could kill tens or hundreds of thousands of people - millions, in the cases of highly contagious smallpox and plague.

Bailey, who oversaw anthrax vaccination of all U.S. military personnel in the 1990s and took the shots herself, said the recent mini-outbreak of inhalation anthrax in south Florida was "an apparent deliberate release, an act of terrorism."

"Unless a herd of sheep came trotting down the hallway of that office building [the headquarters of American Media Inc., in Boca Raton], there's no reasonable way this could have been a natural release," she said.

Bailey did not blame the al Qaeda terrorist network of Osama bin Laden, but it's a fact that one of the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks, Mohammed Atta, attended flight school in nearby Delray Beach and inquired about crop duster aircraft, a potential vehicle for spreading anthrax.

"Even if it turns out not to have been done by the Islamic terrorists," she said about the Florida cases, "it's a harbinger that ought to spur us to action."

Besides making the Pentagon the lead agency to combat bioterrorism, Bailey ticked off a list of other things that need to be done, some of which haven't been widely discussed in Congress.

"Every hospital in Israel has a decontamination room to protect the rest of the hospital from chemicals and biological agents," she noted. "Hardly any of our hospitals do."

Subways, stadiums and major public buildings, Bailey said, should be equipped with detectors that will signal the presence of biological and chemical agents, as well as set off computerized alarms for local and federal authorities.

"People have to know who's in charge ahead of time. And the first responders - firemen, police, emergency workers and hospital personnel - ought to be vaccinated as soon as possible in order to take care of other people," she said.

Bailey also suggested that subways and major buildings, including the Capitol, have filters installed in their air conditioning systems to remove biological agents.

She was not alone in her criticism of Thompson for saying on television and before Congress that the U.S. government "could respond to any [bioterrorism] contingency and control it."

"Unfortunately, that's simply not the case," Bailey said. "Our public health system has no anthrax vaccine inventory and would be overwhelmed by a large-scale biochemical attack if it happened today."

Although a biochemical attack might be the deadliest, Frist said poisoning the nation's food supply with bacteria might be the easiest evil act for terrorists to pull off. American agents currently inspect only 1 percent of imported food, he explained.

Thanks to Frist and Kennedy, who helped pass a bioterrorism response bill last year, the nation isn't starting from scratch in its defenses. And Thompson, to his credit, has been working on federal responses since January.

However, one reminder of how unprepared local areas are was furnished last week at a hearing by Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who said his wife recently had to wait all day to be seen at Fairfax Hospital's emergency room for pneumonia. Imagine the situation if the Washington area had been hit with anthrax.

This latest Mahdi out of Arabia Deserta is named Osama bin Laden, but in another time it could have been the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem or Gamal Abdel Nasser. He is but another false messiah who seeks to turn despair into rage, and in the end will only perpetuate the defeat he seeks to revenge. It is the rare leader in the Muslim World who can both learn from the West and revive the greatness of his own people. That combination of reformer and restorer hasn't been seen since Turkey's Kemal Ataturk.

Instead of a generation of Young Turks -- even the phrase has become a byword among the nations -- the Islamic world has been cursed by Saddam Husseins and outfits like the Taliban, and by moderates so moderate they're afraid to stand up to the most destructive forces in their civilization. They're much like the kind of Southerners who wanted to do the decent thing back in the bad old days but didn't dare speak out.

The glory that was once Arabdom waits to be revived, but not by assassins and terrorists. That way lie only more defeats. The chivalry that was Saladin's has nothing to do with Osama bin Laden's war on the innocent. Any more than some Birmingham bomber was defending the legacy of Robert E. Lee.

A code that gave birth to a great civilization, that stresses hospitality to the wayfarer and personal honor, has been turned inside out by these killers who claim to be its defenders. They do not defend their creed but pervert it. Southerners know all about that.

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