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.
In September 2001, an American public already reeling from the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history was stunned by news that envelopes containing anthrax had been delivered via the U.S. mail to targets in the news media. A week after September 11, letters containing 1-2 grams of dried anthrax bacterial spores were sent to three major television broadcast networks, the New York Post, and American Media International (AMI) in Florida, a publisher of supermarket tabloids. On October 5, the tainted letters claimed their first victim: Robert Stevens, a photo editor at AMI, died of inhalational anthrax. On October 9, two more letters bearing the same New Jersey postmark and containing a more refined preparation of dried anthrax spores were mailed to the Washington, D.C., offices of Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy.
During their journey, the anthrax letters passed through automated mail-sorting machines that forced the microscopic anthrax spores out through tiny pores in the envelopes, thereby infecting a number of postal workers. The tainted sorting machines also cross-contaminated other letters, which were delivered and sickened some of their recipients. By November 2001, 22 people in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Florida, and the District of Columbia had contracted anthrax, half of them through the skin (causing cutaneous anthrax) and the other half through the lungs (causing inhalational anthrax). Five of the 11 victims who contracted inhalational anthrax died.
Former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw, who was one of the targets of the anthrax letters, testified about his experience at the Commission's public hearing in New York City. About a week after September 11, 2001, Brokaw said, two of his assistants handled a letter addressed to him that contained a granular powder. Several days after coming in contact with the powder, both women developed fever, malaise, and ugly black skin lesions. Their mysterious illness touched off several days of confusion and missteps. Three times Brokaw was told by various health officials, including experts at the U.S. Army's biodefense research center at Fort Detrick, in Maryland, that his assistants' skin lesions had been caused by the bite of a brown recluse spider. Finally, nearly three weeks after the initial exposures, officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made the correct diagnosis of cutaneous...