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Last minute bioterror rewrites?

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World at Risk, the final report of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, received a good build-up. Its publicity stretched from reports outlining a draft of it in the Washington Post over the Thanksgiving Day weekend, with more news and private and public briefings the following week. We are, the general consensus went, in deadly danger.

This overriding message from the released copy was given in one sentence from the preface: "[Unless] the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013 ... The Commission further believes that terrorists are more likely to be able to obtain and use a biological weapon than a nuclear weapon."

Five years till doomsday?

The Houston Chronicle was one newspaper which took the grim pronouncement and made it worse, amplifying the fear and claiming, a little imprecisely, that the commission's message was "The United States can expect a terrorist attack using nuclear or more likely biological weapons before 2013 ..."

But while many newspapers jumped on the story, it did not have quite the jolt announcements of this nature have had in the past. Democratic Congresswoman Jane Harman of California, Chair of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence & Terrorism Risk Assessment, immediately issued a blunt press release. "Much in the report ... is important," it read. "However, it's time to retire the fear card." The American people needed to be educated about the threat, not terrified, it continued.

Even two years ago, such a statement would probably have been unheard of coming from a Congressional leader. Congress had done a lot to mitigate the threat, Harman wrote. And now it was "time for the rhetoric about the threat to calm..."

This writer hopes therefore that the rhetoric of imminent and catastrophic bioterrorism will be given quietus. During the election campaign, one of Barack Obama's chief policy advisors on the threat of bioterrorism was Richard Danzig, an assistant secretary of defense during the Clinton administration well known for his belief that the bioterror threat is unprecedented. And the World at Risk report uses a Danzig quote that speaks for itself: "Only a thin wall of terrorist ignorance and inexperience now protect us."

Over the past few years, The Register has written about the subject quite a bit, and readers know opinion is strongly divided on the subject. Generally speaking, there are reasonable critics who have been excluded from the press when reports are delivered, their input not sought.

In the report's introduction, the Commission claims it gathered the thoughts of two hundred experts. That's a big number, so this writer emailed Milton Leitenberg, an expert on bioterrorism and one of the well-known reasonable critics mentioned above. Since Leitenberg has written widely on the subject, the question was, had he been consulted by the commission? (Full disclosure: This writer has, in the past, collaborated with Leitenberg and exchanged findings with him.)

Leitenberg replied in email that he hadn't, nor had two other experts he contacted. But a staffer on the Commission had everything that he had written. Further email discussion followed in an informal trading of comments on aspects of the Commission report, the fruits of which are discussed.

It has not been widely pointed out that the Washington Post's November 30 story on a pre-release draft of the Commission report showed differences between it and the edition released the following Wednesday.

"The biodefense research industry that sprang up after 2001 offers potential solutions to a future attack, but also numerous new opportunities for theft or diversion of deadly germs, the report says," wrote Joby Warrick for the Post.

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