The Department of Defense is withholding more than $100 million combined from a military laboratory at Fort Detrick and an organization at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
It is unclear why the Defense Department is withholding the $104 million from the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases and the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense, although Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said it might be related to the research shutdown of USAMRIID’s biosafety level 3 and 4 laboratories over the summer.
Less work was done at USAMRIID while its BSL-3 and BSL-4 work was halted, Cardin said, which may have made it appear the military lab did not need as much money as it does. He did not think it was retaliatory.
It is also unknown how the $104 million is divided between Fort Detrick and Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County. Cardin said he thought the majority would be withheld from USAMRIID.
The laboratory needs the funding to continue its critical mission, Cardin said.
“We don’t think it was wise to withhold the funds,” he said.
Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Cardin, along with Reps. David Trone (D-Md.), Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) and Anthony Brown (D-Md.), announced Wednesday that they sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper questioning the decision to withhold funding, according to a press release. The legislators requested an answer by Feb. 28.
“This process has been shrouded in secrecy at the DoD level,” Van Hollen said in an interview.
In the letter, the legislators expressed concern that funding was being withheld since September 2019 from two agencies that provide “critical contributions” to national security.
“As you know, missions that require both a highly skilled workforce and the ability to surge in times of crisis, like chemical and biological research, cannot simply be slashed when no emergency is present,” they wrote in the letter.
In a statement, Trone said that the country needs to keep USAMRIID staffed so that it can respond to infectious disease threats.
“It boggles my mind that DOD would consider withholding critical funds from Ft. Detrick, especially as we prepare to counter the coronavirus. This is a specialized workforce — the best and the brightest our country has to offer,” he said in the statement.
In a statement, leadership from the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command thanked the legislators.
“We appreciate our Maryland congressional representatives recognizing the significant role the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) and the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense (USAMRICD) play in the DOD’s and Nation’s ability to timely respond to chemical, infectious disease, and other medical based threats to our Warfighters and national security. Sustaining these capabilities requires adequate, reliable, and consistent funding in order to maintain the infrastructure and specialized contractor and civilian workforce,” according to the statement from Lori Salvatore on behalf of USAMRDC.
The legislators asked for the prompt release of the funding, which they wrote is necessary for the continued operation of the chemical biological center at Aberdeen Proving Ground and USAMRIID. Van Hollen said he would also like more transparency in the process.
Part of the concern is that the Department of Defense is holding the funding in order to free it up for other projects, he said.
“Which would be a huge mistake because it’s very important to maintain a surge capacity at Fort Detrick,” Van Hollen said. “And if that wasn’t already well understood, the [new] coronavirus outbreak simply underscores the need, because Fort Detrick will be playing a role in responding to the coronavirus. And that just underscores the importance of having the capacity at Fort Detrick to address exactly this kind of situation.”
USAMRIID spokeswoman Caree Vander Linden previously told The News-Post that USAMRIID is not currently involved in responding to the coronavirus, but it is ready to support the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The legislators learned about the funds being withheld on Thursday, according to the press release. Van Hollen and Cardin then met with Brig. Gen. Michael Talley, commanding general of U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command at Fort Detrick, and Gen. John Murray, commanding general of the Army Futures Command, Van Hollen said.
Talley and Murray were “alarmed” by the funding situation, Van Hollen said.
The letter raised concerns that the Defense Department continues to “make drastic programmatic changes without consulting Congress.” Van Hollen called it an “alarming pattern.”
“As we have previously made clear [in a November 2019 letter], senior level budget reviews from the Office of the Secretary of Defense must be coordinated with Congress to ensure we are adhering to our Constitutional obligations,” according to the letter.