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Politics

Former Senator Daschle says America is not ready for biological attacks

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Minority Leader Tom Daschle, shown in this video image from February 1999, speak on the Senate floor.
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This interview is from SDPB's daily public-affairs show, In the Moment, hosted by Lori Walsh.

America is far from ready for attack, according to a new report on biodefense. Current detectors placed in large cities across the nation are programmed to identify biological agents in the air and warn authorities of specific threats. Those detectors are outdated and ineffective, even though millions of dollars have been budgeted annually for America's BioWatch program since terrorist attacks in 2001.

Twenty years after deadly anthrax spores were sent across the nation targeting top U.S. officials, South Dakota's former U.S. Senator Tom Daschle says America still lacks an adequate plan for biodefense.

"In fact, if anything, we're more vulnerable today than we were 20 years ago," Daschle says. "Both on the natural side with pandemics — we still haven't dealt with the infrastructure required around Public Health — nor on the threat from man-made sources. That terrorist threat is every bit as real as it was back then. In some ways, we're far less prepared than we know we need to be."

Daschle serves on the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense. This week the commission released the report "Saving Sisyphus: Advanced Biodetection for the 21st Century" as a warning cry and call to action.

Daschle says he is partly responsibly for the failures of the current system.

"I was majority leader when we passed the so-called BioWatch program, which was designed to create a detection mechanism around the country. That has been a terrible failure. I have to acknowledge that failure started on my watch, but it's gone on 20 years and there were many times when we could have changed this and fixed it. We haven't. We've spent a billion dollars, and frankly, it hasn't worked."

The "Saving Sisyphus" report calls for dismantling the current BioWatch program, acquisition of new biodetection technologies, and "dedicated long-term research and development." (Sisyphus was a character in Homer's Iliad, doomed to heave an enormous boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back to the bottom of the hill, again and again, throughout eternity as his punishment for cheating death.)

Though biodefense is typically a bipartisan issue, Daschle says he isn't seeing the leadership the topic needs to protect the American people from airborne attacks.

"This is not just a federal issue. It's got to be something we talk about and work on at the state and local level too. But at all levels we need more champions and to date I haven't seen as many as I think we need."

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Laboratory technician holding the anthrax-laced letter addressed to Senator Leahy after safely opening it at the U.S. Army's Fort Detrick bio-medical research laboratory in November 2001.

Links referenced in the interview: