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The Bioterror Threat
In my 12/6/08 “Week in Review” column I noted The Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism and its report to Congress, urging the incoming Obama administration to take “decisive action” to reduce the likelihood of a devastating attack.
The commission was most concerned about prospects for a biological attack because of the relative ease in acquiring the components.
So I just glanced at the full report myself and pass on the following scenario as laid out by the authors, which include former senator / chairman, Bob Graham (D-Fla.), and former senator / vice chairman, Jim Talent (R-Mo.)
They were agents on a mission and they came not at night, which might have looked suspicious, but in broad daylight. Hiding in plain sight on a city street in Atlanta, they walked the perimeter of one of America’s five biological laboratories where scientists worked on the world’s most deadly pathogens. They had come to this lab at Georgia State University in 2008 as part of their assignment to quietly case facilities designated as Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) labs, the highest level of biological containment, required for work with the most dangerous viruses. They were looking for even the slightest security vulnerability – anything that might give an edge to terrorists seeking to steal small quantities of Ebola virus or other lethal disease agents for which there are no treatments, no known cures.
These individuals discovered that in a number of places, the lab was unprotected by barriers and that outsiders could walk right up to the building housing these deadly pathogens. Around back, they watched and took notes as a pedestrian simply strolled into the building through an unguarded loading dock.
On another day, the same people went to San Antonio to check out another BSL-4 lab, the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research. They discovered that the security camera covered only a portion of the perimeter, and that the only barrier to vehicles was an arm gate that would swing across the roadway. The guards assigned to protect this facility were unarmed. Once again, these individuals walked the perimeter. This time they spotted a window through which, standing outside, they could watch the scientists as they worked with top-security pathogens. Now they knew exactly where the world’s most deadly pathogens were kept.
This was precisely the lethal trove that al Qaeda’s terrorists had been seeking for years. But luckily, these operatives on this mission were not from al Qaeda – they were from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress, and they visited five of America’s labs that are designated BSL-4. For more than a decade, U.S. government inspection teams have traveled to facilities in the former Soviet Union and reported back on the poor security and lax practices used in storing biological pathogens. Now, this latest study by GAO has shown that when it comes to materials of bioterrorism, America’s vulnerability may well begin at home. The GAO report gave high marks to three of the five facilities investigated. The investigators measured how the labs fared in 15 security control categories, and these labs met the standards for, respectively, 13, 14, and all 15. Among the 15 security controls were having armed security guards visible at all public entrances to the lab, full camera coverage of all exterior entrances, and closed-circuit television and a command and control center so that any security breach could be instantly known throughout the facility.
But the two lowest-scoring BSL-4 labs passed in only 3 and 4 of the 15 categories – a score that is even more troubling because, as GAO noted, both still met the requirements of the Division of Select Agents and Toxins of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Despite these shortcomings, the United States is actually at the forefront of laboratory security in the world today and has by far the most stringent regulations to restrict access to dangerous pathogens.
Most developing countries, in contrast, have largely ignored the problem of biosecurity because of competing demands for their limited budgets. Security gaps at laboratories that store and work with dangerous pathogens, both in the United States and around the world, are worrisome because of continued interest in biological weapons. Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell said in a recent speech, “One of our greatest concerns continues to be that a terrorist group or some other dangerous group might acquire and employ biological agents…to create casualties greater than September 11.”
Al Qaeda has long sought to obtain biological and chemical weapons. One of its leading experts in the quest for such weapons was Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar, an Egyptian also known as Abu Khabab al-Masri. According to media accounts, he was killed in July 2008 by an airstrike over Pakistan’s northern tribal area.
On July 17, 2008, the Afghanistan National Police arrested Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani woman believed to have ties to al Qaeda, who reportedly had been acting suspiciously outside the governor’s compound in Ghazni province. Educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at Brandeis University, where she earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience, she had been wanted by the FBI since 2004 – the first woman sought by the law enforcement agency in connection with al Qaeda. According to media accounts, when arrested she had in her possession a list of New York City landmarks, documents describing how to produce explosives, and details about chemical, biological, and radiological weapons. She was extradited to New York for trial on charges of attempted murder and assault of U.S. officers in Afghanistan. The world is fortunate that al Qaeda to date is not known to have successfully stolen, bought, or developed agents of bioterror. But scenarios of just how such an incident might occur have been developed for planning purposes. The Homeland Security Council has created a chilling scenario of how terrorists could launch an anthrax attack in the United States – and the horrific chain of events that would follow: This scenario describes a single aerosol [anthrax] attack in one city delivered by a truck using a concealed improvised spraying device in a densely populated urban city with a significant commuter workforce. It does not, however, exclude the possibility of multiple attacks in disparate cities or time-phased attacks (i.e., “reload”). For federal planning purposes, it will be assumed that the Universal Adversary (UA) will attack five separate metropolitan areas in a sequential manner. Three cities will be attacked initially, followed by two additional cities 2 weeks later.
It is possible that a Bio-Watch [atmospheric sensor] signal would be received and processed, but this is not likely to occur until the day after the release. The first cases of anthrax would begin to present to Emergency Rooms (ERs) approximately 36 hours post-release, with rapid progression of symptoms and fatalities in untreated (or inappropriately treated) patients. The situation in the hospitals will be complicated by the following facts: The release has occurred at the beginning of an unusually early influenza season and the prodromal [early] symptoms of inhalation anthrax are relatively non-specific.
Physician uncertainty will result in low thresholds for admission and administration of available countermeasures (e.g., antibiotics), producing severe strains on commercially available supplies of medications such as ciprofloxacin and doxycycline, and exacerbating the surge capacity problem.
Social order questions will arise. The public will want to know very quickly if it is safe to remain in the affected city and surrounding regions. Many persons will flee regardless of the public health guidance that is provided. Pressure may be placed directly on pharmacies to dispense medical countermeasures directly, and it will be necessary to provide public health guidance in more than a dozen languages. The attack results in 328,848 exposures; 13,208 untreated fatalities; and 13,342 total casualties. Although property damage will be minimal, city services will be hampered by safety concerns.
States do not have a monopoly on biological weapons. In the past, a number of terrorist organizations and rogue individuals have sought to acquire and use biological or toxin agents. Such weapons may be attractive to terrorists because of their potential to inflict mass casualties or to be used covertly. In addition, as the anthrax letter attacks of autumn 2001 clearly demonstrated, even small-scale attacks of limited lethality can elicit a disproportionate amount of terror and social disruption. The 2001 anthrax mailings were not the first incident of bioterrorism in the United States. In 1984, the Rajneeshees, a religious cult in Oregon, sought to reduce voter turnout and win control of the county government in an upcoming election by temporarily incapacitating local residents with a bacterial infection. In a test run of this scheme in September 1984, cult members contaminated 10 restaurant salad bars in a town in Oregon with salmonella, a common bacterium that causes food poisoning. The attack sickened 751 people, some seriously.
A decade later, members of a Japanese doomsday cult called Aum Shinrikyo released anthrax bacterial spores from the roof of a building in Tokyo. Fortunately, this attack failed because the cult produced and dispersed a harmless strain of anthrax that is used as a veterinary vaccine. Had Aum succeeded in acquiring a virulent strain and delivered it effectively, the casualties could have been in the thousands. Islamist terrorist groups such as al Qaeda have also sought to acquire biological weapons in the past. Former CIA Director George Tenet wrote in his memoir that in 1999, in parallel with planning for the September 11 terrorist attacks, al Qaeda launched a concerted effort to develop an anthrax weapon that could inflict mass casualties. The group hired a Pakistani veterinarian named Rauf Ahmad to set up a bioweapons laboratory in Afghanistan, but he became disgruntled with the amount of money he was paid and eventually quit. To continue the anthrax work, al Qaeda then hired a Malaysian terrorist, Yazid Sufaat, who had studied biology at California State University in Sacramento.
But in December 2001, after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Sufaat fled; he was captured by authorities as he tried to sneak back into Malaysia.
The cases of the Rajneeshees, Aum Shinrikyo, and al Qaeda underscore not only the dangerous potential of bioterrorism but also the technical difficulties that terrorist groups seeking such weapons are likely to encounter. Aum’s failure to carry out a mass-casualty attack, despite its access to scientific expertise and ample financial resources, suggests that one should not oversimplify or exaggerate the threat of bioterrorism. Developing a biological weapon that can inflict mass casualties is an intricate undertaking, both technically and operationally complex. Because of the difficulty of weaponizing and disseminating significant quantities of a biological agent in aerosol form, government officials and outside experts believe that no terrorist group currently has an operational capability to carry out a mass-casualty attack. But they could develop that capability quickly.
In 2001 congressional testimony, Charles E. Allen, Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis at the Department of Homeland Security, noted that the threat of bioterrorism could increase rapidly if a terrorist group were able to recruit technical experts who had experience in a national biological warfare program, with knowledge comparable to that of the perpetrator of the 2001 anthrax letter attacks. In other words, given the high level of know-how needed to use disease as a weapon to cause mass casualties, the United States should be less concerned that terrorists will become biologists and far more concerned that biologists will become terrorists. [Ed. emphasis mine.]
The last point bears repeating. We accept the validity of intelligence estimates about the current rudimentary nature of terrorist capabilities in the area of biological weapons but caution that the terrorists are trying to upgrade their capabilities and could do so by recruiting skilled scientists. In this respect the biological threat is greater than the nuclear; the acquisition of deadly pathogens, and their weaponization and dissemination in aerosol form, would entail fewer technical hurdles than the theft or production of weapons-grade uranium or plutonium and its assembly into an improvised nuclear device.
The difficulty of quantifying the bioterrorism threat to the United States does not make that threat any less real or compelling. It involves both motivation and capability, and the first ingredient is clearly present. Al Qaeda had an active biological weapons program in the past, and it is unlikely that the group has lost interest in employing infectious disease as a weapon. That roughly a half-dozen countries are suspected to possess or to be seeking biological weapons also provides ample grounds for concern.
Sources: Global Security Newswire; The Report of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism