Last week the FBI outlined its new “theory of the case” regarding the 2001 anthrax attack. So far, almost all of the focus has remained on the whodunit, a scientist named Dr. Bruce E. Ivins, who committed suicide late last month as the FBI was closing in on him. Far less attention has been given to whatdunit, the United States Army Research Institute of Infectious Diseases or USAMRIID, and whether sufficient institutional security measures have been developed within government laboratories and government-sponsored research programs to ensure that we can detect the next bio-bomber.
Lingering questions from the Ivins case, particularly the reaction of his co-workers at Fort Detrick, suggest that we have a lot of work to do to build an effective security system to monitor the potential misuse of the world’s most deadly substances. And it is possible that our actions since 2001 have expanded the danger.
Based on new scientific tools used in the investigation, the FBI is certain that the agent used in the attack came from a specific flask used in research at the Army lab. That flask was “effectively the murder weapon” according to U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Taylor. So, whether or not Dr. Ivins did it, the FBI is convinced that someone at USAMRIID did. At least one government scientist weaponized an agent, removed it from the facility and used it to kill five people without being detected. The combination of background checks, peer observation and physical security at Fort Detrick in place in 2001 was inadequate.
Even now, many of Dr. Ivins’ co-workers are not convinced he did it because they believe they would have seen him do it. These doubts should sound an alarm about the state of bio-security today. Seven years after the incident, no one associated with Fort Detrick has yet explained what has been done to make a repeat incident less likely.
Let’s compare aviation and bio-security. Aviation security is far from perfect, but we have responded aggressively and systematically to the 9/11 failure. We know a lot more about passengers before they arrive at the airport. We inspect them and their baggage thoroughly before they are allowed to board an airplane. Once on board, a potential hijacker faces a locked cockpit door, an air marshal, a better trained crew and a plane-full of inquisitive eyes. There remains a residual threat to aviation, most likely from air cargo, but at least we have done as much as we can to prevent another suicide hijacking.
Unfortunately, it is possible our response to the other 2001 terror attack has been backwards. We have spent many billions of dollars developing vaccines and deploying detection equipment based on the belief that the threat was external – a terrorist organization would develop and deploy a biological weapon against the United States.
That danger certainly exists, but we now know that this was an insider job. Someone working for a secretive agency and in control of the most dangerous technologies that exist used them against the society they were charged to protect. And, because the scope of research on bio-defenses has expanded exponentially since 2001, the insider threat now could be even greater.
In the coming days, it will be imperative for the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services to come forward and tell us what has been done at government labs across the country and within government-sponsored research programs in light of the USAMRIID case to strengthen bio-security. What new research protocols have been established? What kind of peer review system is now in place? What kind of detection equipment has been installed as workers exit labs? How have background checks been strengthened? If Dr. Ivins was suffering from declining mental health, to what extent are labs monitoring scientists and looking for danger signs?
We now know that in 2001 we were attacked not just by al Qaeda but also by a government agency. Significant questions linger as to whether the government’s biological security is keeping pace with biological research. The government cannot retreat behind a veil of secrecy. The American people deserve to know that government bio-defense programs now have more effective security measures in place so that we are sufficiently protected from both internal and external threats.
The case should be far from closed.
P.J. Crowley is a Senior Fellow and Director of Homeland Security at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. He served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs and then as Special Assistant to the President of the United States for National Security Affairs, serving as Senior Director of Public Affairs for the National Security Council.