Few terrorism experts doubt that we're going to get hit by a biological or chemical attack. Recent strikes by Iraqi insurgents using chlorine gas underscore the concern. That's why Washington has spent billions of dollars preparing for such an event. But two reports quietly declassified last week suggest that the backbone of any U.S. responseAmerica's military unitsare alarmingly unprepared.
The reports are by the Government Accountability Office, Congress's investigative agency, which is typically careful in its language. (Consider the title of one report, the modestly named Management Actions Are Needed to Close the Gap between Army Chemical Unit Preparedness and Stated National Priorities.) But reading between the lines it's clear that investigators, who analyzed preparedness data for 78 Army chemical units, were disturbed at what they found. As one report put it, "Most Army units tasked with providing chemical and biological defense support are not adequately staffed, equipped, or trained to perform their missions."
Particularly in the National Guard and Army Reservekey to any U.S. homeland responsechem and bio units "are reporting the lowest readiness ratingsmeaning that they are not considered sufficiently qualified for deployment," according to the GAO. The reason: critical shortages of trained personnel and key equipment, made worse by transfers to support the war in Iraq.
The bottom line, says the report, is that until the Army develops a plan to address the shortfalls, "adequate chemical defense forces may not be available in the event of a WMD attack at home or abroad."
There's more bad news. The GAO's second report focuses on "collective protection"the need to protect the military's "critical overseas facilities" and major war-fighting forces from chem and bio attacks. Investigators found that nearly 80 percent of overseas sites deemed critical by combatant commanders lack the appropriate gear, including some two thirds of those in high-threat areas. Adding to the problem is what the GAO calls "often vague and inconsistent guidance" on who decides what should be protected. It sounds like a mess, in other words.
All this might have been forgivable in the months after 9/11. But since then, Pentagon funding for chem and bio defense has doubled, and planning for WMD response has become a top priority. So why the disconnect?