Paul Redmond had a
terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day recently. It was the day that
Redmond, assistant secretary for information analysis at the Homeland
Security Department, testified before the House Select Homeland Security
Committee about Project BioShield, President Bush's $6 billion
anti-bioterrorism project that's been cruising through the House.
Redmond didn't have an opening statement. He admitted he has only one
person working under him to assess the bioterror threat. He said he
isn't getting the information he needs from the intelligence community.
His description of the bioterror threat was nothing more than what
lawmakers had already read in the newspapers. And he wasn't prepared to
brief them in a closed session. Redmond eventually made a plea for
sympathy: "I'm trying to do my best at this point."
Redmond's lack of preparedness on BioShield is evidence of a
potentially grave weakness: Redmond's intelligence cupboard is largely
bare, yet the department appears to have no trouble launching big
expensive programs without having assessed what the country's
highest-priority threats are.
"It's certainly symptomatic of a larger problem," Rep. Jim Turner of
Texas, the panel's ranking Democrat, said in an interview. "It was clear
that the Office of Information Analysis is not functioning the way it
was envisioned [by Congress].... It leaves a real security gap."
Redmond's June 5 testimony—or lack of it—before a joint session of
two of the House panel's subcommittees triggered bipartisan dismay. Rep.
Christopher Shays, R-Conn., in an interview, described his reaction as
one of "shock, depression, outrage, embarrassment, and concern." He
added, "They're basically acknowledging that they're useless."
Turner reacted by sending a letter to the president spotlighting his
major worries, such as: just a single staff member working to assess the
bioterror threat; the department's inability to brief lawmakers on the
nature of the bioterror threat; and the department's lack of access to
certain top-secret information. Turner's letter brands Redmond's entire
Chairman Christopher Cox, R-Calif., says he is reserving judgment
until he learns more about what's going on in the new department's
intelligence wing. Still, Cox said, "our committee views
information-analysis as the central function of the department ... and
we all agree it's too important not to scrutinize these issues
Cox added that he's concerned more with where the department will be
in October, if BioShield is launched then as planned, than where it is
now. Homeland Security isn't yet able to determine what anti-terrorism
measures should be given top priority, in part because setting up its
intelligence unit has been a low priority.
"This is the last part of Homeland Security to come into being, as I
understand it," Redmond testified.
A former head of the CIA's counter-espionage center, Redmond reported
for duty on March 17. Calling the information-analysis office "the nerve
center of the department," Turner told National Journal, "that
should have been, and should be, a matter of first priority."
As proposed, BioShield would fund pharmaceutical companies in the
latter stages of developing vaccines for those bioterror agents deemed
most likely to pose a threat to the nation. The problem is that no one
at the department responsible for recommending which vaccines to fund
appears to be sitting down with the latest intelligence to rank
potential bioterror agents, the scariest of which number at least 80.
"The department is focused on all threats," says spokesman Brian
Roehrkasse. Presumably this is where Redmond's bioterrorism army of one
should come in. Perhaps before the federal government devotes $6 billion
to vaccine R&D, it should spend some money on intelligence-modeling
to figure out what vaccines are needed most—lest BioShield become a
big-ticket handout for pharmaceutical companies.
There was some good news in Redmond's very bad day: By drawing
attention to a major homeland-security problem when something can still
be done to rectify it, the hearing demonstrated that congressional
oversight can matter. Shays plans to talk with congressional
appropriators about how the 2004 budget can shore up the department's
Roehrkasse now says that 20 more analysts will come on board this
month. He also says that, by September, Redmond will have four more
people to assess bioterror threats. "In three short months, the
information-analytical capabilities of the department have grown.
However, we realize that they need to continue to enhance their
capability," Roehrkasse said.
BioShield comes under the jurisdiction of three House committees. But
only Cox's is giving it real scrutiny. The Energy and Commerce Committee
passed the measure by a voice vote on the day it was introduced, May 15.
When Government Reform marked it up and voted it out on May 22, only two
committee members were there.
But because of the Homeland Security Committee's questions,
BioShield's congressional fast track has slowed a bit. The BioShield
bill had been slated to be marked up this week by the committee, but the
panel has postponed that action.
Meanwhile, if the department doesn't adopt a more intelligence-driven
strategy for preventing the spread of bioterror agents, it might need to
instead focus its R&D efforts on cleaning up after a bioterror
attack. And Project BioShield could be renamed. Call it Project BioMop.