10.23.17

Fighting to maintain biodefense labs

Posted in Bioterrorism, War On Terror at 1:59 pm by George Smith

Bioterror defense is out of fashion. Once untouchable, it’s budgeting is now open to cost-cutting so that security agencies and work responsible for building alls — immigtration — can be boosted.

From this week’s New York Times, a short piece:

The Department of Homeland Security plans to close a New York-based laboratory that has helped the city’s Police and Fire Departments develop systems to detect nuclear and biological threats, a move that some local officials fear could hamper efforts to prevent and respond to terrorist attacks.

The radiological program that the laboratory, the National Urban Security Technology Laboratory, developed with the New York Fire Department is widely considered the national standard, and technologies it has tested are in widespread use across the country. It has also worked on systems to combat drug trafficking and money laundering: Portable card readers it tested have helped officials recover millions of dollars in drug proceeds smuggled across borders using gift and other prepaid cards.

“The lab has provided an invaluable amount of information to us over the years, including helping us understand biological and nuclear threats when nobody understood that stuff,” said Gerard McCarty, the director of emergency management at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. “And they continue to provide critical support to us in researching and testing technologies.”

Curiously, the article never precisely specifies what the laboratory does. It’s web presence at the Dept. of Homeland Security is here.

A brief fact sheet indicates it is in involved in first-responder training and monitoring radiological threats through a “radiation network for cities” called REMS. It seems to be a training service for response to the “dirty bomb” threat, too, although the WMD is never mentioned by name. And here is where the New York Times erred big time: The lab isn’t about germs. It’s involved in the network to combat radiological threats and a big partner of the New York Fire Department.

A far more detailed news story shows it’s a primary defense in Manhattan, as far as training and testing goes, against the dirty bomb threat.

Its history reads: “The lab at 201 Varick St. in lower Manhattan was established in 1947 as part of the Manhattan Project and has been a global leader in studying background atmospheric radiation. It provided critical scientific research that helped make the case for the 1963 Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. which banned testing on atomic bombs in the atmosphere, underwater or in outer space.”

That’s quite a provenance, an important bit of information quite overlooked by the New York Times.

“The Trump administration has proposed closing the lab as part of larger cuts it envisions for the Department of Homeland Security’s scientific research and development programs,” reads the NYT. “The administration’s budget would cut funding for these programs by more than 18 percent, to $627 million this year from $771 million…”

For the Times, a local politician that lab’s cost, $3.4 million, was “a pittance” in the federal budget, equivalent toa rounding error. The lab employs thirty in Manhattan. It seems an accurate representation.

The cut allows “focus on the administration’s top priorities, including border security, counterterrorism, explosives and cybersecurity,” reports the NYT.

Of course, countering dirty bombs involves border security, counterorrism and explosives all rolled into one. But it’s robably safe to say the fact that terrorists have neither developed nor used a dirty bomb in the last 16 years, never in US territory, also a big factor.

What was in the news almost daily over a decade ago, often even in common hit television scripts, has faded.

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