Friday, March 13, 2009

Preventing Bioterrorism (Op/Ed by Rep. Rush Holt)

Preventing bioterrorism:

Thursday, March 12, 2009
Last year, the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism -- itself an outgrowth of the 9/11 Commission and its recommendations -- issued its report. It used alarming language to prod our government to act. It affirmed something that was demonstrated with the deadly anthrax attacks: Terrorists will likely use WMD attacks on America that feature biological weapons. The question now is: Have we implemented "lessons learned" from these attacks that took place in the fall of 2001, which caused such havoc here in New Jersey and across the nation?

I agree with the commission's assertion that "only by elevating the priority of preventing bioterrorism will it be possible to substantially improve U.S. and global biosecurity." To that end, the commission made a number of recommendations for improving biosecurity here at home, including the more thorough and persistent monitoring of personnel working at high-containment laboratories (i.e., those who work with dangerous pathogens) and the designation of a single federal agency for tracking the number of such labs in the United States.

I support those and other measures, but I do not believe Congress and the incoming administration can craft an effective biosecurity program for our country unless and until we take the time to investigate thoroughly the only major (and still unsolved, according to many) bioterror attack on our country to date.
Last week, I reintroduced the Anthrax Attacks Investigation Act, to examine and to report on how the attacks occurred and how we can best prevent similar episodes in the future.

Readers may wonder why the commission did not address the 2001 anthrax attacks in detail in its report. The answer is that examining those attacks was not an explicit mandate of the WMD Commission. This is in contrast to the 9/11 Commission, which was specifically charged with looking at how the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks happened, why the federal government failed to prevent the attacks, and what remedial measures are necessary to prevent a similar catastrophe in the future.

A thorough investigation into the federal government's response to the first modern bioterror attack on our soil is absolutely essential if we are to ensure that we have learned the right lessons from that episode to implement countermeasures and changes in policy that are directly tied to those "lessons learned" -- something that The Times of Trenton repeatedly has pointed out in its frequent coverage of this tragedy.

While many of the WMD Commission's recommendations for improving biosecurity look sound on the surface, none of their specific action proposals are based on a detailed examination of how the 2001 anthrax attacks occurred. More than seven years after the attacks, many critical questions remain unanswered. Chief among them is why the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) "Amerithrax" investigation focused for so long on the wrong suspect.

The FBI's performance in the wake of the attacks has left me and many other Americans wondering whether the Bureau is truly equipped to handle bioterrorism. Deterring such attacks in the future depends in part on at least the expectation of swift and certain detection and punishment.

Neither happened in the case of the 2001 anthrax attacks. We need to know why the first attack succeeded and why the perpetrator or perpetrators escaped justice.

Just as the 9/11 Commission looked not only at the attacks of that morning, but also at recommended changes in the structure of government agencies, screening methods and even congressional oversight, so should an anthrax commission look at the specific crime, but also at measures for prevention, detection and investigation of any future bioterrorism.

An anthrax attack investigation would help address these kinds of policy questions in a level of detail that the WMD Commission could not.

Rep. Rush Holt, D-Hopewell Township, is chairman of the House Select Intelligence Oversight Panel.


Seattle Observer said...

This commission must have an interesting result, no matter how it goes. If they conclude the FBI case against Ivins is correct, then we as a nation are sold out by both parties. I'm betting they won't, though. Which will leave the largest hanging cloud over the biodefense industry, hanging larger and blacker than ever, with no answers. Best guess: no answers will be found. And we're likely still done for.

Anonymous said...

The Seattle paper recently announced it was going to be online only but I had no idea this what they meant.

Old Atlantic Lighthouse said...

Possible leaders of the commission: Hamilton and Kean, Kissinger, Scowcroft, James Baker, Alberto Gonazles, John Yoo, Wolfowitz, etc.

The Constitution should have had a provision for state attorney generals to appoint or supervise investigations or prosecutions of federal officials. Time for an Amendment. These would have the authority to disclose information of the federal government or non government parties.

Anonymous said...

Paul Keim on His Life With the FBI During the Anthrax Investigation, Mar. 13 SCIENCE

Q: When did you learn that investigators were focusing on Bruce Ivins?

P.K.: On 14 May 2008, when FBI agents and Justice Department officials revealed his name in the course of questioning me about the timeline for how the technology for fingerprinting anthrax had improved since the mid-'90s.

Q: How did the interview unfold?

P.K.: It was in a room at the Courtyard Marriott near the Washington Dulles airport, where I was attending a meeting of the FBI's Scientific Working Group on Microbial [Genetics and] Forensics. There were five FBI agents and officials from the U.S. Attorney's office. … I remember making a nervous joke. I said I've greased up my wrists just so I can slip out of my handcuffs when you throw me in the back of the van. …

What they were trying to establish was how much Ivins would have known about the developments in fingerprinting [to distinguish between different strains]. They pulled out e-mails that Ivins and I had exchanged in 2001-2002 as part of ongoing discussions amongst anthrax researchers about the attacks. They wanted to know if I could tell, from those e-mails, if Ivins might have been attempting to cover his tracks.

Q: What did you conclude?
P.K.: I didn't see any smoking gun. I went back and looked at some other e-mails from him, and in one that he sent on 7 February 2002 to the group, he said, "The only place I know of that makes anthrax powder is the Dugway Proving Ground."

Q: Do you think Ivins was guilty?
P.K.: I don't know.

Barry Kissin said...

Bingo. After all of the scientific "fingerprinting" (according to Paul Keim, THE scientist in on it from the beginning), we are left with "the only place I know of that makes anthrax powder is the Dugway Proving Ground." Bruce Ivins is far from the only one with that to say in 2001-2002. And Paul in 2009?: "I don't know."