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Misguided Billions

All the money in the world couldn‘t build a missile-defense system that works. Nor would a missile shield stop terrorism. The past five weeks showed that the real threat is what defense professionals call ”poor man’s bombs“-- biological, chemical, and clever use of conventional weapons.

Yet the national missile-defense program is moving ahead, with patriotic fervor melting Democratic opposition to a system that could cost $100 billion. Amid promises of greater security, Congress is about to approve $8 billion for the project for this year alone. This is thoughtless spending. As my father, a NASA physicist and former SDI researcher, said: ”They may as well put that money in a canoe and set it on fire.“ I have a better idea: spend our money on improving our readiness for a biochemical attack.

Amy Smithson, a terrorism expert at the Henry Stimson Center in Washington, says strengthening public health and the emergency-response system is the best way to do this. It‘s also the least-funded. In a report published last year, Smithson noted that only $222 million was spent on the infrastructure of public health and related biomedical research. Less than half that was spent on public hospitals, clinics and emergency health facilities -- the first line of defense against chemical or germ warfare.

Epidemiology and containment are also critical health systems that remain underfunded. Last year only $120 million went to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for biological-terrorism preparation, and 26 states do not have officers from the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service. Just last week, a General Accounting Office report documented the country‘s vulnerability in this area. According to Janet Heinrich of the GAO, the health-care system is not ready for a severe flu epidemic, much less a serious bioterrorist threat. Defensive epidemiology would require physician education, better testing facilities, integrated communication, comprehensive stocks of vaccines and plans for their delivery. Ideally, a national system could be put in place that connects emergency rooms, lab specialists, the FBI and public-health authorities, as well as local police and fire departments.

Comparatively, this kind of defense is cheap. It costs a few thousand dollars to equip a hospital and train its staff to use decontamination units, for example. Preparing the entire country’s hospitals for a large-scale biochemical attack would be far more expensive, but the total cost would still be a fraction of the projected cost of missile defense. Dr. Michael Osterholm, a professor of public health at the University of Minnesota, recently called on Congress to invest $2 billion in public health for this purpose.

The rest of the diverted missile-defense budget could go to training and equipping the police, firefighters and emergency medical workers who are the first on the scene. Especially in the case of a chemical attack, untrained or ill-equipped first emergency workers are in serious danger. (In Aum‘s sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, for example, many police officers and paramedics, not realizing they were rushing into clouds of nerve gas, also succumbed, increasing the casualties and hindering the rescue effort.) Only one U.S. training facility now offers public-safety officials experience with chemicals. Even before September 11, experts said this wasn’t enough. Smithson argues that fire and police academies should offer this training. Such preparation would be within reach with just a part of the resources we may waste on missile defense in this year alone. The technology is simply not good enough. Every test has either been rigged or failed completely.

Stealing from the missile-defense purse will not sacrifice our security. It will only make us safer.