I recently had cause to re-read the National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats (Full PDF), released last fall by the National Security Council and signed by the President. I think there is a lot to like, and it demonstrates a welcome change in the mindset I encounter in Washington DC.
When the document came out, there was just a little bit of coverage in the press. Notably, Wired's Threat Level, which usually does a commendable job on security issues, gave the document a haphazard swipe, asserting that "Obama's Biodefense Strategy is a Lot Like Bush's". As described in that post, various commentators were unhappy with the language that Under Secretary of State Ellen Tauscher used when announcing the Strategy at a BWC meeting in Geneva. According to Threat Level, "Sources tell this reporter that the National Security Council had some Bush administration holdovers in charge of editing the National Strategy and preparing Ms. Tauscher's script, and these individuals basically bulldozed the final draft through Defense and State officials with very little interagency input and with a very short suspense." Threat Level also asserts that "Most are disappointed in the language, which doesn't appear to be significantly different than the previous administration." It is unclear who "Most" are.
In contrast to all of this, in my view the Strategy is a clear departure from the muddled thinking that dominated earlier discussions. By muddled, I mean security discussions and policy that, paraphrasing just a little, went like this: "Biology Bad! Hacking Bad! Must Contain!"
The new National Strategy document takes a very different line. Sources tell this reporter, if you will, that the document resulted from a careful review that involved multiple agencies, over many months, with an aim to develop the future biosecurity strategy of the United States in a realistic context of rapidly spreading infectious diseases and international technological proliferation driven by economic and technical needs. To wit, here are the first two paragraphs from the first page (emphasis added, of course):
We are experiencing an unparalleled period of advancement and innovation in the life sciences globally that continues to transform our way of life. Whether augmenting our ability to provide health care and protect the environment, or expanding our capacity for energy and agricultural production towards global sustainability, continued research and development in the life sciences is essential to a brighter future for all people.
The beneficial nature of life science research is reflected in the widespread manner in which it occurs. From cutting-edge academic institutes, to industrial research centers, to private laboratories in basements and garages, progress is increasingly driven by innovation and open access to the insights and materials needed to advance individual initiatives.
Recall that this document carries the signature of the President of the United States. I'll pause to let that sink in for a moment.
And now to drive home the point: the new Strategy for Countering Biological Threats explicitly points to garage biotech innovation and open access as crucial components of our physical and economic security. I will note that this is a definite change in perspective, and one that has not fully permeated all levels of the Federal bureaucracy and contractor-aucracy. Recently, during a conversation about locked doors, buddy systems, security cameras, and armed guards, I found myself reminding a room full of biosecurity professionals of the phrase emphasized above. I also found myself reminding them -- with sincere apologies to all who might take offense -- that not all the brains, not all the money, and not all the ideas in the United States are found within Beltway. Fortunately, the assembled great minds took this as intended and some laughter ensued, because they realized this was the point of including garage labs in the National Strategy, even if not everyone is comfortable with it. And there are definitely very influential people who are not comfortable with it. But, hey, the President signed it (forgive me, did I mention that part already?), so everyone is on board, right?
Anyway, I think the new National Strategy is a big step forward in that it also acknowledges that improving public health infrastructure and countering infectious diseases are explicitly part of countering artificial threats. Additionally, the Strategy is clear on the need to establish networks that both promulgate behavioral norms and that help disseminate information. And the new document clearly recognizes that these are international challenges (p.3):
Our Strategy is targeted to reduce biological threats by: (1) improving global access to the life sciences to combat infectious disease regardless of its cause; (2) establishing and reinforcing norms against the misuse of the life sciences; and (3) instituting a suite of coordinated activities that collectively will help influence, identify, inhibit, and/or interdict those who seek to misuse the life sciences.
...This Strategy reflects the fact that the challenges presented by biological threats cannot be addressed by the Federal Government alone, and that planning and participation must include the full range of domestic and international partners.
Implementation is, of course, another matter entirely. The Strategy leaves much up to federal, state, and local agencies, not all of whom have the funding, expertise, or inclination to follow along. I don't have much to say about that part of the Strategy, for now. But I am definitely not disappointed with the rest of it. It is, you might say, the least bad thing I have read out of DC in a long time.