WASHINGTON – Members of Congress complained Thursday about intelligence on Iraqi biological weapons (search) as they considered legislation that would rely on intelligence to help counter bioterror threats at home.
The House Select Committee on Homeland Security (search) is considering a President Bush proposal dubbed Project BioShield, which would give the administration unprecedented authority to research, buy and distribute vaccines and antidotes against pathogens that could be used by bioterrorists.
Among other things, it would guarantee private companies that, if they spend money to create new treatments, the government will buy them.
But a linchpin of the proposal requires the Homeland Security Department (search) to determine what biological agents pose a severe enough threat to trigger the program.
At a committee hearing Thursday, several members of Congress quizzed Homeland Security officials about their ability to make those assessments. Specifically, they noted that U.S. forces have been unable to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, despite intelligence that allegedly said these weapons were there.
"The entire premise of this country going to war with Iraq was that we needed to rid the rogue nation of weapons of mass destruction," said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss. "To this date, no weapons of mass destruction have been found. ... We sent our brave men and women into war under false pretenses."
He said that in order to determine what projects to fund under BioShield, officials must have reliable intelligence about the threat.
Paul Redmond, assistant secretary for information analysis at the Homeland Security Department, responded that he had no information about intelligence concerning Iraq, though other administration officials have expressed confidence that biological weapons will ultimately be found there.
Members also pressed Redmond to specify the most troubling bioterror threats.
"If the threat is as serious as some would suggest, this committee need to hear about it," said Rep. Jim Turner of Texas, the top Democrat on the panel.
Redmond said he was not prepared to disclose detailed information on threats. He added that the department does not yet have a full handle on what pathogens pose the most serious danger.
He spoke in general of the threat posed by anthrax and botulinum toxin, two of the biological agents that most concern experts.
Redmond said he and one other person are now working to assess the threat. Under questioning, he said he did not need any further resources to do his job.
"We're here to help you," said Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., the panel's chairman. "We're not getting very far very fast today." He said the committee's purpose is to provide the department with the money it needs for this "enormous job."
"The impression you've left is it's the two of you working with the outside world," Cox said.
Redmond responded that he plans to hire two to three others to help. "We're just getting started," he said.
Turner didn't buy it. "It causes me to have grave concern that we are not doing the job in the way the legislation envisions," he said.
Overall, the BioShield legislation enjoys broad support. The only significant controversy has been whether the program should be singled out for special, automatic funding, as Bush wants, or whether it should have to compete with other programs in the budget for dollars. A bill approved by the House Commerce Committee requires it to go through the normal budgeting process, while a Senate version makes the funding automatic.