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Former DHS Secretary Warns on Biodefense

Leadership and major reform are needed, he says.

Former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Tom Ridge co-chaired a blue ribbon study panel on biodefense that produced a report called A National Blueprint for Biodefense: Leadership and Major Reform Needed to Optimize Efforts

Ridge responded to a series of questions from Emergency Management about his participation on the panel, the challenging and complex leadership situation at the federal level, the efficacy of some existing biodefense programs, and how biodefense fits into the matrix of risks that we face as a nation today. 

Q: Because of your background and experience in being the first DHS secretary, you undoubtedly get many invitations to participate on different types of panels or commissions. Why did you agree to participate in this particular blue ribbon study panel? Was it based on who invited you, perhaps Sen. Joe Lieberman? 

It was indeed a great privilege to get to work with Senator Lieberman, who had tremendous experience with homeland security policymaking during his time in the Senate. I also wanted the opportunity to help solve a problem that I knew was still nagging at us. We set up some infrastructure for dealing with chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats when we first established the Department of Homeland Security. But these issues – biodefense in particular – are bigger than any one department. We saw that with Ebola, although I agreed to join this effort even before the Ebola events of 2014 unfolded. I felt that engaging in a commission-like effort with people like Joe Lieberman could really do a lot of good for the nation.
Q: Do you see the primary risks to U.S. biosecurity coming from terrorists, nation states, or perhaps emergent diseases like SARS that seemed to come out of nowhere when it suddenly appeared in China and then Canada?
A: That’s one of the questions the panel asked while conducting its research and at our public meetings. What is the nature of the threat? Should we be more worried about terrorism, accidents or naturally occurring diseases? We learned that we certainly need to be concerned with terrorism, both state-sponsored and unaffiliated. It’s public knowledge that groups like ISIL would like to get their hands on a bioweapon. We also know that states like Russia and North Korea either have or have had bioweapons programs. So I’d say that terrorism is a serious possibility. Emerging and re-emerging diseases are actually a certainty.
Q: Leadership is undoubtedly needed to address the many issues our nation faces. The report from the commission calls for the vice president of the United States to be responsible for coordinating and leading a renewed effort toward better biosecurity. Why not use the existing federal agencies and give one of them primary leadership?
A: We have found that it does not work when one department or agency is put in charge of others. DHS, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other departments and agencies each have discrete responsibilities. The DHS mandate is the broadest, and if a biological event were to occur, DHS would be called upon to coordinate – but not lead – the response. Other departments and agencies would take the lead when it comes to their particular areas of responsibility. Many felt that the HHS Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, Nicole Lurie, should have been in charge of the Ebola medical and public health response, but she was not. In fact, since no one was in charge and no one was coordinating, the White House finally had to appoint an Ebola coordinator. What’s more troubling to me is that no one provides biodefense leadership between, as well as during, responses. No one has established a national biodefense strategy or a budget to align with that strategy. You can’t ask one department secretary to tell another secretary what his or her budget request should be. That has to come from above. We really need that to happen. We need someone to say, “Your program is too costly and not working, but this other program at a different department is working, so we need to move the money over there.”
Q: The federal program for early detection of biological attacks, BioWatch, has now been around for more than a decade. Some local public health officials don’t value its responsiveness and the function it fulfills. Is this the type of effort that is working or failing? Do you think technology is the answer to detection, or is it more the human emphasis that is lacking?

 A: I think for any system to be effective, we need effective technology combined with human judgment and participation. The problem with BioWatch is that the technology currently in use is not as effective as it could be, and the people who depend on it for information if a biological event were to occur feel they can’t trust it. That’s a failure in my book. Other agencies have managed to develop better technology, and some of what they use is commercial off-the-shelf. I’m not saying we can just substitute what they are using for the current BioWatch detectors, but I do think that DHS should be taking a look at these other functioning detectors and seeing whether and how they can be applied here domestically.

Q: Former TV journalist Ted Koppel just spent two years researching the threats to our electrical grid here in the United States. His book, Lights Out, details the risks of a cyberattack on our nation’s electrical grid system. Where would you put our biodefense issues that are not being addressed in relationship to the threats to the electrical grid and our 21st-century system of systems that Koppel details in his book?

A: We didn’t deal with that cyberthreat sufficiently before, and then it became a major problem. I think the biothreat is right up there with the cyberthreat. Both of these threats carry with them the potential for enormous damage to the global economy and commerce. We have people addressing the cyberthreat every day, from the heads of entire agencies dedicated to addressing cyberissues, to third-party verifiers, to individuals who run antivirus software on their machines. In fact, I have evolved my own consulting practice to be more responsive to American businesses who need help becoming cyber-resilient, be it through technology, education or insurance. None of this is the case with the biological threat, however, which gives me great cause for concern.


Eric Holdeman is a nationally known emergency manager. He has worked in emergency management at the federal, state and local government levels. Today he serves as the Director, Center for Regional Disaster Resilience (CRDR), which is part of the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER). The focus for his work there is engaging the public and private sectors to work collaboratively on issues of common interest, regionally and cross jurisdictionally.