President Bush has signed legislation to boost America's defenses against bioterrorism. The measure provides $4.3 billion to improve public health facilities, increase vaccine stockpiles and step up efforts to make sure the food and water supply is safe.
The president said the federal government must be better prepared to deal with the threat of bioterrorism. "Terrorist groups seek biological weapons. We know some rogue states already have them. It is important that we confront these real threats to our country and prepare for future emergencies," Mr. Bush said.
The president said last year's anthrax scare was a wake-up call. Last October, anthrax-contaminated letters began to show up in the U.S. mail, and five people died. Whole offices and buildings were shut down after envelopes arrived at their destinations containing anthrax spores, including some facilities on Capitol Hill.
The bioterrorism threat was close to home for members of Congress. They responded by giving overwhelming approval to legislation designed to boost spending to better protect all Americans from bioterrorism and improve the medical community's ability to respond.
As he signed the bill into law, President Bush praised their work. He said protecting the public from bioterrrorism is "an urgent duty of government."
"We must be better prepared to prevent, identify and respond, and this bill I am signing today will help a lot in this essential effort," Mr. Bush said.
Among other things, the measure provides $1.6 billion in grants to states for improved planning and preparedness. It sets aside hundreds of millions of dollars to produce and stockpile vaccines and medicines. And it provides more money to protect water systems and food supplies.
But the president made clear he wants to see more from Congress. He urged lawmakers to approve his plan to create a new cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security. "Strengthening our protections against bioterror is a part of a larger effort to deal with the new threats of the 21st century. If we are going to succeed, we need to re-organize our government," Mr. Bush said.
After the signing ceremony, Mr. Bush met with a panel of advisors on domestic security from inside and outside the government. He said America is responding to terrorism in two ways: through direct action against terrorists abroad, and heightened prevention at home.
"We are making progress. We really are. But until we rout out every terrorist cell and every terrorist, until attitudes change about freedom and America, we have got to protect our homeland in a new way," Mr. Bush said.
The head of the White House Office of Homeland Security is briefing lawmakers this week on the president's plan. Tom Ridge is meeting behind closed doors first with the entire membership of the House and later with all 100 Senators. President Bush has urged Congress to pass the necessary legislation to create a Department of Homeland Security this year. But administration officials said it will not be easy, acknowledging there are questions on Capital Hill about both the extent of the re-organization, and the cost of the plan.