WASHINGTON — A quartet of biological weapons experts painted a chilling picture of a United States unprepared for a biological or chemical weapons attack — and currently squandering the opportunity to do so — before a congressional panel Friday.

Testifying before the Intelligence, Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, the four private-sector doctors said the threat of such an attack was an increasing possibility. They pointed to recent uses by countries such as Iraq and Syria, and large stockpiles thought to exist in countries such as North Korea.

Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, described several scenarios in which biological or chemical weapons could be loosed upon large populations. A collapse of North Korea, or continuing instability in Syria, could result in the kind of proliferation that would make such things possible, he said.

But a continuing inability to recognize the scope of the threat are hampering officials’ ability to stockpile vaccines or improve public awareness, he said.

“What we need is more conversations like this going on, but I don’t see those going on,” Bennett said. “We need to raise the consciousness.”

Bennett also said the U.S. military needs to do more to consider whether to order mass vaccinations for troops facing biological weapons and how to evacuate potential mass casualties.

Two other witnesses, Brett Giroir, interim executive vice president of the Texas A&M University Health Science Center and retired Maj. Gen. Philip Russell of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, said the U.S. health system is inadequately prepared. They recommended better coordination between the public and private sector, and more public awareness.

“The public health system will be tasked with responding to any biological outbreak, and it will also be the first to recognize it,” said Giroir. “So any investment in public health is an investment in national security.”

Russell recalled how the U.S. invested massively in its health system after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but has failed to maintain that commitment.

“The system has seriously deteriorated over the intervening years,” he said.

Committee members listened soberly, and some, like Rep. Rich Nugent, R-Fla., told the four witnesses they had actually terrified him.

Under questioning from Nugent on what U.S. officials can do to be better prepared, all four witnesses recommended more leadership and coordination from the top levels of the federal government.

“More attention and direction is needed from the White House,” said Amy Smithson, a senior fellow at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. “The whip really needs to be cracked from that location, and frequently, in terms of oversight and coordination.”

Subcommittee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, began the hearing with a sobering warning that national security threats “do not go away or wait patiently while we try to straighten out our budget woes.”

“There are very real and very significant dangers in the world, and the foremost target is America and Americans,” he said. “Part of our job on this subcommittee is to look ahead for the threats coming down the road and for those that may loom larger in the future. Biological threats must be at or near the top of that list.” Twitter: @jtr1

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