Saturday, November 05, 2005

A silver lining for Rumsfeld in the bird flu threat

In the midst of the Bush administration's belated response to the threat of a global bird flu pandemic, the Pentagon last week quietly issued a legal memorandum concerning Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's participation in the government's plan to confront the danger.

This is not a small matter for the Bush administration, given the president’s single-minded determination to exploit what is a very real public health danger to promote his own political agenda of eliminating constitutional restrictions on the use of the US military on American soil.

The government's 396-page response plan, posted on the Internet this week (, speaks of using military forces to seal off towns and communities declared to be stricken with the disease, imposing what the document refers to as a cordon sanitaire, or sanitary barrier. Presumably this would mean armed troops manning roadblocks with orders to use deadly force to prevent people from either entering or leaving.

In a statement last month, Bush called for the use of the military in this fashion, and urged Congress to consider changing the law to give him greater latitude to deploy military forces domestically. The statement drew sharp criticism from public health officials, who suggested that Bush was proposing what amounted to martial law, a policy that has little efficacy in dealing with the threat of a pandemic.

Last week's Pentagon memo indicated that Rumsfeld could participate in the martial law component of the government’s plan. He is recusing himself only from decisions regarding the use of drugs to prevent or treat bird flu.

The problem, it seems, is that the defense secretary is a major stockholder in Gilead Sciences, the company that holds the patent on the prescription antiviral drug Tamiflu, which is said to be the most effective medicine to prevent influenza or ameliorate the symptoms among those already infected.

From 1997 until he came back to Washington in 2001 to head the Pentagon and prepare for the war against Iraq, Rumsfeld was Gilead's CEO. He separated with the corporation on very profitable terms and still holds Gilead stock worth up to $25 million, according to his recent federal financial disclosures. The stock's price has soared from $35 to over $50 over the past six months as fears of the pandemic have grown.

As Fortune magazine put it on its web site, "The prospect of a bird flu outbreak may be panicking people around the globe, but it’s proving to be very good news for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other politically connected investors in the California biotech company that owns the rights to Tamiflu..."