Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson today joined an exodus from President Bush's first-term Cabinet, announcing his resignation at a press conference in which he also warned that the world faces a potentially catastrophic flu pandemic and that the U.S. food supply is vulnerable to terrorists.
Among the Cabinet members remaining on the job is Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who has agreed to a request from Bush that he continue to serve in the second term, a senior administration official said today. Bush asked Rumsfeld to stay on at the Pentagon to provide continuity as the United States wages a global war on terrorism and tries to put down an insurgency in Iraq.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson waves farewell after announcing his resignation at HHS headquarters in Washington.
(Gerald Herbert - AP)
Video: Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson resigned Friday, warning of a potential global outbreak of the flu and health-related terror attacks. "For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do," he said.
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Thompson issued the flu and terrorism warnings after announcing that he had submitted his resignation this morning because it was "time for me and my family to move on to the next chapter in our life" after nearly 40 years in public service.
Asked what worries him most as he leaves office, Thompson cited the dangers of a pandemic of avian flu, for which there is no vaccine, and the poisoning of U.S. food supplies by terrorists.
"The big one is pandemic flu," Thompson said. He said the avian flu known as H5N1 has such "huge lethality" that the World Health Organization has estimated 30 million to 70 million people could die worldwide if a pandemic breaks out. "And we do not have a vaccine," he said. "We do not have a therapy for H5N1."
He said an arm of HHS, the National Institutes of Health, "is working on a vaccine," but that he remains "very concerned about pandemic flu because we're not prepared for it." He said such an outbreak "is a really huge bomb out there that could adversely impact on the health care of the world."
Thompson said he also worries constantly about food poisoning.
"I, for the life of me, cannot understand why the terrorists have not, you know, attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do," he said. "And we are importing a lot of food from the Middle East, and it would be easy to tamper with that."
Although inspections of food imports have risen sharply in the past four years, "it still is a very minute amount that we're doing."
In a letter to department employees, Thompson, a former four-term Republican governor of Wisconsin, said resigning "was a difficult decision and one I did not make easily."
He said later in the press conference that he plans to work in the private sector after leaving his post by Feb. 4 or whenever his successor is confirmed by the Senate. But he did not rule out running again for public office, saying it was "entirely possible" that he could seek another term as Wisconsin governor or a U.S. Senate seat.
The resignation came shortly after Bush announced his choice of former New York City police commissioner Bernard B. Kerik to be the new secretary of homeland security.
Thompson, 63, was the eighth of Bush's 15 Cabinet secretaries to resign following his reelection on Nov. 2.
As head of the Department of Health and Human Services, Thompson managed a budget of more than $500 billion. Among his major initiatives have been efforts to strengthen U.S. preparedness for a bioterrorism attack, increase funding for the National Institutes of Health, expand health insurance coverage to lower-income Americans and focus attention on health problems such as obesity and diabetes.