Despite spending billions of dollars, the United States is woefully unprepared for an attack involving either chemical or biological weapons, according to a report recently declassified by the Government Accountability Office. The strain of the Iraq war has contributed to problems with staffing, equipping and training the military units expected to respond in the event of such a crisis.

Bad Guys:

Few terrorism experts doubt that we’re going to get hit by a biological or chemical attack. Recent strikes by Iraqi insurgents using chlorine gas underscore the concern. That’s why Washington has spent billions of dollars preparing for such an event. But two reports quietly declassified last week suggest that the backbone of any U.S. response — America’s military units — are alarmingly unprepared.

The reports are by the Government Accountability Office, Congress’s investigative agency, which is typically careful in its language. (Consider the title of one report, the modestly named Management Actions Are Needed to Close the Gap between Army Chemical Unit Preparedness and Stated National Priorities.) But reading between the lines, it’s clear that investigators, who analyzed preparedness data for 78 Army chemical units, were disturbed at what they found. As one report put it, “Most Army units tasked with providing chemical and biological defense support are not adequately staffed, equipped or trained to perform their missions.”

Particularly in the National Guard and Army Reserve — key to any U.S. homeland response — chem and bio units “are reporting the lowest readiness ratings — meaning that they are not considered sufficiently qualified for deployment,” according to the GAO. The reason: critical shortages of trained personnel and key equipment, made worse by transfers to support the war in Iraq.

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