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Bush Seeks Better Bio-Defense

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CBS/AP
President Bush, who has made national security the centerpiece of his campaign for re-election, has signed an order to help protect America from hostile states or terrorists who might attack with biological agents.

"Biological weapons attacks could cause catastrophic harm," an unclassified version of the directive says. "They could inflict widespread injury and result in massive casualties and economic disruption."

The directive, which Mr. Bush approved last week, was jointly announced Wednesday by the departments of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services and Defense. The actual directive, which is classified, works to coordinate what the government already is doing to protect food and water supplies, for example. And it instructs agencies on how to better plug holes in the nation's defenses against biological attack.

"Defending against biological weapons attacks requires us to further sharpen our policy, coordination and planning," the directive said.

Administration officials worked for months to identify the nation's vulnerability to attacks from deadly biological pathogens, such as anthrax, smallpox and plague, and find ways to defend against them. The effort was led by retired Gen. John Gordon, Mr. Bush's homeland security adviser, who took a broad look at the problems, focusing on threats that were the most likely to occur.

"From the creation of a biological attack warning system, to an improved distribution system of critical antibiotics and vaccines, this plan charts the course toward our goal of a strong and robust bioterrorism defense," Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge told a news conference.

The directive's 59 instructions for government agencies range from figuring out the best way to communicate the warning: "You need to now leave the city" to residents who don't speak English to analyzing intelligence from unrelated sources.

In the area of intelligence, for example, the directive tells analysts to think like bioterrorists and identify ways they might try to execute a bioterror attack.

In the area of prevention, the directive calls for improving the existing "Biowatch" system of sensors that continuously monitor and analyze the air in 31 cities. Next-generation sensors, which also are to be installed at military bases, will detect an additional number of diseases that could be used in a bioterrorist attack.

The directive also calls on the National Institutes of Health, for example, to anticipate the possible use of genetically engineered pathogens that could be used as weapons and develop vaccines that offer protection to many diseases with one shot.

Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee have accused the Bush administration of not moving fast enough to help prevent biological attacks. Moira Whelan, a spokeswoman for the committee Democrats, said Tuesday night that they had not yet seen either version of the directive, and so couldn't comment.

But in a report released in late February, on the one-year anniversary of the creation of the Homeland Security Department, the committee's Democrats criticized the pace of the administration's work to better protect the nation. "The administration has not responded to this threat as aggressively or as comprehensively as is needed, leaving foreign and domestic stores of deadly pathogens unsecured," the report said.

A comprehensive plan, the report said, would include securing stocks of biological agents around the world; boosting and targeting federal public health funds and deploying drugs, vaccines and other equipment throughout the nation to combat possible infection and illness.

While the unclassified version of the directive was short on specifics, memos posted on the Web site of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, said it had a "strong emphasis" on protecting water supplies.

One memo said the directive called for setting up a Biowatch-type system for water. "The new directive charges EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) with developing a plan to examine how such a surveillance system could be established for the nation's water supply," the memo said.