Friday, August 01, 2008

Fort Detrick anthrax case shows homegrown threat is biggest bioterrorism concern

After 9/11, much-publicized anthrax attacks on Congress and the media set off massive new spending in biodefense research. But in retrospect, that decision funneled money precisely to those most likely to infect US civilians, either intentionally or by accident.

As exhibit one in making that case, this week a top US Army bioterrorism specialist killed himself after learning he would be prosecuted over the 2001 anthrax attacks. Reports the London Daily Mail:

Biodefence researcher Bruce Ivins, 62, had been warned about the impending prosecution shortly before his death on Tuesday after swallowing a massive dose of painkillers.

He had worked for the past 18 years at the U.S. government's biodefence laboratories at Fort Detrick, Maryland.

The laboratory has been at the centre of the FBI's investigation of the anthrax attacks, which killed five people.

The anthrax was sent through the mail to media organisations and politicians in 2001 shortly after the September 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington.

The anthrax virus killed five people and sickened 17 others, crippled national postal services, shut down a Senate office building and spread fear of further terrorism.

For several years after 9/11, I served on Texas' Bioterrorism Preparedness Coordinating Committee representing ACLU of Texas. I became convinced from that experience that the greatest threat of releasing toxic biopathogens comes not from Islamic terrorists but accidents or malevolent actions by an expanding cadre of US bioterrorism researchers. Quite a few of these scientists work in Texas, particularly in Galveston and San Antonio, as well as in a number of smaller labs around the state.

The 2001 anthrax attack offers a perfect example how this home grown threat outpaces any bioterror threat from our nation's enemies. Referencing the case in a letter to a Texas Senate committee in 2004 (by which time investigators had identified Fort Detrick, MD scientists as the source of the attack), I wrote that:
According to published reports, that particular strain was first retrieved from a cow near the Texas-Mexico border in 1981, cultured at Fort Detrick, Maryland by US Army scientists, and turned into an aerosolized, or “weaponized” form at Dugway Army Base in Utah. The weaponized anthrax was then shipped back to Fort Detrick via commercial Federal Express delivery service. Investigators and independent analysts now believe a US-trained scientist at one of these facilities, probably in Maryland, may be responsible.

So, as you consider bioterrorism threats to Texas, always keep in mind that in America’s highest profile bioterrorism case in history, terrorists used America’s so-called 'defensive' research offensively against us. That’s also the most likely scenario in the future.
Though investigators originally accused the wrong person, it now it appears undeniable that one or more US scientists were the source of the 2001 attacks.

The other, perhaps more significant danger from expanded bioterror research is the threat of pure accidents, which can create just as much threat as an overt attack. Last summer an Aggie biodefense researcher was accidentally exposed in an incident that could have easily infected others. Several other cases cited in my 2004 letter reinforce the risks from expanded bioterror research and funding:
  • A Texas Tech professor lost or destroyed 30 vials of Bubonic Plague somewhere on the Lubbock campus, then lied to federal investigators about it. The professor was convicted in federal court, in part, for carrying vials of Bubonic Plague on commercial airline flights to and from Tanzania without registering them with US Customs, and sending plague vials via Federal Express without informing the carrier they were transporting bioagents.

  • A researcher at the UT Health Science Center in Houston was exposed to Anthrax at a BSL-3 lab, doing tests on some of the Anthrax used in the 2001 attack on Washington.

  • A package headed for UTMB Galveston filled with West-Nile-Virus-infected bird remains exploded in an Ohio Federal Express facility, causing its evacuation.

I've not been tracking the subject as closely in recent years but am certain by now this list could expanded. The denouement of the Fort Detrick case confirms my earlier conclusion that US biodefense policy remains misguided and based on a faulty set of assumptions. The source of the next infection from bioterror agents won't be a pathogen concocted by Al Qaeda scientists in some Pakistani mountain redoubt. As in 2001, it will almost certainly occur at the hands of American scientists, either accidentally or - as at Fort Detrick - through some perverse crime of opportunity.

MORE: Bioweapons an unlikely means of terrorist attack


Anonymous said...

And as someone who was Army Chemical Corps (MOS 54E30) in the 1980's, I wholly agree. The really nasty stuff being cultured to find defenses against it can always be used as weapons, given the opportunity.

The really interesting thing about all the latest regarding this matter is the extraordinary lack of statements regarding possible motivation...if he truly was the culprit. Usually, there's some evidence left behind by people who perpetrate terrorist acts; look at the recent business of the UU church being attacked by a gunman who professed he hated liberals. He had several books in his possession that seemed to have provided him the intellectual ammo to justify his own acts. What was found in the biowarfare guy's home? So far, nothing's been said.

Anonymous said...

It appears that Dr Bruce E Ivins was being literally harassed to death by the FBI. The FBI executed not one but two search warrants of his house, they marched him out of his lab and then were threatening him with the death sentence. His mistake was to admit that he cleaned up an accidental spill of anthrax left by a co-worker. The man had published over 33 peer-reviewed articles and was one of the leading anthrax vaccine experts in the United States. He was stable and not a radical.

Just read his letter to the editor of the Fredrick Maryland News-Post newspaper:

Dr. Bruce Ivins wrote several letters to the editors in recent years. Below is a list of letters he wrote dating back to March 5, 1998.

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End of 'dialogue'
Originally published August 24, 2006 Rabbi Morris Kosman is entirely correct in summarily rejecting the demands of the Frederick Imam for a "dialogue."

By blood and faith, Jews are God's chosen, and have no need for "dialogue" with any gentile. End of "dialogue."

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Study suggests genetic component for homosexuality
Originally published December 29, 2004

Readers of The Frederick News-Post were recently informed via letter to the editor ("Gay marriage not supportable," Dec. 26), that "the newest studies indicate that you are not born gay."

I'm a scientist, as well as a married heterosexual, and I'd be very interested in learning what those "newest studies" are. Hopefully they are based upon scientific study, rather than political, social, cultural or religious ideology. I wonder if the letter writer is familiar with an article in the December 2004, issue of the Journal of Genetics, entitled, "Excess of Counterclockwise Scalp Hair-Whorl Rotation in Homosexual Men." The article (in pdf format) can be found at

The author, Amar Klar, (a geneticist who works in Frederick) states in the final sentence of the study summary, "These results suggest that sexual preference may be influenced in a significant proportion of homosexual men by a biological/genetic factor that also controls direction of hair-whorl rotation."

It's a very interesting paper, regardless what side you take on the debate of how individuals gain their sexual preference.

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Conservative Christians now feeling their oats
Originally published November 21, 2004

I would like to comment on the letter to the editor, "Wants off Christian Nation Express," of Nov. 12.

I am certainly pleased that the writer is dedicated to service in the love of God, even though I find her theological focus on agony and suffering rather than the hope, joy and salvation of the resurrection to be puzzling.

Whether Americans like it or not, the results of the presidential election have propelled charismatic and evangelical Christians into new heights of political power. Many of those individuals would agree that the laws of this nation should be compatible with the Gospel, if not actually based upon it.

Whether we're on the "Christian Nation Express" or not, we all need to be ready for a wild political ride these next four years through a landscape of issues deemed important by conservative Christians.

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All aboard!
Originally published November 09, 2004

I read Deborah Carter's column of Nov. 7, "Election blues," and I have three comments for the good woman, and for everybody else, as well.

First, it's clear that views like hers would put Jesus on that cross again. Second, thy loom and churn best be still, come the Sabbath. Third, you can get on board or get left behind, because that Christian Nation Express is pulling out of the station!

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Meachum right, well almost right
Originally published March 18, 2002

I don't usually agree with Roy Meachum's opinions, but his "Catholic tragedy" (March 13) was quite on the money — almost.

The Roman Catholic Church should learn from other equally worthy Christian denominations and eagerly welcome female clergy as well as married clergy.

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Argumentum ad hominem
Originally published March 27, 2001

At a recent meeting reported on in The News-Post ("Mayor's unity meeting ends in insults," March 21), Tim Schramm was reported to have faulted certain public forums as "... unproductive, because people use them to promote private agendas." Noted local lawyer and activist, Daniel Mahone, responded by loudly and repeatedly calling Mr. Schramm a "jerk." It is unfortunate that Mr. Mahone had to resort to an argumentum ad hominem, rather than present his opposing views in a reasoned and cogent manner. Mr. Schramm must feel pleased that his argument was of sufficient merit to compel Mr. Mahone to attack him rather than what he said.

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Originally published February 05, 1999

Well, I've switched from WFMD to WTOP (1500 AM), thank you very much. Capstar booted Mike Gibbons off the "Morning News Express" and disposed of the "Mitchell and Miller" program. The company dealt with other persons and programs at the station in a similar manner..

In their place they have given us profanity, racial insults and listener abuse. I tuned into WFMD's "John and Ken" program a few weeks ago. One of the hosts unashamedly used "G--d---" on the air, then a few moments later told a caller, "You talk like a black person!".


A few days later I tried WFMD's "Mike Gallagher" program. He referred to some of his listeners as "pinheads."

Click. Again..

Capstar owes a special apology to African-American residents of the area, and local businesses should seriously rethink their commitment to sponsoring racial insensitivity, profanity and abuse on WFMD..

As for me, I find the news, weather and sports format of WTOP to be quite acceptable -- and far more civil.

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Moral views not a new trend
Originally published March 05, 1998

Among the front-page articles in The News-Post of Feb. 27 was a rather ominous one entitled "Panel OKs funding for assisted suicide."

The news report dealt with a decision by the Oregon Health Services Commission that assisted suicide should be funded by state taxpayers. Commission chairman Alan Bates excoriated those whose beliefs led them to oppose the commission's decision, and asserted that "religious opponents have no right to impose their moral views on others."

From that statement it is clear that Dr. Bates' knowledge of medicine is substantially greater than his familiarity with American history.

Even before America was a nation, there was strong opposition to slavery from the religious group known as the Quakers, or the "Society of Friends." They were steadfast in their belief that slavery was a sin, and this belief led them to be actively involved in the Abolitionist Movement and the "Underground Railroad" in this country.

We should all be thankful that these religious opponents were quite willing to "impose their moral views on others."

In more recent times we need look no further than those ministers, rabbis and priests whose beliefs brought them to the forefront in the battle against forced, racial segregation in America. Despite real threats to life and limb, they persisted in their efforts to "impose their moral views on others."

Today we frequently admonish people who oppose abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide or capital punishment to keep their religious, moral, and philosophical beliefs to themselves.

Before dispensing such admonishments in the future, perhaps we should gratefully consider some of our country's most courageous, historical figures who refused to do so.

Anonymous said...

Why didn't the FBI every check into Philip Zack as a suspect ?

see these two articles:



Anonymous said...

I know that an Israeli who had been fired was caught breaking into the same laboratory. His name was Dr Zack, but because of America's "special relationship" with Israel, he was simply deported, but most think he was the culprit and the gov. was covering that up, and looking for another person they could pin the blame on.

Anonymous said...

You neglected to include this: