In the spring, a few days before America launched its war on Iraq, a small caravan of civilian cars drove quietly out of Iraq and across the Syrian border. The travelers included two of Iraq's senior biological-warfare scientists and several members of Saddam Hussein's secret service. The security men waited inconspicuously in Damascus before returning to Baghdad. The scientists disappeared for good. Before doing so, however, they met with several members of Hezbollah and gave them a number of small vials. Hezbollah, in turn, conveyed the vials out of Syria. In due course, a number of them reached a refrigerator in a small commercial lab in Tangiers. The lab belonged to Al Qaeda. The vials contained smallpox.
I made up everything you just read. We have no evidence that Saddam possessed smallpox, and no reason to think that Al Qaeda does or will possess it. Yet there is nothing unrealistic about the scenario I sketched. It could happen. What is the United States doing about it? Not enough.
"Not enough" doesn't mean nothing. Von Roebuck, a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, said in an interview that all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia and several major cities, now have in place reaction plans in case of a smallpox outbreak. By mail and satellite link, the government has educated clinicians on how to recognize and combat smallpox, which few of them have ever seen in a patient (the disease was eradicated in the wild in the 1970s). The Bush administration is preparing a set of indicators by which to assess the country's preparedness.