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Last Updated

18 Dec 2002

Source: United Press International, September 14, 2002.

Farms vulnerable to terrorism, study says

By Christian Bourge, UPI think tank correspondent

WASHINGTON, Sept. 14 (UPI) -- Little is being done to address the real threat of a terrorist attack focused on the United States agriculture industry, said members of a government-sponsored commission that met Friday to examine the state of America's preparedness for terrorist action.

"I think the panel has to come out strongly that there needs to be more attention paid to these (agricultural threat) issues, and that these recommendations are just a little bit of what is needed to be done," said Ellen M. Gordon, administrator of the emergency management division of the Iowa Department of Public Defense.

She spoke at the quarterly meeting of an advisory panel that assesses U.S. domestic response capabilities to terrorism that involves weapons of mass destruction.

"Literally, this is an issue on which nothing is being done," said Gordon, who is also president of the National Emergency Management Association.

The commission, also known as the "Gilmore Commission," has been run by the RAND Corp. for 4 years under government contract, through the think tank's federally funded National Defense Research Institute.

The commission's recommendations have taken on new importance in light of the Sept. 11 attacks and the deadly anthrax mailings that followed them last fall.

As a think tank that supplies research and support for the initiative, and briefings on key issues, RAND wields much influence over the commission's recommendations. At Friday's meeting, RAND personnel briefed the commission on response capabilities for a bioterror attack with smallpox, and on an ongoing survey on the responsiveness to terrorism threats of emergency service personnel at the state and local levels.

In addition, a panel subcommittee headed by Dr. M. Patricia Quinlisk, medical director and state epidemiologist for the Iowa Department of Public Health, made several recommendations for dealing with the threat of agricultural terrorism, an area of particular interest to commission members.

The panel debated possible recommendations for protecting agricultural industries and products from terrorist strikes, including livestock, crops and fruit awaiting harvest, and processed food heading to grocery stores.

Dr. Quinlisk said a major problem is that while agricultural products are at risk for attack, nothing is being done to study the threat.

"The perception is that agriculture is at some risk, but there is no good idea as to what kind of threat there may be," she said.

One recommendation given to the commission was for an increase in funding for programs to study the threat, evaluate the risks and establish proper responses. Another was that more resources be committed to education and training for veterinarians about animal-borne diseases that are not common in the United States and that could be used to create an infectious agent or to contaminate food supplies.

The commission will also consider creating a system to track outbreaks of animal diseases that is based upon the health threat model used to track outbreaks of human infectious diseases.

Members of the panel noted that there are several federal agencies that have oversight of this area, especially of processed foods. The Food and Drug Administration, Customs Service and Department of Agriculture have jurisdiction over various aspects of the food chain. None, however, have shown the willingness or ability to take up this issue, they said.

Mike Wermuth, RAND's project director for the Gilmore Commission, indicated that the Central Intelligence Agency, for example, has made it clear that it has no interest in addressing the threat of agricultural terrorism.

"As far as we can tell there isn't any interest from the intelligence community," said Wermuth.

Several of the committee members agreed that the effort to protect agriculture, as well as who should be responsible for that, should be better defined in federal statutes.

In addition to agricultural terrorism, said commission chairman Jim Gilmore, the current panel of the commission is also focused on the impact of new anti-terror policies on civil liberties.

"We are focusing intently on civil liberty issues to make sure these recommendations will have the appropriate impact on the American people," Gilmore told United Press International.

This was evident during Friday's deliberations over a controversial recommendation for creating a counter-terrorism information service that would be separate from the Department of Homeland Defense, which is still being formed.

The proposed counter-terrorism information service would be designed to gather intelligence related to possible attacks from within the United States, and would be given a mandate to collect raw intelligence data from law enforcement and other sources. The agency would not, however, have the power to enforce laws.

During the debate over the proposal, Gilmore said he opposes the idea because it needed to "mature" before it can be considered. He added that that a key dilemma with the proposal is the problem of how to handle intelligence on U.S. citizens vs. that on non-citizens.

The proposal for this new agency, and the recommendations on agricultural terrorism, will be further scrutinized and revised before they are voted on later this year and become official commission recommendations.

The Gilmore Commission's fourth annual report is scheduled to be delivered to Congress and the White House on Dec. 15. It will make recommendations on various issues including the National Strategy for Homeland Security; the relationship of the new Department of Homeland Security to other U.S. government, state and local agencies and to the private sector; and the military's role in homeland security.