Vigilant And Ready

In today's world, entomological terrorism is not perceived as a clear and present danger. However, historical and recent events strongly suggest that western nations would be well advised to take seriously the possibility that insects could be used to attack people and agriculture. In this context, the United States has developed several lines of defense, but whether these are adequate is not at all clear.

The first—and arguably least effective—tactic is the law.1 As early as the seventh century bce, the rules of war prohibited destruction of forests, orchards, herds, and even beehives. The dishonorable nature of starving a populace became reified in the 20th century by the Geneva Protocol. In broader terms, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) forbids using living organisms, presumably including insects (although not explicitly named), as weapons. But there are serious problems with such accords.

To begin, these international agreements are legal contracts, meaning that the violation by one party frees the others from any obligation to the transgressor. The possibility of a tit-for-tat exchange with biological weapons is not pretty. Whether the release of crop-feeding insects would be grounds for firing back with yellow fever is not clear, but once a contract is broken, the only constraint is the moral integrity of the combatants.

Next, governments that have ratified international accords have a less than stellar record of compliance. Various countries used poison gas in World War I and biological agents in World War II. More recently, in a chilling but unwitting allusion to the entomological origins of nerve gas, Iraq's Major General Maher Abdul Rashid declared, "If you give me a pesticide to throw at these worms of insects [the Iranians] to make them breathe and become exterminated, I'd use it."2 Despite having signed the Geneva Protocol, the Iraqis killed 20,000 Iranian soldiers with gas attacks from 1983 to 1988 and slaughtered hundreds of Kurds in March 1988 with a cocktail of sarin, tabun, VX, and mustard gas. According to U.S. intelligence sources, several countries that have ratified the BTWC are pursuing offensive biological weapons, as might be expected given that the convention lacks any substantive means for verifying compliance, let alone punishing violators.

Even ostensibly moral governments have been willing to use banned weapons when the nation's survival is at stake.3 In 1944, Churchill told his service chiefs that he would seriously consider using gas if it would prove decisive should Britain face a life-or-death struggle or if it would substantially shorten the war. The same year, the American high command saw their forces slogging across blood-drenched islands and planned to hit Iwo Jima with poison gas. Only President Franklin D. Roosevelt's terse denial prevented the military from waging chemical warfare. And it must be noted that not all parties capable of waging entomological warfare are signatories of international accords that would prohibit biological weapons.

Allan Krass, writing for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, summarized the situation clearly:

These comments [concerning prohibited tactics] are not intended to dismiss completely either the possibility of irrational or bizarre behaviour by insane or desperate leaders or the danger of covert operations by one state against the population or resources of another. But there is little point in considering insane or desperate acts in the context of a discussion of treaties, since such legal instruments would have little or no effect on the actions of states led by madness or driven to the point where their national survival is at stake.4

The point is, of course, that for many states, organizations, and individuals operating in the modern world, the ideological ends would justify the entomological means.

With the rule of law insufficient to protect nations from entomological weapons, governments are compelled to invest other resources into defending their people and assets. The general strategy consists of an initial phase that includes deterring, preventing, and detecting an attack, and if these steps fail, the next phase involves responding to and recovering from a strike. For the United States, at least 16 agencies have a stake in agricultural bioterrorism, and this hodgepodge of players approaches two dozen when the possibility of a direct assault on humans is considered.5 In this alphabet soup of agencies, one acronym floats to the top of nearly every discussion of entomological warfare—the agency that serves as the first line of defense as well as a central player should an attacker slip past border guards: USDA.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has three primary branches involved in entomological terrorism: the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS, which is the operational arm of the agency, although a significant portion of the service was subsumed under the Department of Homeland Security in 2003), the Agricultural Research Service (ARS, which is responsible for scientific developments), and the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES, which controls federal funding to—and hence, the scientific priorities of—agricultural programs at the nation's universities). During the Cold War, USDA scientists collaborated with the Department of Defense in various largely clandestine projects.

The first public involvement of federal scientists in entomological warfare came in 1961, when the ARS published a report warning that foreign sabotage of crops and livestock was possible.6 The potential agents included an arsenal of insects: Medfly, khapra beetle (Trogoderma granarium, a pest of stored grain), Asiatic rice borer (Chilo suppressalis), silver "Y" moth (Autographa gamma, a pest of tomato, bean, and potato), Sunn pest (Eurygaster integriceps, a bug that feeds on cereal crops), dura stem borer (Sesamia cretica, a moth with larvae that decimate sorghum and sugarcane), and five species of potato weevils (family Curculionidae). In addition to generating a list of likely entomological weapons, the analysts recommended that every county develop a defense board for detecting and combating an insect invasion. Although the ARS took the first high-profile position on agricultural terrorism, its current state of readiness is deplorable in the eyes of some experts.

Geoff Letchworth, who knows the workings of the ARS from the inside, asserts that the nation is not ready for a bioterrorist attack: "Not if I can write for you on a postcard a series of different ways to paralyze the agricultural industry of the United States, where we have no possibility of being able to respond; I'd say the resources are not adequate." He contends that while scientists understand the situation and have "appropriately evaluated costs and benefits to come up with the things that we ought to be spending time and energy on, USDA managers are hopelessly out of the loop."7

Letchworth finds the priorities of his former agency to be driven by agricultural special interests, arguing that "management puts effort into oriental gardens and horticulture and things that industry could do for itself, rather than focusing on an insurance function that private industry can not afford to pursue." But he acknowledges that USDA administrators have to work with what Congress allocates. Or, in rather more pointed terms, Letchworth describes the ARS as "the whore of Congress" while suggesting that this is not entirely bad. Politicians are responsive to the needs of agricultural producers, but industry—and hence the federal government and its agencies—is not primarily concerned with developing methods to ensure that the country is prepared for future risks, including bioterrorism. Letchworth's bottom line is that "the balance has gone way too far towards intervention and away from prevention." While the USDA's research branch is struggling to proportion its efforts in accordance with the possibility of an entomological attack, its sister agency faces similar challenges on the frontline of defending the country against insect incursions.

The most conspicuous activity of APHIS is at ports of entry, where inspection officers labor to prevent the accidental—and intentional—introduction of pests (see Figure 26.1). And insects are often at the top of their watch-and-worry list. If interdiction fails and a dangerous pest gains a foothold,

Figure 26.1. Customs and Border Protection specialists inspect shipments of grain, fruit, vegetables, lumber, meat, and flowers (yes, flowers) for harmful pests. While it might seem that protecting food, wood products, and livestock would be more important, floriculture in the United States is a $5.4 billion industry—more than Microsoft's quarterly profits. The value of an acre of flowers can exceed $300,000, or more than 1,500 times the value of an acre of corn. (Photo by Gerald L. Nino, U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

Figure 26.1. Customs and Border Protection specialists inspect shipments of grain, fruit, vegetables, lumber, meat, and flowers (yes, flowers) for harmful pests. While it might seem that protecting food, wood products, and livestock would be more important, floriculture in the United States is a $5.4 billion industry—more than Microsoft's quarterly profits. The value of an acre of flowers can exceed $300,000, or more than 1,500 times the value of an acre of corn. (Photo by Gerald L. Nino, U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

the agency launches a defensive juggernaut, usually designed to eradicate the organism before it spreads. Of the 17 emergency plant-protection programs enacted between 1995 and 2000, 11 targeted insects (and two of the targeted plant diseases were transmitted by insects), and of the 12 emergency animal protection programs, one-third involved insects.8

Even before the terrorist attacks on the American homeland, USDA officials and outside analysts were thinking in terms of national defense. However, assessments of the agency's state of readiness were remarkably discordant. While the federal government considered itself primed for action, external evaluators were skeptical, to say the least. In 1999, the head of the APHIS's Marketing and Regulatory Programs, Michael Dunn, described his agency as vigilant and ready when it came to the "intentional introduction of biological agents for terrorist purposes." The administrator assured the public that "in response to this threat, USDA is working closely with other federal agencies to monitor, identify, and safeguard areas vulnerable to bioterrorism."9

The top APHIS administrator, Ron Sequeira, was only a tad less confident. He listed a number of problems with the agency's capacity to conduct pest surveys, but nothing that couldn't be overcome with an upgrade of technology (and funding, of course). As for preventing sabotage, Sequeira proposed, in the tradition of all good bureaucrats, to study the possibility of coming up with a plan: "In order to respond to biological terrorism threatening animal and plant production, APHIS will consider development of a 'bioterrorism rapid response' strategy."10

Those outside the agency were not quite so convinced that the USDA was prepared for a terrorist attack. According to Jonathan Ban, writing for the Chemical and Biological Arms Institute in June 2000, U.S. agriculture was a ripe target:

Given the tremendous economic, political, and strategic value of U.S. agricultural resources, the Washington policy community has been slow to realize their vulnerability to attack by an antagonistic state, economic or agricultural competitor, or terrorist, especially with biological weapons.11

The dueling viewpoints continued into 2001, when an article published by the American Institute of Biological Sciences asserted that "the poor level of biosecurity on the majority of farms today guarantees unchallenged and unhindered access to the determined, patient terrorist."12 A paper issued by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs was more moderate, claiming that while "a determined group could conceivably carry out a devastating attack," an act of agricultural bioterrorism would be extremely difficult. The authors sought to dispel concern by concluding that "there is no evidence of terrorist groups with the motivation to carry out a catastrophic attack against U.S. agriculture."13 September 11, 2001, proved otherwise for the nation's economic infrastructure.

The USDA was remarkably prescient in commissioning the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences to evaluate the country's preparedness for biological threats to agriculture in 2000. The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon took place while the committee of 12 scientists was in the midst of its study. Discussions of America's vulnerability were raised to a fever pitch, and the academy made a special exemption to their normal practice of maintaining strict confidentiality of studies until public release. In March 2002, the academy experts briefed White House, Homeland Security, and Department of Agriculture officials. The incentive for this early apprisal may not have been only a matter of political timeliness. The committee had determined that the nation was acutely vulnerable.

The sense of urgency that motivated the unprecedented briefing can be surmised from the contents of "Countering Agricultural Bioterrorism," the publicly available summary of the Council's investigation. Although some earlier analysts had claimed that U.S. agriculture was too dispersed to represent a viable target, the National Academy scientists clearly disagreed. Not only were fields and buildings soft targets—easily found, readily entered, and virtually unguarded—but American agricultural practices had painted a bull's-eye on farms, ranches, feedlots, and confinement facilities:

In many ways, attacks on plants and animals may be easy to mount. Agricultural crops and animals are often grown, housed, or grazed in relatively high-density and uniform conditions, which make the spread of disease and infestations more rapid and effective. . . . Genetic homogeneity, often desirable in agriculture to optimize yields or nutritional content, adds to the vulnerability of crops and animals to epidemics.14

The authors studiously avoided alarmist language; the nation was not facing imminent doom or impending famine from an entomological attack. Although an enemy would not be able to defeat the United States by releasing insects, the report made clear that a successful invasion would do far more than inconvenience a few farmers:

In the wake of the events of September 11, 2001, few would disagree that the United States, more than ever before, must be alert and prepared for the possibility of surreptitious attacks within its borders—attacks aimed not so much to achieve strategic military victories as to cause indiscriminate destruction, economic disruption, widespread injury, fear, uncertainty, and social breakdown.15

Even without the worrisome details of Appendix E (the section that was kept from the public and analyzed hypothetical attacks on U.S. agriculture), the council's overview bluntly and unambiguously identified serious weaknesses in the nation's defenses:

The committee came to the following key conclusions: 1) the United States is vulnerable to bioterrorism directed against agriculture, 2) the nation has inadequate plans to deal with it, 3) the current U.S. system is designed for defense against unintentional biological threats to agricultural plants and animals, and 4) although strengthening the existing system is a resource-efficient and effective part of the response to bioterrorism, it is not sufficient. The committee recommends a concerted effort on the part of the U.S. government to develop a comprehensive plan to counter agricultural bioterrorism.16

These conclusions diametrically opposed the USDA's claims in 1999 that the agency was "vigilant and ready." Nor would it appear that the plans for a "bioterrorism rapid response" strategy ever materialized. In a striking indictment, the council concluded that coordination within and among key federal agencies, as well as coordination of federal agencies with state and local agencies and private industry, appears to be insufficient for effectively deterring, preventing, detecting, responding to, and recovering from agricultural threats.17

Either the USDA's earlier assurances that they were working with other federal agencies were based on wishful thinking or the cooperation had somehow unraveled. The agency's administrators may have been trying to conceal gaping holes in national security from would-be terrorists, but they didn't fool the National Research Council. Nor is it likely that an enemy with the capacity to do simple math would have believed that APHIS was providing a credible first line of defense.

According to publicly available figures, agricultural inspectors are overwhelmed. To get a feel for the scale of the problem, consider a recent study conducted by the agency.18 APHIS had long considered the 83 ports of entry along the U.S.—Canada border to be low risk, with few serious infractions. To test this belief, the agency undertook an unusually intensive program of inspection over the Labor Day weekend in 2001. The careful search of 4,000 vehicles crossing into New York and Michigan resulted in the seizure of 6.5 tons of prohibited material and the interception of 200 pest organisms. In other words, at low-risk border crossings there was nearly four pounds of illegal material per vehicle and an invasive species in one of every 20 cars and trucks. Add to this the 39,000 trains, 141,000 aircraft, 200,000 ships, 463,000 buses, 584,000 commercial vehicles, and 4 million parcels and letters that enter the country every year, and a very worrisome picture takes shape.

Recognizing the size of the hole in the nation's defensive perimeter, Congress has rushed to plug the leak with money and bureaucracy. While there is no doubt that hundreds more inspectors at the borders will provide a greater level of protection, the impact of such increased staffing would be minimal. From a statistical perspective, carefully examining one out of every 8,300—rather than one in 10,000—incoming people and packages will make little difference to a prospective terrorist. And recent U.S. bureaucratic maneuvers may have made the nation more vulnerable.

In 2003, the federal government dismantled the USDA's program for protecting American agriculture in order to feed the resources into the Department of Homeland Security.19 Twenty-five hundred inspectors were transferred from APHIS—the operational branch of the agency responsible for protecting agriculture from invasive pests—to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report in 2007 revealed that a majority of the APHIS inspectors who were assigned to the DHS's Customs and Border Protection (CBP) say that their ability to protect agriculture has been compromised by low morale, training deficiencies, equipment shortages, and manpower shortfalls.20 The GAO report forced CBP to conduct an analysis of their staffing allocations, which revealed 33 percent fewer inspectors than were needed to protect to agriculture.21

According to testimony at a congressional hearing following the release of the report, nothing gets a lower priority than agriculture in the DHS hierarchy of concern. California's Representative Dennis Cardoza, chairman of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture, provided a scathing summary: "DHS is absolutely failing at its mission to prevent bug and pathogen infestations from coming into this country"; he went on to describe the federal agency's shortcomings as malfeasance, claiming that "the transfer has been a colossal mistake and a colossal waste of taxpayer money."22

Contrary to the recommendations of the National Research Council, the U.S. government has stacked its resources at the border, betting that inspectors can detect entomological weapons. This is an egregious strategic error, as is evident from the continued flow of pest insects into the country. Not unexpectedly, Customs and Border Protection has not conducted the studies needed to determine whether their program is working. There are, however, some compelling anecdotal reports from various states. According to Florida's commissioner of agriculture, there has been a 27 percent increase in new plant pests and diseases since 2003.23 New York Senator Charles Schumer contends that at least seven new organisms—including the Swede midge (Contarinia nasturtii), a serious pest of vegetable crops—invaded his state between 2004 and 2006.24 And California Senator Dianne Feinstein has noted that Fresno County suffered its first fruit fly outbreak while DHS was manning the borders.25

If the agricultural industry is unprepared, the situation is no better with respect to the medical community's readiness to defend the populace against entomological weapons. While the National Research Council's report focused on risks to crops and livestock, their analysis of Rift Valley fever—a disease of both animals and humans—makes clear that the country is vulnerable to insect-borne diseases. Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified 25 diseases with bioterrorism potential, seven of which are transmitted by insects.26 However, there is scant evidence that vector-management programs are any more prepared than when West Nile virus arrived in 1999.

The reason for this state of affairs may be the nation's head-in-the-sand response to biological weapons. According to Lieutenant Colonel Terry Mayer, "The United States is ill-prepared to defend against or counter [biological warfare]—why? One view is that 'the United States has a tendency to wish the problem would go away because it seems too unsavory and too difficult to handle.' "27 In other words, many Americans prefer psychological denial to national defense.

To be fair, some progress has been made. In 2003, government officials tested the health-care system by simulating a plague outbreak in Denver.

Joseph M. Henderson of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that the agency was better prepared than before the September 11 attacks, but "the health care system is the weakest link in the chain."28 This conclusion exemplifies the odd competition among agencies to cast themselves as the least prepared public sector in order to obtain funding. And it appears that medicine is winning the race.

Biodefense is the hottest ticket in federal funding.29 The Department of Health and Human Services was spending about $250 million on this program in 2001, an expenditure that rose twelvefold in 2002 and has been at or above $4 billion since 2003. And bioterrorism is the goose laying the golden egg for medical science. In 2005, the National Institutes of Health planned to devote $1.8 billion to biodefense research.

Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and other political leaders have proposed a "Manhattan Project" to combat bioterrorism. They are dismayed at the relatively underfunded and absurdly fragmented effort to protect the American people from biological weapons. And they have a point. While the Missile Defense Agency has a $7.7 billion budget overseen by a single director, biodefense has a $5.5 billion budget managed by nearly 30 administrators in a dozen agencies.

So how should the nation prepare for the possibility of entomological terrorism? The experts are deeply divided, and their positions depend on how they characterize the enemy. From the perspective of the DHS, the focus is on spectacular events that would cost thousands of lives and billions of dollars. In considering whether insects might be used as weapons, Michael Oraze, director of agricultural and biological terror countermeasures for DHS, maintains that insects could be introduced and they would harm us, but I also believe that the terrorists don't spend their shots lightly. They take their time and do the big thing right, once—the catastrophic sort of attack that we will not suspect or be prepared to prevent. . . . We are spending our efforts on those who would harm us the most in the near term.30

Oraze believes that terrorists would use "their most potent weapon" in an attack, and insects don't have the same cachet as smallpox or anthrax. However, Oraze fails to consider that microbial weapons, particularly in aerosol form, are extremely difficult to develop and deliver. And given the demonstrable potency of insects, it seems that the government may once again be making the mistake of failing to expect the unexpected. But DHS is making an even higher stakes wager.

According to Oraze, winning the war on terror depends on countering our enemy's knockout punch. He admits that some analysts argue that terrorists are in it for the long haul, but that "looking ahead to a 10- or 20-year strategy that terrorists might use against us, given the all of the intelligence and the pressures of the day, it is not something that is yet on our radar." Thus patience might well be an enemy's most effective strategy. While DHS sees itself as guarding the nation from a roundhouse punch in the course of a win-nable boxing match, others view the situation very differently. And from this other perspective, insects are a much greater cause for concern.

Lieutenant Colonel Robert Kadlec doesn't dismiss the possibility that Al-Qaeda would relish the opportunity to "kill a lot of people," but he argues that the better metaphor for the conflict between the western world and terrorists is a 100-year wrestling match, rather than a ten-round title fight:

It's about fatigue and long-term struggle. A war of attrition is more likely to bring victory than the one-punch knockout, which is very difficult against the United States. . . . In that light you don't kill a million people. In fact, you don't want to because it creates another element of war, which is passion and retribution. By pursuing victory in a strategic, long-term fashion you win. The big hit is a nuclear detonation, but one needs to consider how to fight a war of economic and public health attrition.31

Americans have confidence that the government can protect their health and wealth, but centers of political stability and social value are vulnerable. Kadlec cautiously draws parallels to the American experience in Vietnam. He points out that despite the U.S. military's technological superiority, "the guys with sandals made of tires won" because they eroded our ability and willingness to fight. Kadlec refers to the "punji stick tactics" of the Viet Cong. The constant threat of stepping on these sharpened sticks tipped with feces or poison was exhausting; the real payoff was the psychological stress, rather than the damage that the booby trap inflicted. And insects make fine punji sticks.

Given Kadlec's view that America's focus on spectacular attacks and heroic interventions is misguided, it is not surprising that he sees the nation as being poorly prepared for acts of entomological terrorism:

I would have to think that before 9/11 we were at a D- and we're now at a D+. How you define the problem is how you will find solutions. . . . If you believe that others will inflict chronic harm on our nation, then you develop a strategy for a war of attrition—and we haven't defined the problem or our responses in that way. We've thought about car bombs and nuclear materials, but we haven't thought about weapons that are in the terrorists' domain and endemic to where they are living. Quite frankly, vectors are underappreciated.32

Kadlec argues that in the face of uncertainty—we simply don't know what diseases will be chosen by terrorists—the best defense would be to build a strong public health infrastructure. We cannot stop every traveler who is sick from entering the country, but we can stockpile vaccines, train health professionals, and educate the public. With a viable public health system, the nation would be poised to respond to whatever may come. And the same may well apply to agriculture. We can revitalize an anemic pest-management infrastructure—with adequately funded mosquito-abatement districts, for example—to respond to organisms that slip past our border guards.

Agriculture mirrors medicine's predilection for favoring the spectacle of the surgeon implanting an artificial heart over the dutiful work of a public health nurse monitoring blood pressure, providing dietary recommendations, and encouraging exercise. The latter approach is not high-tech or Hollywood heroic—the qualities that garner political support and social interest. But such a mindset is the best defense against entomological terrorism when one cannot know what agent will be used to sicken people or to decimate crops and livestock.

In terms of pest management, we need a system of educational programs and trained observers capable of recognizing new pests. But the federal budget for agricultural extension—the USDA's education and applied research function—has been losing ground for years. When a novel species is found, we need the expertise to make a rapid and definitive identification, but the nation's taxonomic expertise is appallingly limited. There must be either stockpiles of chemicals or the means for industry to rapidly respond to demand (as we saw during the West Nile virus outbreak, when a single city cornered the national market on insect repellent within weeks). Likewise, we need surge capacity in terms of aerial applicators, who increasingly struggle to stay in business. Finally, we must have the research and regulatory ability to move rapidly and effectively from chemical control to more sustainable practices, including biological control with carefully selected natural enemies.

Even if terrorists never attack with disease vectors or agricultural pests, the country can reap continuing benefits. New insect pests continue to infiltrate U.S. borders even without the assistance of terrorists. In many cases, we are deplorably slow to respond for lack of a strong pest-management infrastructure. Given the staggering losses from invasive species, an effective pestmanagement infrastructure would pay for itself whether or not our enemies resorted to smuggling particularly nasty insects into the country.

And so the highest-stake gamble in modern history may be whether the American government bets that terrorists will exploit their position with the occasional attempt to deliver a knock-out blow or with an incessant effort to sap our will to fight. Of course, the United States and other western nations need not devote their defensive resources to only one or the other of these strategies. But if history has any lessons to offer, putting no money on the insects is a very dangerous wager.

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