A Most Catastrophic Nomination

Posted in Bioterrorism, Predator State, War On Terror at 4:44 pm by George Smith


Tara O’Toole, CEO of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Biosecurity,
has been nominated by the Obama administration to be the top scientist at the Department of Homeland Security. While readers may not know the name, if one actually likes their science based in reality, not scenarios which are Biblically apocalyptic and free of facts, it is a dreadful choice.

At the Danger Room blog, Noah Schachtman queried DD and others on the wisdom of the administration’s move. (See here. And in another form, echoed by Spencer Ackerman at the Washington Independent. And from Fox News, here.)

“This is a disastrous nomination,” Richard Ebright, a Rutgers University microbiologist and homeland security policy critic, told Schachtman.

“O’Toole supported every flawed decision and counterproductive policy
on biodefense, biosafety, and biosecurity during the Bush dministration … O’Toole is as out of touch with reality, and as paranoiac, as former Vice President Cheney. It would be hard to think of a person less well suited for the position.???

“She was the single most extreme person, either in or out of overnment, advocating for a massive biodefense expansion and relaxation of provisions for safety and security … She makes Dr. Strangelove look sane.???

More recently, O’Toole was discussed on this blog as part of a larger piece on predator state security practices. (See here.)

Predator state security ensures that nothing realistic gets done. Rather, it is simply the rapid diversion of taxpayer dollars into the hands of the private sector — in this case — the biosecurity industry. Threats are invented and the most scary predictions are publicized, all to grease the process. And this is what has happened in the United States. The biodefense industry has ballooned in size until it is out of all proportion to the nature of the threat. It has certainly increased the number of American scientists and technologists working with deadly microorganisms. And in these processes, it has escaped from rational, as well as fiscal, oversight. (It should be noted and reflected upon that the most famous bioterrorist, Bruce Ivins, came from the heart of the nation’s biodefense infrastructure.)

In the earlier piece from this blog, O’Toole was noted as “an independent panelist appointed to review the action of the super-biodefense lab called the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center when it opens in 2009.” It was a perfect illustration of a cheerleader for the massive growth of the biodefense industry being put in a position to oversee one of the best examples of massive growth in the biodefense industry.

The choice, in other words, was cooked. And that was because of O’Toole’s work as an advisor to the government, her participation in notorious bioterror wargames and her regular appearance in the media as a harbinger of bio-doom. O’Toole’s public words and actions often seemed designed to serve the creation of the belief in the imminence of catastrophic bioterror, one which led to the creation of an NBACC and many other similar defense research labs.

For example, O’Toole directed an exercise called Atlantic Storm in 2005 which purported to demonstrate effectiveness and consequences of an al Qaeda bio-attack using smallpox. It has been criticized effectively by other experts, most notably Milton Leitenberg, who listed a number of sins attributed to it — sheer exaggeration, juiced disease transmission and amplification of threat, a terrorist facility for making smallpox into a weapon that even state run biological warfare operations did not possess.

“The 2005 Atlantic Storm exercise made ‘grossly misleading assumptions’ about the ease of creating and then dispersing the same biological agent … a dry powder smallpox preparation, a feat that neither the US nor Soviet BW programs ever achieved,” Leitenberg wrote in “Assessing the Biological Weapons and Bioterrorism Threat.”

“The [Atlantic Storm] scenario we posited is very conservative,” said O’Toole, for the Washington Post in 2005. “The age of biological weapons is not science fiction; it’s here.”

For the Los Angeles Times, O’Toole was attributed: “This could have been much worse. The age of engineered biological weapons is here. It is now.”

Later that year, again for the Post, in a story on how or why the failed national smallpox immunization ought to be revived: “People are now back in dumb-and-happy mode . . . [in contrast with] when we were going into Iraq, and the possibility of a smallpox attack was seen as much more plausible.”

While at John Hopkins University in June 2001, O’Toole also contributed to another al Qaeda-delivered smallpox wargame, one called Dark Winter.

“. . . spookily prescient,” the Post wrote of it, in a story entitled “A War Game to Send Chills Down the Spine.”

However, the Dark Winter exercised used a smallpox transmission rate that was three times its historical average. The alteration juiced the contagion, one that guaranteed the simulation would end in total catastrophe.

“We intentionally picked the absolutely worst-case scenario,” said Randy Larsen, a collaborator of O’Toole’s and one of the game’s architects, to the Post. “We designed a war game they could not win,” he added later in the story.

And ” . . . suddenly, ‘smallpox’ is the threat du jour,” wrote the Post.

Other O’Toole appearances in the press, and there have been many, have always been achingly predictable emphases on the ease of bioterrorism, doom (as in “we’re cooked”) and the inevitability of it all.

From the San Francisco Chronicle in 2001: “These [bio]weapons are cheap, they are easily accessible, and they are going to get worse as the science becomes more sophisticated.”

Attributed in Investor’s Business Daily, in an article about the need for new labs to fight bioterror: “The worst-case scenario is a concerted campaign . . . a little anthrax attack here, a little plague here, and . . . a little smallpox there, then the anthrax again.”

In the Los Angeles Times in 2003: “Bioterrorism is a whole new terrain of national security that’s going to have the same magnitude of impact as the creation of nuclear weapons . . . We should increase spending [on bioterrorism] to $10 billion next year.”

And on avian flu to human flu, in 2005, from various newspapers: “Once you’re there, you’re cooked”; “You’re looking at a nation-busting event”; “[an avian flu plague would be]more difficult and worse than a large terrorist attack, bomb, dirty bomb or airplane slamming into a building” and “If we don’t drive down the costs of drugs, we’re cooked –both in healthcare and biodefense.”

In the world of Tara O’Toole, bioterror has the nation cooked.

Leitenberg added in e-mail to DD, one which had been originally forwarded to Wired but which did not make the cut at press time: “It is a black mark for an administration seeking rational fact based policies. The most absolutely catastrophic appointment conceivable, which promises to ensure continually misdirected resources in the forthcoming years. Whoever was responsible for the selection in the Obama administration should be replaced.”

“Holy Bad Nominations, Batman!” writes Jason at Armchair Generalist.

“Also of note about [Tara O’Toole] are her ties to the Democratic Party and Congressman John Murtha,” writes Ken Silverstein at Harpers’ blog.

“Since 2003, she has contributed a total of $8,300 to the Democratic National Committee, as well as a number of Democratic presidential candidates, including John Kerry, Wesley Clark, Hillary Clinton, and most recently Barack Obama. The only member of congress to whom she has contributed is Murtha. In 2004 and 2005, immediately before and after Murtha earmarked money for her center under the Strategic Biodefense Initiative, she gave him $1,750.

“As I’ve noted before, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center – O’Toole’s center is one of its projects – retains as its lobbying firm Ervin Technical Associates, which has close links to the congressman. UPMC’s PAC and employees have donated heavily to Murtha, including $192,500 in 2006. That was the year after Murtha won an $8.5 million earmark for UPMC — lobbied for by Ervin Technical — for a communications network. Ervin Technical is also seeking to win support for a dubious UPMC project which is looking for funding to develop and manufacture biodefense vaccines.”

Protecting the nation from catastrophic bioterrorist health emergencies — the biosecurity industry press release, March 18 2009

David P. Wright, Co-Chair of the Alliance for Biosecurity and Chairman and CEO of PharmAthene, Inc., testified today before the House Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee on the critical importance of developing drugs, vaccines and other medical countermeasures needed to protect Americans from bioterrorism and other catastrophic health emergencies. Effective medical countermeasures for many of the chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) agents that pose the greatest threat to the United States do not currently exist, and Wright argued that the federal government should take a more active role in supporting their development to bolster the nation’s biosecurity.

“Protecting our nation against bioterror threats is no less important than ensuring that we have the tools necessary to fortify and protect our military,” Wright noted, but “funding for the development of CBRN countermeasures, particularly in the area of advanced development, has been woefully inadequate.” Wright stated that “without adequate funding, promising countermeasures will not be developed and the nation will remain vulnerable to a bioterror attack – and make no mistake, a bioterror attack is a real and credible threat.”

“Increased funding would advance the day when our nation has access to these critical countermeasures,” Wright stated, but “until that day arrives, the American people remain at risk.”

The Alliance for Biosecurity was formed in June of 2005 by biopharmaceutical companies and [Tara O’Toole’s] Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Alliance members are committed to partnering with government and promoting a new era in the prevention and treatment of severe infectious diseases – particularly those that present global security challenges – through innovative and accelerated research, development and production of countermeasures. Company members of the Alliance include: Bavarian-Nordic, Cangene Corporation, DOR BioPharma, Inc., Dynport Vaccine Company LLC, a CSC Company, Elusys Therapeutics, Emergent BioSolutions, Hematech, Inc., a subsidiary of Kyowa Kirin, Human Genome Sciences, Inc., NanoViricides, Inc., Pfizer Inc., PharmAthene, Siga Technologies, and Unither Virology LLC, a subsidiary of United Therapeutics.

Tara O’Toole predicts

U Pitt News, April 15, 2005

One hundred kilograms of anthrax dropped on Washington, D.C., would be as deadly as a one-megaton hydrogen bomb.

This is one of the many reasons why Dr. Tara O’Toole believes the use of biological weapons is “potentially imminent.”

O’Toole discussed bioweapons in her lecture “Disease as a Weapon: A New Challenge for the 21st Century.” The speech, full of cautionary words and threats of unavoidable disaster, fell upon the ears of an Alumni Hall audience Tuesday afternoon.

Bioweapons have been proven to work on a large scale; they can kill hundreds of thousands of people at one time. Generally, it is difficult to determine where a bioweapon was let loose, so an exact radius of destruction is hard to calculate, O’Toole said.

Australia Broadcasting System, September 2005

Participants in Atlantic Storm included former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright and former government ministers from Canada, Poland, France, the Netherlands and Italy.

As the exercise began, they were all meeting in Washington for a Transatlantic summit.

Tara O’Toole: We alleged that as these leaders were flying across the Atlantic for this meeting, there were reports of smallpox cases in Europe coming on to the airwaves, and by morning it was confirmed that there were smallpox cases in Turkey and in Germany, and of course since smallpox has been eradicated from the natural world, these confirmed reports meant that there had been smallpox attacks in Europe.

Tara O’Toole: We posited that we had a number of people walking through these busy airports and train stations and so forth, with a backpack on them, just releasing what would be an invisible, odourless cloud of smallpox into the air.

Tom Morton: Atlantic Storm was widely reported in the American media. There were editorials in The Washington Post, calling for urgent action to combat the bioterrorist threat.

The creators of Atlantic Storm knew which buttons to press. They’d already got the ear of Vice-President Cheney with a previous exercise called ‘Dark Winter’.

But prominent scientists have sharply criticised both Atlantic Storm and ‘Dark Winter’. But scientists say it’s highly unlikely that terrorists could mount a mass attack with biological weapons, as the scenarios depict.

One of those scientists is Jonathan King, Professor of Molecular Biology at MIT. King says that the creators of these scenarios are panic-mongering.

Jonathan King: I would say these scenarios were very deeply kind of irresponsible, almost dangerous. They present proposals out of the imagination as if they’re actually established, that some actual named al Qa’eda representatives were in the Soviet Union getting smallpox stocks. Every piece of which is a total figment of the imagination. The notion that the terrorists could grow up smallpox in hidden facilities, tissue culture facilities which have extensive maintenance requirements, this is not again a small-scale thing, it requires a lot of skill, a lot of money, a lot of people, material being delivered in all the time, sterile conditions, positive air control, this is not a low tech garage operation. These scenarios were loaded with proposals that represented a kind of misrepresentation of what’s known about these things, I would say in an extremely irresponsible way.

The Washington Post, July 2006

“We haven’t yet absorbed the magnitude of [the bioterror] threat to national security,” said O’Toole, who worries that the national commitment to biodefense is waning over time and the rise of natural threats such as pandemic flu. “It is true that pandemic flu is important, and we’re not doing nearly enough, but I don’t think pandemic flu could take down the United States of America. A campaign of moderate biological attacks could.”

Defense News, November 6, 2006

The risk and ease of a bioterror attack on either side of the Atlantic equals — or exceeds — that of low-radiation nuclear bombs and thus demands far more rapid-reaction planning compared to prevention, [said a number of bioterror experts.]

The U.S. experts addressed an Oct. 27 biosecurity workshop of European Union and NATO homeland security officials as part of their briefing tour of European capitals. Their organizations were directly involved in Atlantic Storm, the February 2005 high-level bioterror exercise involving U.S. and European politicians.

“There are a least 1 million people [across the globe] who have the academic and technical qualifications to build an antibiotic-resistant bug,” said Tara O’Toole, director of the University of Pittsburg’s Center for Biosecurity. “Ask any biologist whether they could make a bioweapon. I’ve not gotten a ‘no’ to that answer yet.

“Deadly toxins are a very appealing asymmetric weapon, and we see no obstacles to a terrorist getting his hands on them and dispersing them,” she said. “Our political leaders do not understand the urgency and lethality of this threat. And the only defense against bio-attack is post-event preparation, because all you can really do is mitigate the consequences and try to stabilize the situation.”

April 2007, in testimony before the House Subcommittee on Homeland Security

Tara O’Toole:

[Most experts] have deemed a bioterrorist attack and a nuclear attack as the two types of terrorist assaults most likely to destabilize the nation.

Only bioweapons and nuclear weapons are in the top category of lethality.

And 100 kilograms of weaponized anthrax dropped on D.C. under good weather conditions, is likely to cause about the same number of casualties as a one megaton bomb dropped on the city. No other kind of weapon is in this category of lethality.

Furthermore, we know Al Qaida is pursuing biological weapons. We know that from evidence gathered in Afghanistan and documented in the Rob Silverman WMD report.

And we also know, and have explicit evidence that it’s very difficult to attribute a bio-attack to any particular perpetrator, as we’ve seen in 2001.

That means that our traditional means of deterrence against attacks in the United States, i.e., attribution with certain retribution, are weakened.

Really, the only strategy we have for biodefense is to be able to swiftly and very significantly mitigate the consequences of such attack.

In Comgressional testimony, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, October 2007

Tara O’Toole: I think it was the ease of carrying out a biological attack, because these organisms live naturally in the world and are available in hundreds of gene banks across the world. And also because these are replicating organisms. So if you can mount one attack, you can make enough anthrax — for example, if you’re patient — to do two, ten.

So everyone is going to feel vulnerable after the first attack. The whole country’s going to want anthrax vaccine. That’s why sitting here today with enough anthrax vaccine to cover only about 3 million people is so worrisome. And I suspect part of the reason behind HHS’s reluctance to get rid of expired vaccine might not be perfect, it might not what you’d use on a good day. But it might be a lot better than nothing in the breach.

So we need to take, I believe, a much more strategic look both at these two programs that we’re discussing today. And they’re both vital programs as well as at our overall biosecurity strategy.

And I think there’s a lot of complacency and misinformation abroad in the leadership of the country about the biothreat and biodefense. I think people think the threat is much more remote and much less potentially destabilizing than in the case. And I think they believe we’re more prepared than is the case, because we’ve done a lot. We’ve worked hard and spent about $40 billion since 2001 on civilian biodefense.

But the problem is that drugs and vaccines are a lot harder and trickier to make and a lot more expensive than sensors or engineering products. And I don’t think that when we embarked on the BioShield program in 2004, the complexity of this endeavor was fully realized, either by the Congress or by HHS.

The fact is that the $5.6 billion in BioShield is a fraction of what we’re going to need. And part of the delay on HHS’s part is trying to figure out how do we get countermeasures for all the possible threats within that sum of money. So we’re not asking what do we need to defense the country against bioattacks? We’re in effect asking what can we get from this amount of money? We’re basically shopping at Costco. All right?

This is part of the reason why big pharma doesn’t want to get into the game. It’s also why we are dependent upon small, daring biotech companies [see, for example, the Alliance for Biosecurity — ed.] who’ve never made anything before. And making a new drug or a vaccine is a lot more art than science.

That’s just where we are. We’re in a revolution in bioscience. There’s lots of very tempting possibilities coming down the pike in terms of new drugs and new vaccines. But at the current pace, it’s going to take us about ten years to get there. So the whole problem of trying to get what we need for a fairly paltry sum of money, when you compare it to other national security expenditures, is one of the big problems with countermeasures.

1 Comment

  1. Gigi Gronvall said,

    May 10, 2009 at 12:25 am

    Do you want a health system infrastructure that can detect clinical disease, treat patients, and offer preventative care to those not immediately affected, whether the disease is natural (SARS, H1N1 flu, or dengue) or deliberate? Do you want leaders who understand that managing an epidemic is substantially different than managing other crises– that they will need different expertise, will need different sets of data to understand what is going on, will need to prepare for a crisis to go on and on and on, all the while trying to reassure the public that they are doing what can be done? Can we manage to make drugs and vaccines more cost effectively and more quickly– better than the industry averages of nearly a billion dollars per drug and 8-10 years– so we can actually respond to a crisis? If so, you will appreciate the Center for Biosecurity’s work and be impressed with Tara O’Toole’s leadership of it. I suggest you actually look at what we do, and what she has done, versus making false and biased assumptions. Go to http://www.upmc-biosecurity.org.
    Gigi Gronvall, Center for Biosecurity of UPMC