Are We Safer Since 9/11? A Special Report Investigates
Seven years after 9/11, a deadly anthrax attack, and billions of dollars spent on homeland security, experts say we may be more vulnerable than ever to bioterrorism. A special report.
By Marcus Stern & Adam Piore
Leroy Richmond still can't believe his luck. In 2001 the postal worker and volunteer safety captain at the U.S. Postal Service's Brentwood facility in Washington, D.C., was among the first to see the bulletin from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention informing the office that two anthrax-dusted letters had passed through his workplace on their way to senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy.
Photo: The nation may be just as vulnerable to an attack today as it ever was. Indeed, some biodefense experts warn, we may be less safe. (Illustration by Anastasia Vasilakis)
But even as the 56-year-old father of three hastened around the cavernous building near the Capitol warning coworkers to keep an eye out for suspicious white powder, he never considered that the deadly bacterium might already be germinating in his lungs. "I was keeping everyone on high alert," recalls Richmond, a lanky retiree with a pencil-thin mustache. "Some people looked at me and said, 'Are you all right? You look like you have a cold.' "
When Richmond's wife, Susan, drove him to a local clinic about a week later, he was so weak, she had to help him out of the car. By then, he was struggling to breathe and couldn't even tell the doctor his name. After finding no obvious cause, Richmond's internist almost sent him home with some aspirin. At the last minute, though, the doctor reconsidered and sent him to the hospital, a decision that saved Richmond's life. Even there, it took two sets of X-rays and several examinations before the doctors suspected the truth: Richmond was infected by anthrax. "When you look at it, there was so much confusion," Richmond says. "The biggest reason I'm alive: an act of God."
Now, seven years after the attack, the idea that a heinous act such as this one-which sickened Richmond and 16 others, killed five, and terrorized a nation wholly unprepared and without defensecould go undetected for weeks seems impossible to him. Most Americans would make this assumption. Were such an attack to occur today, Richmond asserts from his home in suburban Virginia, "it would be totally different." The tainted letters would be detected quickly, he believes. Doctors would immediately recognize the symptoms of anthrax infection. If the attack were on a massive scale, rescuers would rush to the scene and decontaminate it. Fatalities would be unlikely.
But a special report for Reader's Digest by ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest, suggests otherwise. Despite some $48 billion in federal spending on biodefenseincluding a new nationwide network of research labs and a $1 billion detection system called BioWatch operating in more than 30 cities-the nation may be just as vulnerable to an attack today as it ever was. Indeed, some biodefense experts warn, we may be less safe.
In recent months, government auditors, public health experts, and outside watchdog groups have unearthed a litany of failures and mistakes in the nation's vast and burgeoning bio-defense program. In September, the Partnership for a Secure America, a bipartisan group of leading national-security experts, issued a report stating that the United States remains "dangerously vulnerable" to nuclear, chemical, and biological attacks.
Margaret Hamburg, MD, a former New York City health commissioner and a former assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, warns that another anthrax attack would likely still be met with "chaos, uncertainty, and delayed and missed diagnoses."
While higher-risk areas such as New York City tend to be further along, in many parts of the country, emergency plans to prepare hospitals for an influx of bioterrorism victims are still in early stages. "Individual hospitals have gotten more prepared," says Tara O'Toole, MD, director of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, who is completing a study on the subject commissioned by Health and Human Services. "But we still aren't able to care for large or sustained increases in patient demand such as you would see during a bioterror attack. We don't have rapid diagnostic tests that say you have anthrax or flu … even though the technology exists."
Frustrated weapons-proliferation experts complain that biodefense programs are haphazard and disorganized, spread across the Department of Homeland Security and at least 11 other departments and agencies, with no single person in charge. Critics point out that BioWatch can't detect pathogens released indoors, underground, on planes and buses, or in most subways. Others worry that the system is not capable of providing real-time information to first responders, potentially a fatal flaw.
But these troubling findings seem like mere side notes when compared with the main concern of some scientists: that government programs have heightened the level of danger by vastly increasing the number of researchers and labs authorized to handle deadly substances.
When the government released its case last summer against the man they believe engineered the 2001 anthrax attack, the possibility of an insider abusing the system to deadly effect became very real. While antiterrorist programs focused on international terrorism, this suspect was homegrown: He was a longtime research scientist named Bruce Ivins who worked in a government lab.
A similar incident, or one much worse, could happen again. In its efforts to protect Americans, the government has vastly increased the number of researchers with access to deadly agents. But, say critics, it has failed to implement sufficient oversight and stringent security procedures to screen them. Any terrorist looking to infiltrate a lab today has hundreds more targets to choose from than he did seven years ago. Brian Finlay, a senior associate at the Henry L. Stimson Center, a nonpartisan think tank, puts it bluntly: "There's no question that the proliferation of bioresearch is leaving us less secure by the day."
FROM TERROR TO ERROR
With its quaint brick buildings, wooded parks, and weekend tailgate parties, the campus of Texas A&M University hardly looks like a front in the war on terror. But teams of researchers there have long been part of the government's growing army of scientific soldiers.
Illustration: Biosafety Level-4 labs, which handle the most deadly pathogens, like Ebola, have tripled since 9/11. The number of Level-3 labs handling dangerous germs like anthrax has swelled to more that 1,350--too many to map. (Trevor Johnston)
Recently they have also become something else: poster children for the dangers inherent in the willy-nilly expansion of the nation's bioresearch program.
It all started when a private watchdog organization, the Sunshine Project, uncovered problems at one of the university's Biosafety Level-3 labs, which can handle "select agents"-dangerous pathogens, such as anthrax and tularemia, that can be aerosolized and used in terrorist attacks and for which a treatment or vaccine may exist. (BSL-4 labs handle select agents with no vaccine or cure, including Ebola and Lassa fever, as well as smallpox, which does have a vaccine.)
Last year, the CDC temporarily halted research on select agents at A&M when it found the school had allowed unauthorized access to contagious pathogens, misplaced vials of hazardous agents, and kept poor records on who entered the labs. Several employees showed signs of exposure to contagious and potentially fatal bacteria. The university, however, failed to report the cases.
In one troubling incident, on February 9, 2006, a PhD lab worker with no training in handling the highly infectious brucella bacteria, and no authorization to do so, was enlisted to clean out a chamber that aerosolizes pathogens. An investigation concluded that she wore ill-fitting protective goggles, a mistake that may have allowed the bacteria to enter her body through her eyes.
It was six weeks before the worker came down with flulike symptoms. It took 62 days to confirm the diagnosis of brucella infection. During much of that time, she "had resumed her normal activities, interacting with many people," the Government Accountability Office later wrote in its report. "It was fortunate that transmission beyond the initial exposed individual was difficult and that there was no risk of spreading the disease to the community," the GAO noted. "Many agents cause diseases that are easily transferred from human to human through coughing or fluid."
Nor is the A&M facility the only federally funded lab where shocking allegations have emerged. The institution's state rival, the University of Texas at Austin, now has two BSL-3 labs. Last June, Harold Davis, the associate vice president overseeing security compliance, resigned, accusing the university of resisting federal security guidelines. The university says it is in full compliance with federal regulations.
In September, a GAO report singled out security problems in two of the nation's BSL-4 labs. According to news reports, a lab at the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio, Texas, had an outside window looking directly into the room where dangerous materials were handled, and the only vehicle barrier was a gate arm that swung across the road. The other lab, at Georgia State University in Atlanta, lacked complete security barriers and monitored cameras.
Even the CDC is not impervious to mishaps. At one lab a recent lightning storm caused a power outage, and the lab's backup generators shut down. Although no pathogens were on the site at the time, electricity to a critical safety system was cut off. In another case at the same $214 million facility, staffers duct-taped a door leading to a containment area when its lock broke. Even when the lock was repaired, the duct tape stayed on for a year as an "enhancement."
To some public health experts, the growing list of careless accidents and potential disasters illustrates fundamental flaws in a system that was built too fast, has become too big, and still operates with too little oversight. In the wake of 9/11 and the deadly anthrax attack that followed, the government made tens of billions of federal dollars available for bioterror research. And the National Institutes of Health was encouraging labs to expand into this kind of research. Thousands of microbiologists turned to this rewarding new field.
Illustration: (Trevor Johnston, Courtesy Toronto Star, from Geo and Richard Ebright)
The result was that hundreds of new labs began storing and handling pathogens. "Suddenly there were swarms of people wanting to work on this issue," says Dr. Hamburg, who now serves as senior scientist at the Nuclear Threat Initiative. She recalls the frenetic atmosphere when the spending surge began in 2002: "There was lots of money-it was just a frenzy at the feeding trough."
All told, over the last seven years, the number of labs that possess select agents multiplied more than twentyfold, estimates Richard H. Ebright of the Waksman Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers University. Over 1,350 public and private BSL-3 labs and 15 BSL-4 labs-and some 15,000 scientists-have been authorized to handle these types of disease-causing and often fatal agents.
Many experts defend the proliferation of labs, including Dr. O'Toole of the Center for Biosecurity, who engaged in biological warfare games in the '90s that helped galvanize biodefense. "We can fight about the right number of labs," she says, "but the more researchers you have working on this, the more likely you're going to get effective medicine and vaccines against these threats."
Nevertheless, years after the anthrax attack, federal oversight of many labs still relies on self-policing, according to a 2007 GAO study. The "limited federal oversight that does exist for high-containment labs is fragmented among different federal agencies," the report stated. It went on to say that "no agency is responsible for determining the aggregate risks associated with the expansion of these labs."
All BSL-4 labs and the BSL-3 labs that handle select agents are required to register with the Department of Agriculture or the CDC. But, experts say, more unregistered BSL-3 facilities working with pathogens that are not considered select agents but are still dangerous, such as tuberculosis, HIV, and typhoid, are operating under the radar, increasing the likelihood of accidents and other problems.
It's not even the potential for sloppy lab procedures that worries some scientists the most. It's the lack of effective mechanisms to screen those working in them. For instance, researchers handling select agents are required to undergo checks by the Department of Justice. Among the factors that would disqualify a subject: previous commitment to a mental institution, a federal crime, or association with terrorist groups. But the investigations are nowhere near as stringent as those used for new FBI or CIA hires. It wouldn't be hard, say critics, to slip in through the cracks.
"The simplest, most likely path" for terrorists looking to acquire bioweapons capability "is to obtain bioweapons agents and training by penetrating a U.S. research project," says Rutgers's Ebright. "One well-placed graduate student, postdoctoral fellow, or technician … it's only a matter of time."
The case of Ivins-who committed suicide shortly after the FBI identified him as the 2001 anthrax killer-is a powerful indictment of the system of background checks. Ivins reportedly battled mental health problems and told a therapist earlier this year that he'd experienced homicidal thoughts as far back as graduate school.
DETECTING THE DANGER
Another concern is the government's effort to set up a system to detect and respond to bioterror attacks. A key component of that initiative is BioWatch, in which technicians have deployed a system of sensors in more than 30 undisclosed cities to detect some airborne biological threats, including anthrax, plague, and smallpox.
Illustration: TOP BIOWEAPONS
* ANTHRAX: Bacterial infection; can cause fever, breathing problems, vomiting blood, sores on face, arms, and hands.
* SMALLPOX: Viral infection spread by face-to-face contact; causes fever, rash of red spots over body; often fatal.
* PLAGUE: Bacterial infection; may cause painful lymph glands, fever, chills, breathing problems; can lead to rapid death.
* EBOLA: Hemorrhagic fever; symptoms include internal and external bleeding; highly fatal; no known treatment. (Anastasia Vasilakis)
In theory, BioWatch would set off early-warning systems in the Department of Homeland Security, which also oversees the National Biosurveillance Integration Center, charged with integrating and analyzing data from 12 different agencies to ensure the earliest possible detection of a biological attack. It's a comforting idea. There's only one problem: It takes as long as 34 hours for threats to register with BioWatch, according to the GAO, because the air samples are manually collected and taken for analysis in labs. By the time results are analyzed, individuals exposed to the contaminants would likely have scattered, limiting the ability of first responders to contain the outbreak.
Efforts are under way to develop new technologies. But most experts agree the system is a long way from providing real-time detection or even registering the full arsenal of biological threats facing the United States. As Dr. Hamburg says, 9/11 led to a "lot of wishful thinking that new technologies might be the answer. There were a lot of investments madesome that made sense, some that didn't."
LOOKING FOR LEADERSHIP
How best to address the wasteful funding and bad planning in our biodefense programs? Milton Leitenberg, a University of Maryland researcher who authored a 2005 report on biodefense published by the Army War College, argues that a careful review and assessment of the various terrorist threats the country faces is essential, to be quickly followed by the designation of a person, or at the very least one agency, empowered to make changes. When biodefense programs were implemented after 9/11, he says, "there was really no significant public figure saying 'Just a minutelet's do an assessment first.' "
Dr. Hamburg hopes that the government's misconceptions about and mistakes in its biosecurity efforts will be faced squarely by the next Congress and especially by the incoming president and his national-security team. The new administration is going to have to "make some hard decisions about what programs just haven't fulfilled their promise or never made sense in the beginning, and which programs have value but need to be strengthened or extended," she says.
Whatever happens, Leroy Richmond will be watching. Seven years after the attack, tossing a football around with his 13-year-old son or vacuuming around the house is enough to exhaust him. Unable to return to work because of his health, he sometimes loses his train of thought midconversation"senior moments," he insists, that are unrelated to his age. But he trusts the government he worked for all those decades to get it right. He believes it's only a matter of time.
ProPublica's Marcus Stern received a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for his role in breaking the story of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham's political corruption. Adam Piore is a former editor at Newsweek. For more on this story, including links and resources, go to propublica.org.