Foxes guarding the hen house, or how politics trumps qualifications at DHS

Did you hear the one about how our great, politically appointed bureaucrats bypassed better-qualified locations for the planned National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility in favor of one with more desirable political connections? Makes me feel all cozy and protected knowing the care with which our Department of Homeland Security is screening for our safety and the safety of our food supply … except, of course, when politics is served some other way.

The National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, in the likelihood you missed it, is the planned successor to the Plum Island Animal Disease Center (right, USDA ARS photo) off the coast of Long Island, New York. Ever since Homeland Security announced in 2005 its plans to build a new facility, people have questioned the wisdom of putting a lab filled with the most dangerous known animal pathogens on the mainland, upwind of livestock, meaning that in the case of accident or mischief, those pathogens could cause huge economic losses — or worse. (See England's 2007 lab-based outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.)

Eco-devo fans in prospective new locations nevertheless did their best to elbow their way to the top of the Homeland Security list by showing off their scientists, their labs, their airtight security. Never mind that as recently as May, the New York Times was concurring with congressional concerns about the wisdom of such a move at all. Silly gooses.

Last week Homeland Security laid to rest their concerns that wisdom matters. Not only did officials there apparently decline to reconsider renovating Plum Island, but they also declined to pay too much heed to their own rating system.

Lucky for me, I do feel safer for the knowledge. When Homeland Security put politically desirable Flora, Mississippi (tied for 14th, if I'm counting right) on its short list, it had to bump one of the better qualified locations. The best of these was Leavenworth, Kansas, which is just up the road a piece, less than 40 miles from where I live. (Leavenworth pols aren't happy, though.) Unlucky for me, DHS went ahead and short-listed Manhattan, Kansas, only 85 miles away and upwind. I suppose the good news is that both these locations are downwind of much of Kansas's substantial cropland and feed lots, but still.

As addle-brained as the Flora listing may seem, it could be that those Homeland Security folks know what they're doing. Their announcement seems to have distracted people from discussing (as at least one person did recently in Kansas, and as Elisa Harris did, by implication, in the  Times last week) the question of putting the facility on the mainland at all.

Sadly, the political jockeying over everything in Washington has gotten so out of hand that few people trust the plutocrats (elected or otherwise) to remember that, really, they work for us. Wait…they do, don't they?

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