The Bush administration has a track record of disregarding the advice of its own experts in favor of more politically and ideologically agreeable choices. It seems to have happened again in the choice of locations for a new $451 million national bio threat lab.
According to the Associated Press, the Department of Homeland Security appointed a panel of experts, carefully screened for possible conflicts of interest, to evaluate and recommend possible sites for the lab.
After 18 months, the panel made its recommendations and DHS Undersecretary Jay Cohen made his choice — Flora, Miss., which, according to records obtained by AP, the panel had ranked 14th among the 17 candidates. Cohen drew up his own short list of five sites and even on that list Flora ranked fifth.
And some of the reasoning seemed contradictory. A key drawback to Flora, according to the panel, was that it wasn’t close to any other biodefense research programs and that it lacked ready access to biodefense researchers. But the department apparently ruled out a higher-ranked site in Beltsville, Md., because it was too close to other biodefense labs.
The choice of Flora looks bad, and not the least because of Mississippi’s powerful politicians. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat, is chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, and Sen. Thad Cochran is the senior Republican on the Appropriations Committee and the subcommittee that oversees the DHS budget. The state’s governor, Haley Barbour, is a power in the Republican Party and a longtime supporter of George Bush.
When Congress comes back to D.C., this decision merits a second look.