Lewis "Scooter" Libby was a busy man in 2002-2003, pushing the lie
that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and targeting those who dared to challenge
the Administration. Still, with all the leaking and smearing they were doing,
Libby and his "former" boss Dick Cheney found the time to conduct
a parallel propaganda war in which they attempted to use the US public as guinea
pigs. And once again, Judy Miller served as a crucial PR agent for the cause.
In mid-2002, as they struggled desperately to sell the war, these key
players in "Plamegate" were engaged in a full-out offensive aimed
at convincing Americans that the country faced an imminent threat of a smallpox
attack. To underscore this "threat," Libby began fanatically pressing
to have the entire US population preemptively vaccinated against smallpox (which
was declared eradicated in 1980). The proposal was immediately met with opposition
from public health experts, including those at the Department of Health and
Human Services. They warned Libby that the vaccine could injure, even kill people
and that a universal vaccination could in and of itself spark a public health
crisis in the US. "The risks of vaccinating the whole country
with the existing vaccine were greater than what we saw as the threat,"
says Jerry Hauer, the HHS official at the time that would have been in charge
of implementing the vaccinations. "We felt it was the wrong thing from
a public health perspective to do." As the administration did with so many
independent experts who said Iraq posed no WMD threat, Libby attempted to sideline
those who questioned him.
What Hauer and his colleagues at HHS may not have known is that smallpox was
a career-long obsession of Libby's--so much so that his nickname in the administration
was "Germ Boy." His 1996 novel, The Apprentice, is about a smallpox
outbreak and it was one of Libby's main areas of concern when he worked under
Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz at the Pentagon during the Gulf War. In Judy
Miller's 2001 book (written with 2 colleagues) "Germs: Biological Weapons
and America's Secret War," Libby is described during his time at the Pentagon
as "a trim, boyish lawyer" irritated by intelligence reports about
Iraqi WMDs containing the words "probably" and "possibly."
Miller writes that Libby "told colleagues that intelligence analysts had
an unfortunate habit: If they did not see a report on something, they assumed
it did not exist."
More than a decade later, Libby was facing renewed frustration with another
group of experts challenging his obsession. Hauer says that when he and other
public health officials presented their opposition to Libby's "hysterical"
universal smallpox vaccination scheme, the pressure from Cheney's office increased.
In particular, Hauer says that one of Cheney's top Homeland Security advisers,
Carol Kuntz (who worked as Libby's assistant at the Pentagon during the Gulf
War), became "downright offensive" toward Hauer, saying "It was
very clear that I was not giving her the answers she wanted or telling her what
she wanted to hear."
"We got a lot of pressure from Carol and the vice president's office,"
Hauer recalls. "The vice president went to CDC and was briefed on this
and we certainly were under the impression that this was a real threat...Whether
or not it was there or not, we were being told it was."
As the battle over Libby's vaccination plan raged on, the Administration amplified
the propaganda and received assistance from a reliable ally. In December 2002,
Judy Miller penned a story called "Threats and Responses: Germ Weapons;
C.I.A. Hunts Iraq Tie to Soviet Smallpox." The source of the story? "The
information came to the American government from an informant whose identity
has not been disclosed," wrote Miller, reporting: "The possibility
that Iraq possesses this strain is one of several factors that has complicated
Mr. Bush's decision...about how many Americans should be vaccinated against
Eventually, in the face of widespread opposition from within HHS and the broader
public health community, Libby and the Administration were forced to compromise.
Libby's smallpox vaccine would be offered to "first responders"--hospital,
medical and emergency workers--and the military. What happened after the smallpox
vaccination plan was released has been well documented. It was met with outright
resistance on the part of both first responders and US soldiers alike.
While Libby's smallpox vaccination pipedream failed in one sense, the administration
has succeeded in its much bigger battle--siphoning tremendous resources (and
experts) from real public health threats like Avian flu and redirecting them
toward "war on terror" marketable programs like anthrax and smallpox
biodefense. In 2003, the Bush administration asked Congress for just $100 million
to prepare for Avian flu, compared to a whopping $6 billion for its war on terror-friendly
"Project Bioshield." What's more, Congressional Republicans refused
to allocate the money for flu preparations, giving HHS just $49 million--less
than half the already ridiculously low request. In early November 2005, Bush
finally got around to declaring war on the flu. But many health experts feel
it is too little too late. To make matters worse, a powerful group of Republicans,
led by Senator/Dr. Bill Frist, is pushing legislation that would strip people
injured by vaccines of their right to sue manufacturers and would virtually
eliminate pharmaceutical corporate accountability. The legislation would also
make the newly created Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency the
only federal agency exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.
The bigger picture to all of this is that over the last five years of the Bush
administration, many public health professionals and disaster management experts
have been replaced by unqualified, compliant yes men. One need not look further
than Hurricane Katrina to see the horrible results. "Every single administration
in American political history has put cronies and pals and donors into political
positions," says Irwin Redlener, Director of Columbia University's National
Center for Disaster Preparedness. "But normally those people become the
ambassador to Liechtenstein or the deputy undersecretary of commerce. What's
striking about this administration is the placement of people into critical
positions, where the national security or the public health is at stake."
Now, there is grave concern that the man responsible for coordinating the federal
response to a flu pandemic or bioterror attack could well be the next "Brownie."
His name is Stewart Simonson--a well-connected, ideological, ambitious Republican
with zero public health management or medical expertise, whose previous job
was as a corporate lawyer for Amtrak. He replaced Jerry Hauer, the HHS official
who stood up to Libby's smallpox vaccination scheme. Hauer says that, in replacing
him with Simonson, the Administration has "somebody they know will go along
with pretty much anything they want."
This story is explored in-depth in my article in the current issue of The
Nation magazine called "Germ
Boys and Yes Men."