Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Amerithrax 2001

Are We Safe Yet?

Let's take a look at a few of the components of what might constitute some measure of safety from another anthrax attack.

The Amerithrax Investigation:

Once highly confident that it would find the anthrax perpetrators, the FBI is not so sure.  Assistant Director Michael Mason of the Washington D.C. field office, said "Despite our very, very, very best efforts, we still might not be able to bring it home."

Judge Reggie B. Walton
Judge Reggie B. Walton
On March 30, 2004, the Washington Post reported that U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton granted the FBI's request to postpone Steven Hatfill's defamation suit, claiming that the investigation is in a sensitive phase. Hatfill sued Attorney General John Ashcroft, the FBI and the Justice Department in August of 2003, asserting that they had trampled his constitutional rights and ruined his life. The FBI told Judge Walton that they wanted to conduct a sophisticated series of tests that could identify the laboratory in which the anthrax used in the terror letters was produced.

Steven Hatfill
Steven Hatfill
Then on May 15, The Hartford Courant wrote that the FBI was now revisiting some old leads. They questioned former Army microbiologist, Ayaad Assad, who had been the subject of an anonymous letter. The FBI says that Assad is not a suspect. Another scientist was interviewed about alleged discrepancies in anthrax shipments to his laboratory.

On July 5, 2004, The Baltimore Sun reported that the anthrax in the 2001 letters "was a mix of two slightly different samples, giving the bacteria a distinct signature that might make it easier to match with a source."

U.S. Army Medical Research Lab at Ft. Detrick
U.S. Army Medical Research Lab at Ft. Detrick
 

Then on July 20, 2004, Fox News reported that parts of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Ft. Detrick were temporarily closed in support of the FBI criminal investigation.

Even more interesting, on July 19 the Associated Press's Robert Tanner reported that Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge engaged governors during the National Governors Assn. meeting in a simulated "tabletop" anthrax attack and likely responses.

Mohammed Atta
Mohammed Atta
The simulated attack reportedly posed the scenario that Islamic terrorists had been brought into the U.S. through its ports and spread the deadly spores through crop-dusting planes. Ridge must have been referring to 9-11 hijacker Mohammed Atta's interest in crop dusting and getting a loan to purchase a crop duster plane.

Is the FBI getting close or is it playing games to keep the Hatfill lawsuit out of the news before the election? Who knows?

Project BioShield:

I suspect the cumbersome process by which the government bureaucracy does anything is the main culprit in the fact that it took two years to get the legislation to Congress for stockpiling vaccines and medicines for bioterror attacks. Announced in 2003, the program gives $5.6 billion for the development of vaccines and medicines. According to the July 28, 2004 Wall St. Journal, the Republican-dominated House of Representatives passed the BioShield legislation quickly over a year ago. However, when the bill got to the Senate, powerful Democratic Senator Robert Byrd stalled the critical legislation, which was finally passed in May.

Breathing a sigh of relief? Not yet. As the Washington Post wrote on July 26, 2004, companies poised to jump into this biotech arena says that "developing medicines for use after a biological attack remains a highly risky business, with long development times, slim profit margins and the possibility of devastating patient lawsuits if a drug fails...It's not a very attractive market."

Human Genome Sciences' anthrax medicines are now being tested for safety, but can't be ethically tested on humans for effectiveness unless there is an attack.

U.S. Postal Service anthrax detectors:

On August 7, 2004 the Wallingford, CT mail processing center -- which had processed 94-year-old Ottilie Lundgren's fatal anthrax letter in 2001 -- will be the first to have the new biohazard detection system installed. At first, the new system will be an anthrax detector, but in the future this equipment will be able to detect other biohazards, although officials would not say which ones. The U.S. Postal Service has designated $250 million for equipment to monitor anthrax in the 283 mail processing centers throughout the U.S.

Well, are we safe yet? The bad news is that we not completely safe, not yet. The good news is that we are much safer than we were in 2001 and we are, in fits and starts caused by politics and bureaucracy, moving in the right direction. While many protection measures against another anthrax attack moved fairly quickly, such as:

  • the Centers for Disease Control providing doctors and hospitals with information and tests to detect an anthrax attack quickly, and
  • cities better prepared with hi-tech equipment to quickly respond to a potential anthrax attack and quickly get stockpiles of medicines and vaccines.

Other measures will not be in place for some time. Hopefully, the Islamic terrorists who monitor our every anthrax defense measure and every report about our vulnerabilities will not squeeze in another anthrax attack in between the margins of these defenses.

 

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