By CNN Senior Producer Mike M. Ahlers
Obama administration officials who would be front and center during any bioterror attack pushed back on arguments the nation needs one central figure to coordinate bioterror preparedness and response, saying the existing structure is agile and capable of dealing with the threat.
Two separate boards have recommended a White House-level official be assigned to focus on bioterrorism, providing the topic the same clout given to nuclear- and cyberterrorism. And at a Senate hearing Tuesday, a former Bush administration adviser also said a White House-lever bioterror leader is needed.
"I'll use a football analogy," said Dr. Robert Kadlec, director for biodefense on the Homeland Security Council from 2002 until 2005. "We've got a lot of great assistant coaches (focused on bioterrorism). The question is, where's the head coach?"
But Tara O'Toole, Homeland Security Undersecretary for Science and Technology, called the leadership issue a "red herring."
"I understand the longing for a strong leader, someone who can take decisive action in a crisis, and there's an argument for that," O'Toole said. But "in a catastrophic attack, the president will be in charge, in about 30 seconds."
O'Toole said the shared and overlapping responsibilities of different agencies "brings strengths as well as liabilities."
"As we saw in 2001 and in (flu pandemics), you need a lot of very detailed specialized knowledge to have an informed, coherent response to these events. And we're going to have more and more of them in this society, like the Deepwater (oil spill), like Fukushima (nuclear meltdown). We're not going to be able to predict in advance exactly what constellation of experts we need. We need to have an agile capacity to assemble and re-assemble and restructure the capacities of the U.S. government as needed," she said.
Her comments were echoed by Nicole Lurie, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at the Department of Health and Human Services.
"At the end of the day, with each one of the emergencies that we have faced... we all sat together in the Situation Room, led by national security staff, and worked it out," Lurie said. "And because we work so closely together now day to day on all these other issues, that's really easy."
But Kadlec said the bioterror threat needs a full-time champion in the White House, especially during an era of budget cuts. "I'm convinced, having lived it and breathed it for that period of time, (you need someone to) basically go into those meetings toe to toe with OMB (the Office of Management and Budget) to ensure that they don't (cut) your program because they just don't understand the national security component to it."
In 2008, the congressionally chartered WMD Commission recommended the president designate a White House principal adviser for bioterrorism. The commission co-chairmen reiterated that recommendation this month. Last year, the National Biodefense Science Board made a similar recommendation.
Tuesday's discussion came during a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. At the hearing, ranking member Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, also said the White House should appoint a bioterror leader.
"It concerns me that so many different federal entities could be scrambling to respond during and after an attack," Collins said. "Yet the executive branch does not have one agency or one official who is clearly designated leader on all elements of biodefense."