Terrorism report skips USDA

The Computer System Security and Privacy Advisory Board

A recent government report on combating terrorism failed to evaluate one key component of the nation's critical infrastructure—the food supply.

The report by the General Accounting Office was issued last week but written before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It criticized many elements needed to deal with potential threats to security.

In a letter dated Sept. 5 and included in the report, Deputy Agriculture Secretary James Moseley complained that GAO left out the essential role of agriculture in American life and failed to mention isolated terrorist incidents already experienced by Agriculture Department employees.

"The report speaks almost solely to an act committed with the purpose of disrupting any one of a number of infrastructures in the country, with the exception of agriculture," Moseley said. "While, in reality, this is certainly a threat to be addressed and properly prepare for, the likelihood of it occurring is uncertain."

The USDA is one of the most technology savvy agencies in government. It uses technology to track food supplies and prices, from raw products to retail goods. Many farmers use computers as an integral part of their workday, and food inspectors recently were issued laptops to carry in the field.

"Rest assured, the department plays an important role in protecting our nation's food supply, agricultural infrastructure and agency employees, facilities and programs," Moseley said.

The potential threats to the nation's food supply became apparent this week when federal authorities disclosed that terrorists may have been planning to deliver a chemical or biological strike from the air using crop-dusters.

"Clearly, the perimeters we have need to be re-examined and strengthened no matter what sector we're in," said Joseph Leo, the former chief information officer at the USDA.

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman briefed members of the Senate Agriculture Committee behind closed doors Sept. 25 about federal safeguards to prevent deliberate attempts to spread livestock or plant disease.

"The bioterrorism threat is real," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the committee's chairman.

"We need to look at other potential threats out there," just as airline security is now being reviewed, he said.

The USDA declined to comment on the GAO report but submitted a summary of the USDA's capacity to respond to a terrorist incident.

The GAO report said agriculture was not included in its review because it was not designated by the President's Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection and the Critical Infrastructure Assurance Office as a critical infrastructure, which includes such things as telecommunications, power and water supplies, and banking and finance.

The Computer System Security and Privacy Advisory Board had been trying for several years without success to get the USDA included on the list of agencies whose critical infrastructure should be reviewed, according to sources.

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