Dr. Tara O'Toole debateNew DHS S&T leader: U.S. should brace for "bio-Katrina"

Published 8 May 2009

Dr. Tara O’Toole, new leader at DHS’s Science and Technology Directorate: “There is a possibility, a real possibility, that there could be the equivalent of a bio-Katrina on [Obama’s] watch”

President Obama has nominated a tough-talking bioterrorism expert to lead the primary research and development arm of the DHS. DHS secretary Janet Napolitano announced Obama’s choice of Dr. Tara O’Toole to be under secretary, Directorate for Science and Technology, calling O’Toole “an expert on environmental protection and biosecurity.” O’Toole has made her opinions clear about bioterrorism.

Rik Myslewski writes that in her most-recent position as founder, CEO, and director of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, O’Toole described her organization as follows: “We try to think through the nature of big disasters, with a particular emphasis on bioterrorism attacks and epidemics.” In a March interview with Federal News Radio, O’Toole was asked what she would tell President Obama if she had the chance. Her reply: “There is a possibility, a real possibility, that there could be the equivalent of a bio-Katrina on his watch.”

This would not be pleasant, she continued: “There are very few things that could actually rock the United States, destabilize the country, and a big bioterrorist attack…or an epidemic such as a pandemic flu episode would be on that list of horrible things that could happen.”

When asked about her opinion of someone who had suggested that a bioterrorist attack could not be carried out by an independent group, she said: “I would guess that that individual has no background in biology. The Defense Science Board said in 2000 that there are no technical barriers to small groups, unsupported by a nation-state, making and dispensing a biological weapon.”

The belief that bioterror could only be state-sponsored, O’Toole said, “reflects not just that individual’s lack of understanding of bioscience, but it also reflects the lack of bioscience backgrounds among people doing national security and high-level policy — which is a problem.”

Obama appears to believes that it is time for someone with a bioscience background to direct high-level national-security policy on bioterrorism.

The under secretary for DHS’s Directorate for Science and Technology chosen by former president George Bush, by the way, was a retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral, Jay Cohen, whose background included Ocean and Marine Engineering and Naval Architecture.