Saturday, May 9, 2009

A hit job on Tara O'Toole

Wired Magazine has smeared the new DHS nominee for Science and Technology, Tara O'Toole, as a “bioterror disaster.” I may have met O'Toole, and I certainly know her work, which left me impressed, so the attack on her seemed unfair. Even the first piece recognized that O'Toole is “a doctor, the CEO of the University of Pittburgh’s Center for Biosecurity, the former chairwoman of the Federation of American Scientists, and the brains behind a series of influential disaster response exercises that woke Washington up to the threat of terrorists with weapons of massive destruction.” In a remarkable display of support, the comment section of the article was immediately flooded by signed statements from prestigious scientists rebutting the claim, forcing the publication of a second, slightly more balanced article. (I apologize the lack of hyperlinks to this and other web accessible documents, but Scribefire, which is very convenient for some things, such as linking to a single article, is pretty much unbearably clunky for others, such as inserting new links or removing doublespacing from quotes.)

Even taken together, though, the Wired articles add up to a hit job designed to slow her confirmation. They are not even-handed journalism.

Why do I think that? Well, to take one example, Wired claims in both articles that O'Toole's war game scenarios in 2002 and 2005 were criticized in “an Army War College report” for “grossly misleading assumptions.”

The problem with that claim is that the reporter doesn't seem to have actually read the front pages of the report. The report was, it's true, paid for by the U.S. Army. But it says at the start that The views expressed in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.”

In this case, that's not boilerplate. The contract was apparently given to a Maryland research institute, which in turn subcontracted it to Milton Leitenberg, who is listed as the sole author. That's as it should be, because the report is clearly a personal op-ed in support of the proposition that, as he says, “Bioterrorism may or may not develop into a serious concern in the future, but it is not 'one of the most pressing problems that we have on the planet today.'” (Emphasis in original.) Leitenberg's candidate for the planet's “most pressing problem” seems to be getting ready for pandemic flu, which he (a bit anomalously) seems to think is not related to preparing for biological terrorism.

So the whole point of the Leitenberg study is to debunk bioterrorism as a risk. In that cause, he attacks the 2002 and 2005 bioterrorism exercises for what he thinks are unrealistic assumptions. That criticism boils down to the assertion that al-Qaeda is not (quite) ready to launch (exactly) the attack set forth in the exercises. Below, I quote a sample of the criticism; see how persuasive you find it.

First, Leitenberg explains the scenario's backstory:

The scenario posits that the al-Qaida group’s scientists received microbiological training at Indian and U.S. universities. These scientists received additional training when the group hired a scientist who was part of the former Soviet Union’s offensive biological weapons program. ... Then, with their own microbiology training, the terrorist group was able to acquire all the required laboratory equipment to grow and process the Variola major seed stock they had acquired into a relatively high-quality dry powder that was then used in the attacks.

Then he explains why this backstory is unrealistic:

In the real world, Al-Qaida had one single individual who had received a BS degree in Biology “with a clinical concentration” at a U.S. college. He could in no way be described as a “scientist.” Furthermore, he was arrested in December 2001. The individual with more advanced training who supplied al-Qaida with its microbiological literature was unwilling to himself do any laboratory work for them. The few pieces of standard equipment obtained by the group in Afghanistan were rudimentary in the extreme.

I find this utterly unpersuasive. Does Leitenberg really believe that we should only prepare for attacks that al Qaeda could carry out with exactly the personnel they had in 2001? Since the only real proof of al Qaeda's capability is likely to be an attack, that's not a recipe for being prepared. That's also not a lesson you'd expect government to learn from 9/11, which featured tactics and capabilities al Qaeda hadn't used before. And finally, that's not the usual basis for exercises, which ought to stretch the participants to respond to a range of possible disasters.

Leitenberg's criticisms of the exercise scenarios are such a stretch that they suggest he has a pretty big policy axe to grind. And Wired's credulous citation of his personal views as an “Army War College report” suggests that Wired is holding the grindstone.

That's not the only time Wired slants its coverage. Wired gives loving attention to this quote from Rutgers researcher Richard Ebright:

“O’Toole is as out of touch with reality, and as paranoiac, as former Vice President Cheney. It would be hard to think of a person less well suited for the position. ... She was the single most extreme person, either in or out of government, advocating for a massive biodefense expansion and relaxation of provisions for safety and security. She makes Dr. Strangelove look sane.”

OK, we're all aware of the Hitler rule -- the first debater to compare his opponent to Hitler has already admitted he's losing on the merits. I think we can update it a bit; in academic debate, it should be prima facie evidence that you've lost your sense of balance if you invoke both Richard Cheney and Dr. Strangelove in talking about a colleague.

Does Wired ask whether Ebright might also have his own axe to grind, something that would account for this peculiar passion? Nope.

But you don't have to dig far into Google before you discover that Dr. Ebright is a biological researcher who has received NIH funding – and who has argued passionately that research projects like O'Toole's have improperly shifted NIH funding away from traditional biological projects and toward the kind of research Ebright doesn't do.

Here's an excerpt from an undated Ebright slide show criticizing NIH for foolishly funding bioterror research in heavily secured labs. It's a heartfelt point of view; Ebright even puts it in red font so no one will miss it:

“[S]ub-par research has been funded. As a further result, an incentive structure has been created that has diverted scientists out of highly promising, biodefense-relevant, model-microorganisms and non-bioweapons-agents-pathogens research (where funding is tight and competitive) into less promising bioweapons-agents research (where funding is loose and easy).”

Now I'm not competent to judge whether Ebright himself has asked for funding to do “highly promising, biodefense-relevant, model-microorganisms and non-bioweapons-agents-pathogens research (where funding is tight and competitive).” But I think any reader of the Wired article would want to know just how personally Ebright thinks he's been affected by O'Toole's success in attracting funds.

At a minimum, even without a personal interest on Ebright's part, it seems clear that Wired has wandered into a medical researchers' food fight of epic proportions, with billions in funding at stake. Ebright is probably right to worry that O'Toole's appointment makes it less likely we'll see a return to the good old days of lavish funding for the “highly promising, biodefense-relevant, model-microorganisms and non-bioweapons-agents-pathogens research” that Ebright likes.

But descending to personal smears to shift NIH funding priorities is unworthy of him and of Wired.

1 comment:

Angry Eagle said...

Thank you for the insightful look in to "the rest of the story."

+1 for my blog reading list.