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Congress Reviews Bioterrorism Risk - 2001-10-11


Members of Congress were told Wednesday that the United States remains vulnerable to a wide range of potential terrorist threats and disruptions despite heightened security in the wake of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

At the top of the list of potential threats is bioterrorism. Public health experts like Amy Smithson told lawmakers that hospitals around the country are ill prepared to handle a large-scale bioterrorism attack. "It is very clear that our hospital systems and health care systems cannot handle the patient load of a regular influenza outbreak season," she said. So they are going to probably need, in very quick order, outside medical assistance in order to cope with the incredible burdens on the health care system that would result from a major disease outbreak."

Ms. Smithson and others are calling on Congress to quickly formulate a national strategy to protect the country from the threat of bioterrorism.

It was a similar story in other hearing rooms throughout the Capitol Wednesday, with federal officials acknowledging that the United States remains vulnerable to a range of terrorist attacks.

Assistant Army Secretary Michael Parker told a House subcommittee that security around the nation's water systems also needs to be tightened. "Are America's water resources and environment at risk? And the answer can only be a reluctant, sobering yes," he said.

Others sought to calm jittery nerves on Capitol Hill. Ronald Dick is in charge of infrastructure protection for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. "Contamination of a water reservoir with a biological agent would probably not pose a large risk to public health because of the dilution effect, filtration, disinfection of the water," he said.

At a Senate hearing on the vulnerability of the nation's transportation system, Democrat Max Cleland of Georgia warned his colleagues to be prepared for new and different terrorist attacks. "It could be mass transit or it could be public utilities, historical sites or the media," he noted. "Tightening security in one area will tend to push terrorists in other directions. But one act of mass terrorism does not predict the next occurrence."

The gloomy threats clearly irritated some lawmakers who are growing impatient with bureaucratic delays in shoring up security.

Democratic Senator John Breaux of Louisiana had this retort for a Transportation Department official who had tried to explain why new security procedures have been delayed. "My information tells me that none of them have been completed," he said. "Now I know that you are brand new. You were not here when we did all of this. But it is your office and what can you tell this committee and this Congress? I hate to say it, but that is deplorable."

Lawmakers must now deal with a rash of requests from federal agencies for more money to deal with the terrorist threats. On bioterrorism alone, the Senate is considering an additional $1.5 billion to help communities prepare for a possible attack.