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Ridge: U.S. Not ‘Sufficiently Prepared’ for Bioterror Threat

South Korean and U.S. military and medical personnel conduct a joint drill to prepare for potential biological terrorism in Seoul on Sept. 9, 2015. A top U.S. security official said the drill, shown to the press for the first time since the inaugural exercise in 2011, was held with North Korea in mind. (Kyodo)

Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge warned that the U.S. faces a growing biological terrorism threat that it is not sufficiently prepared to prevent.

“We know ISIL has publicly espoused the value of biological weapons for their ability to cause massive loss of life and they certainly expressed their intent to use such weapons,” he said at a discussion on “International Cooperation in Combating Terrorism: Review of 2015 and Outlook for 2016” sponsored by the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.

“We know ISIL possesses what it needs to get a biological weapons program going – a large enough piece of land that can be both controlled and secured, physical infrastructure like labs and manufacturing facilities, scientific expertise, professional military personnel that would know best how to deploy these weapons,” he added.

Citing the intelligence community, Ridge said China, Iran, Russia, Syria and North Korea are engaging in “suspicious dual use for biological weapons” that are in violation of the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention.

“They [terrorists] live in the digital world and the physical world but there is another world of concern we addressed in the panel and that’s the world of bioterrorism,” said Ridge, a former governor of Pennsylvania. “It is one of the lesser-discussed aspects of the terrorist threat but after a year of inquiry, not just in Washington, D.C., but around the United States, we concluded that the threat is real, it’s growing and, frankly, given the nature of the threat, we don’t think the country is sufficiently prepared for it.”

Ridge and former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), co-chairmen of the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, plan to work with Congress on the upcoming intelligence authorization bill.

Lieberman, former chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, said international cooperation is necessary to combat biological terror threats and the spread of naturally occurring infectious diseases.

Lieberman said a wall at the border, for example, would not be enough to completely stop a virus like Zika from spreading.

“Just because verification is hard does not mean that we can in any sense disengage from this international process,” he said. “We’ve got to keep trying to establish a verification protocol that makes sense and enables all nations of the world to differentiate between legitimate work and what is being used to develop biological weapons and from our point of view. That means the United States must stay at the table to make progress on this problem.”

President Obama has asked Congress for $1.8 billion to combat the Zika virus. Lieberman said he is grateful for Obama’s request but expressed concern.

“While I am grateful for the statement the president has made, I’m also concerned about whether this money will be used in a well-coordinated and most cost effective way for our government,” he said.