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2005-11-10

Germ Boys and Yes Men: How White House Cronyism and the Push to Invade Iraq Hampers the Country’s Ability to Handle a Bioterror Attack

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In a major expose in the upcoming issue of The Nation, Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill reports on how a Republican operative with no experience was put in charge of the Office of Public Health Emergency Preparedness and how the Bush administration exaggerated the threat of a bioterror attack three years ago in an effort to win greater support for the Iraq war. [includes rush transcript]

President Bush has asked Congress to spend $7 billion to wage an all-out war to prevent a possible flu pandemic.

Bush said last week "A pandemic is a lot like a forest fire. If caught early, it might be extinguished with limited damage; if allowed to smolder undetected, it can grow to an inferno that spreads quickly beyond our ability to control it."

But even though doctors have warned for years about a flu pandemic it has not always been a top priority for the Bush administration.

A new article in The Nation magazine written by Jeremy Scahill raises major questions about the nation’s preparedness to handle a flu pandemic or bioterror attack.

The article examines how a Republican operative named Stewart Simonson who had no public health management or medical expertise was put in charge of the Office of Public Health Emergency Preparedness.

The article also raises questions about whether the Bush administration exaggerated the threat of a bioterror or smallpox attack three years ago in an effort to win greater support for the Iraq war. It was a battle that would pit Vice President Dick Cheney and his now-indicted chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby against a team of public health experts at the Department of Health and Human Services.

  • Jeremy Scahill, an independent journalist and currently a Puffin Writing Fellow at the Nation Institute.
    - Read Jeremy’s article in The Nation: Germ Boys and Yes Men
  • Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill joins us now. His piece is called "Germ Boys and Yes Men." Welcome.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Thank you, Amy. It’s good to be back.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, it’s great to have you here. Talk about the possibility of a bioterror attack and who’s in charge in this country of preparing for it.

JEREMY SCAHILL: I think people are going to be very frightened to find out who is heading up the nation’s response to, not just bioterror attacks or chemical weapons attacks, but also — and I’m talking about a medical response, but also emergency preparedness — as well as the avian flu, in ensuring that we have adequate stock of anti-virals and vaccines, is a man whose prior experience was as a corporate lawyer for Amtrak. This is a man who is an ideological Republican who’s on the fast track, who’s close to people at the White House political office, and so the story that I wrote is very much a story of breaking down what it actually means when you have crony appointees and you put these people in positions that affect the lives and impact the lives of millions.

We certainly saw the horrible scenario that played out in New Orleans, as Michael Brown, the former director of FEMA, was running around trying to find the best place to eat crawfish in Baton Rouge. People were drowning, starving, dying, and he had his own officials calling him up and saying, 'This has reached past critical,' and Michael Brown is worrying about what he’s going to wear on the Scarborough show. And so, I think that there’s a lot of awareness now in this country to the impact that this cronyism can have.

The bigger picture of all of this is that the Bush administration, since it took power in 2000, has been systematically de-funding programs that address actual health threats in this country, not to even mention the tens of millions of people that don’t have health care. But Republicans have gutted funding and the attempts to get funding for preparing for an avian flu epidemic. I mean, to have Bush get in front of the nation last week and the quote that he — this quote, to me, is just startling. When he announced his war on the flu, which was going to be fought with contracts to well connected pharmaceutical companies, he said, "Our country has been given fair warning of this danger to our homeland. It is my responsibility as President to take measures now to protect the American people."

Well, someone needs to ask President Bush why in 2003 the Department of Health and Human Services only asked for $100 million to address the avian flu and Republicans refused to give even that amount, at the same time that they’re asking for $6 billion to prepare a so-called "next generation technology" to fight a possible anthrax or smallpox attack, which almost no one in the public health or national security community was saying was an imminent threat, except people close to Dick Cheney.

AMY GOODMAN: Who?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, Scooter Libby, in particular. Scooter Libby, who is the now-indicted former Chief of Staff for Dick Cheney, his nickname in the administration was "Germ Boy," because of his obsession with universal smallpox vaccinations. This was something that went back to his years at the Department of Defense with Dick Cheney, where Scooter Libby worked as the deputy to Paul Wolfowitz. And Scooter Libby, Paul Wolfowitz, Zalmay Khalilzad (the current U.S. ambassador to Iraq), and Dick Cheney were all together during the Gulf War. They were all obsessed with this idea of a smallpox attack on the part of Iraq. And so — and they wrote it into the Project for a New American Century statement. I mean, this is incredible. And Scooter Libby, of course, was a signer of this statement. They talked about a world where they would transform U.S. conventional forces, defending the empire by, quote, "long-range stealthy unmanned craft," saying, "Advanced forms of biological warfare that can target specific genotypes may transform biological warfare from the realm of terror to a politically useful tool." These, the words of the signers to the Project for a New American Century.

And so, you fast forward to the current state of affairs right now, and you see that we in 2005 are in a situation where just now they’re starting to address a very real threat of avian flu, when they have de-funded the programs that would have addressed it in favor of so-called war on terror programs, programs that are marketable under the war on terror. And so that’s how a person like Stewart Simonson, the current Director of the Office of Public Health Emergency Preparedness, gets to where he is: because he’s a yes man. Stewart Simonson is officially charged with the protection of the civilian population from acts of bioterrorism and other public health emergencies. His qualifications for this job have nothing to do with being an expert in public health emergency management or disaster response. His prior work experience was as a corporate lawyer for Amtrak, and his qualifications for that job can be summed up in two words: "Tommy Thompson."

Thompson was the powerful former governor of Wisconsin, one of the leaders within the Republican Party, a trendsetter on national issues under the Clinton administration, actually on prison, on school choice issues, and on welfare, and so Thompson was a powerful figure within the Republican Party. He took this guy, Stewart Simonson, out of the University of Wisconsin Law School in the mid-1990s, put him on the Republican fast track. Eventually, Simonson rose to be Thompson’s legal counsel when he was Governor of Wisconsin, and Simonson oversaw the Wisconsin prison reform system, which anyone who knows anything about Wisconsin, its prisons are the most rapidly growing industry. And so, to be in charge of Wisconsin’s prisons means you’re a pretty brutal guy when it comes to policy, you know, anti-people policies. And so, when Thompson was chair of the board of Amtrak in the late 1990s, he appointed Stewart Simonson as corporate counsel and general secretary of Amtrak, the national rail system. When Thompson was tapped to be Health and Human Services Secretary in Washington, he brought this ideological Republican lawyer, Stewart Simonson, with him and named him his deputy general counsel.

Well, 9/11 happens. And Tommy Thompson, as it was, felt that he was not being used in the right way by the administration. He did not want to be the Health and Human Services Secretary. He wanted something that he considered to be more important or closer to his interests. He wanted to be the Transportation Secretary, according to reports from Wisconsin publications and his own statements. He was disappointed with that. But when 9/11 happened, Tommy Thompson viewed this as an opportunity, and so he and Stewart Simonson embarked on the creation of an office that would essentially serve as a mini department of servicing the war on terror within the Department of Health and Human Services, and that’s the office that is currently headed by Stewart Simonson. It was given a tremendous amount of money and a tremendous amount of authority — I mean, for what it’s responsible.

And so, the first person who is chosen to head up this office was a eminently qualified individual, a man named Donald "DA" Henderson, largely credited with being one of the main people who helped eradicate smallpox. He was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Bush, and is a widely respected public health expert. So he got it up and running, and then they brought in someone who was a true disaster management expert, a man by the name of Jerome Hauer, Jerry Hauer. Hauer had been the head of Disaster Management and Emergency Preparedness in the state of Indiana for seven years. He set up New York’s Office of Emergency Management. He worked for Rudy Giuliani from 1996 to 2000. And so, Jerry Hauer is recruited on September 13th by Tommy Thompson. He’s taking — Jerry Hauer’s driving Tommy Thompson around ground zero, and Thompson says to him in the car, "Jerry, we need you to come down to Washington and help us get the nation prepared." And so Hauer agrees and in 2002 ends up going down and takes over at OPHEP, the Office of Public Health Emergency Preparedness.

And so Hauer begins the work of what he thinks is preparing the country to deal with a public health emergency or a bioterror attack, and he really begins aggressively funding at the city and state level and starts getting things done. And he refers to himself as a anti-bureaucrat, and other public health experts in the country know that that’s his reputation, that he’s the antithesis of how government functions. And for bureaucrats, that is — bureaucrats are people with a political agenda — that can be very problematic. Hauer — a lot of people can say critical things about Jerry Hauer, but what you can’t say about him is that he’s a yes man. That has not been his reputation. And so this collision course that you refer to between Libby’s office and the Department of Health and Human Services was actually an overt conflict that happened between the Vice President’s office and Jerry Hauer when he was heading up the Office of Public Health Emergency Preparedness.

You see, in 2002, as the Bush administration was essentially lying to the world and telling not just the country but the world that Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction and that Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat to the country, and they had various officials going on TV, in front of the United Nations, Bush talking about it in his State of the Union, there was another war going on in that same propaganda front, and that was the war to convince people here in the United States that Saddam Hussein posed a threat. And sometimes they characterized it as an imminent threat to attack the country with weaponized smallpox.

And this goes back to that obsession that Libby, Cheney and Wolfowitz and a woman named Carole Kuntz, who was Libby’s deputy in the early 1990s at the Pentagon, is also in the White House at this time in 2002 as Libby’s assistant on homeland security issues. And so, you have a situation where Scooter Libby is pursuing a lifelong — a career-long obsession to have the country preemptively vaccinated against a weaponized smallpox attack. In 1996 Scooter Libby wrote a novel called The Apprentice, which is about a smallpox outbreak in Japan. And what’s interesting is during this period in 2002 when Scooter Libby is really pushing the Department of Health and Human Services to do universal smallpox vaccinations, you also have the administration ratcheting up the rhetoric, talking about Saddam Hussein is in possession of weaponized smallpox.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Jeremy Scahill, who has done a piece in the upcoming issue of The Nation magazine, "Germ Boys and Yes Men." Jeremy, I want to go back to 2003 in the months before the Iraq invasion to play warnings from President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell about the bioterror threat posed to the country. Two months before the invasion Bush called on Congress to spend $6 billion on an initiative called Project Bioshield. This is President Bush speaking January 28, 2003. It’s the State of the Union address.

PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH: I ask you tonight to add to our future security with a major research and production effort to guard our people against bioterrorism called Project Bioshield. The budget I send you will propose almost $6 billion to quickly make available effective vaccines and treatments against agents like anthrax, botchulinum toxin, ebola and plague. We must assume that our enemies would use these diseases as weapons, and we must act before the dangers are upon us.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush speaking January 28, 2003. Less than a week later, February 5, Secretary of State Colin Powell, appearing before the U.N., warned of the growing bioterror threat posed by Iraq.

COLIN POWELL: Saddam Hussein has investigated dozens of biological agents causing diseases such as gas gangrene, plague, typhus, tetanus, cholera, camelpox and hemorrhagic fever. And he also has the wherewithal to develop smallpox.

AMY GOODMAN: Secretary of State Colin Powell. And then, eight months later, after the invasion, Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on Meet the Press, where he made unsubstantiated claims that weapons inspectors had uncovered evidence of Iraq’s bioterror program.

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: There were at least seven of these mobile labs that he’d gone out and acquired. We’ve, since the war, found two of them. They’re in our possession today, mobile biological facilities that can be used to produce anthrax or smallpox or whatever else you wanted to use.

AMY GOODMAN: Vice President Dick Cheney. Jeremy Scahill.

JEREMY SCAHILL: And so, we have a situation where they’re engaged in an overt propaganda campaign to convince people that Saddam Hussein posed a threat through weaponized smallpox. And that’s why it was so important to Libby — this has been his lifelong obsession — to vaccinate the country preemptively, not because they really thought that there was going to be a biological weapons attack by Saddam Hussein, but because of the propaganda value of it. And so Jerry Hauer and other public health professionals stand up to Libby’s office, and they say, 'This does not make good public policy sense. This is not a benign vaccine. People could die. People can get hurt.' And so they end up striking a compromise of sorts where they’re going to offer the vaccine to a half a million soldiers and to 50,000 first responders. And this, of course, was met with extreme resistance on the part of the first responder community.

And what’s interesting is that, talking about Scooter Libby coming up against Jerry Hauer in this, is that Judith Miller also played a role in it. She had co-written a book called Germs, in which she refers to Libby as a trim boyish lawyer and talks about Libby and the issue of smallpox and the smallpox threat. And she also, prior to 9/11, participated in a war game called "Dark Winter" in which Sam Nunn played the President, James Woolsey played the Director of Central Intelligence, Judith Miller played a reporter of the New York Times. And it simulated a weaponized smallpox attack on the United States. And Libby and Cheney got very into this exercise. It’s interesting because of the connection between Libby and Judith Miller, and so when Jerry Hauer stood up to them and said, "No," and others at H.H.S. said that, he described a scenario where Carole Kuntz, Libby’s deputy, who goes way back with all of these guys, became very hostile toward him because he said he was not giving her the answers that they wanted to hear. And so they very much had it out for Jerry Hauer, who also had his own political baggage already when he came to Health and Human Services.

AMY GOODMAN: And very quickly, who has been the beneficiary, the corporation, of dealing right now?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, Amy, that perhaps is something that doctors who have been working on this can address directly, because it’s interesting how — there’s one company called Bioport, which manufactured anthrax vaccine, that literally made a killing off of these vaccines. And there’s a number of companies that have profited directly. But this is — the political story here is about Scooter Libby coming up against a guy who is truly a public health professional, the Vice President’s office coming up against a guy who was truly a public health professional, and then apparently targeting him because he had dared to stand up against them.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk to a doctor, Doctor Irwin Redlener, one of the people you quote in your piece, Jeremy, Director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. How prepared are we? And how has this political story that Jeremy has laid out affected biopreparedness in this country, Dr. Redlener?

DR. IRWIN REDLENER: Hi. Well, the fact is that the country is not prepared for terrorism. But more importantly, it is not prepared for major catastrophic events, including not just bioterrorist events but a profound degree of incompetency in terms of government response, both before and after a major disaster, as we saw in the aftermath of Katrina in the Gulf. So the general background is that the country is in a very unnerving situation of being ill-prepared for handling anything, you know, beyond the sort of typical low-level hurricane and some of the other natural events that we are able to deal with. It’s just that when we get to a point where we have to face down a potential pandemic flu, a nuclear detonation, a major bioterrorist event, we don’t really have the wherewithal yet to accomplish that very well.

Jeremy’s points, always so well articulated, really are just on target with respect to the influence of politics and ideology and strategies to promote a particular point of view, undermining something that should have been above and beyond any kind of political consideration, certainly partisan political consideration. So we find ourselves now stuck at a point where we’re trying to play catch up in a lot of the public health initiatives that would — we really would need to have in place, that will take some time to now put into place. So we’re in a race against time, in effect, hoping that we’ll get something done before we actually get a pandemic flu. And whether or not we succeed in that race is not clear at the moment.

AMY GOODMAN: What about these reports of Donald Rumsfeld, the Defense Secretary, being head of Gilead Corporation, chair in 1997, owning millions of dollars worth of stock in the company that has the patent for Tamiflu, which is the injection that the U.S. is trying to get a hold of right now for the American people, standing to profit enormously?

DR. IRWIN REDLENER: You know, this is — Jeremy is probably more able to answer that question than I. But I’ll tell you this, that if we get a pandemic flu situation that’s anything like this very, very extraordinary event that happened in 1918, — and it’s possible that we will — we don’t have vaccine, and we don’t have really the technology to make the vaccine rapidly. We certainly don’t have the anti-viral medications, of which Tamiflu is one. Relenza is another one, made by a different company. So, whatever the issues are, I’m just telling you as a physician, as a public health professional, that we don’t have anything to really cope with this, other than sort of the hospital system, the public health system which is currently in place, to identify a situation early and to organize the appropriate interventions and to take care of people who get sick.

The problem there, of course, is that the whole health care system is so fragile and so eroded over this last couple of decades that we don’t even have that capacity in place right now to make anybody feel very confident that we can handle the number of people who might be affected by a pandemic flu. So the whole thing is a mess, and we’re really in trouble right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill.

JEREMY SCAHILL: You see, one of the things that’s important to realize here is that when you take a person who truly is a public health expert, like Jerry Hauer, and you remove him from that process and you put in his place an ideological Republican who serves as a sort of yes man for the political whims or goals of the administration, it actually does put people’s lives at risk. And so, by taking people like Jerry Hauer out and putting people like Stewart Simonson in, the administration has been able to ram through much of what it wanted on its sort of bioterror agenda. I mean, the ridiculousness of Bush in November of 2005, saying 'Now, we're going to start to deal with avian flu,’ when you juxtapose it with the funding that was given to anthrax, to smallpox, to these largely imagined threats, and you look at how much money they spent on that versus the actual avian flu, it’s incredible.

And now Bioshield 2 is making its way through the Congress, backed up by Bill Frist and other powerful Republicans. And what Bioshield 2 would do is to remove all corporate accountability and liability for pharmaceutical companies that manufacturer vaccinations —- vaccines that hurt people or kill people, and secondly it creates a federal agency that would be the only agency exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. And that agency is called the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency. It would be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, and so -—

DR. IRWIN REDLENER: This whole thing has gotten so bizarre and Byzantine and permeated with this sort of electrifying high intensity politics and economics that the real goal of all of this, which is to literally make us safer in the event of a pandemic or any kind of major disaster, that gets lost in the shuffle. You can’t even sort it out now. So even issues like the Bioshield bills, which are terrible bills, basically, for a variety of reasons, and not only the kind of reasons that Jeremy is citing. They’re just — if we actually need certain things like the vaccines or the anti-viral medications, we need some kind of mechanism to produce them, and Bioshield was really just basically not a good idea.

But other big issue, too, is that this issue of who’s appointed to these critical positions. I mean, every single administration in American political history has put cronies and pals and donors into political positions. But normally, typically, those people get — you know, they become the ambassador to Liechtenstein or the deputy undersecretary of commerce, where, in effect, it really doesn’t matter who’s in those positions. What’s striking about this administration, since they got into power, is the placement of people into critical positions, where the national security or the public health is at stake.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, I’ll give you the last word. 30 seconds.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, Congressman Henry Waxman has really been leading a charge in Congress to try to draw attention to Stewart Simonson, and there are petitions calling for his removal. But one direct point about why people like him become dangerous, and Waxman cites this himself, Simonson came before the House Government Reform Committee in July, and he claimed — this is according to Congressman Waxman — that he had sufficient funds to purchase influenza vaccine and anti-viral medication for the nation. The next day his office submitted a funding request to Congress seeking an additional $150 million for flu vaccine and anti-viral medication. This administration had all the money in the world for Scooter Libby’s war on terror propaganda campaigns that could put people at direct risk through these dangerous vaccines, and they had almost no money to address the pandemic that we very well could be facing in the coming months.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll leave it there. Jeremy Scahill, thanks for joining us. His piece, "Germ Boys and Yes Men" appears in the upcoming issue of The Nation magazine, is on their website right now. And Dr. Irwin Redlener, thank you for joining us, Director of National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

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