WASHINGTON – The United States is still “very poorly prepared” for an anthrax attack six years after a 2001 attack targeted Congress and television broadcasters, said a former Central Intelligence Agency director Wednesday.
“There is very little attention being paid to biological weapons,” said former CIA director James Woolsey. “And that’s a shame.”
Woolsey spoke at a news conference called to release a report from ExecutiveAction, a Washington, D.C.-based consultant, analyzing three anthrax attack scenarios, including a hypothetical attack at the Academy Awards.
Neil Livingston, ExecutiveAction chief executive officer, said the report was meant to be an “educational document” for the public and to show the risks that America faces.
“Although much has been done to prepare for an attack, we are still vulnerable,” he said.
Speakers were concerned about the ability of terrorists to get anthrax through doctors and scientists.
“Terrorists could recruit a scientist at a laboratory who had access to a lethal strain of anthrax,” Livingston said. “Alternatively, they could break into a laboratory, bribe a scientist or threaten a scientist to obtain a sample.”
Livingston said that once obtained, anthrax “can be smuggled into just about any building in the United States.”
“Someone could just open up a sugar packet (filled with anthrax), spread it on a table and then leave the room,” he said.
Livingston pointed to the mystery that still surrounds the 2001 attack — that struck in Florida, Connecticut, New York and metropolitan Washington, D.C. — as evidence that anthrax is on the back burner.
Stephen Hatfill, a Fort Detrick scientist, was a person of interest in the attacks, but was not charged.
Five people died in the attack.
“The most alarming thing is that we have not solved the 2001 anthrax attacks,” Livingston said. “Half of my colleagues believe that (Hatfill) carried (the attacks) out, and half believe he’s innocent.”
Though the amount of anthrax used in the attacks was small, it was still enough to shut down the Hart Senate Office Building for five months and require millions of dollars in decontamination costs.
If terrorists were to step up the amounts of anthrax or “get creative” in another attack, the results could be devastating beyond the loss of life, said David Wright, president of the Annapolis-based biodefense company PharmAthene.
“A one-gallon, Ziploc bag of anthrax is enough to destroy the U.S. economy,” Wright said. “I don’t want to scare people, but this is scary.”
The report also focused on the aftermath of an attack, and called for increased stockpiles of antibiotics, therapeutics (which provide protection after antibiotics lose their effectiveness) and a modern vaccine.
The anthrax vaccine is solely available to the military and is a six-shot sequence, Livingston said.
Wright said the federal government needs to step up its funding through Project Bioshield – a program created in 2004 to provide medical countermeasures in case of a biological attack.
Bioshield has received $5.6 billion in funding so far, a “good first step” but far short of what is needed to protect the American people, Wright said.
“We need to be more aggressive,” he said. “We hope this report will be a call to action.”
Wright estimated that between $40 billon and $50 billion would be needed for Project Bioshield, calling the funding now a “drop in the bucket.”
“Even with a blank check it would take us two years to protect the American people (from an anthrax attack),” Wright said.
Livingston said the money would be well worth the devastation the nation could avoid.
Speakers said the next anthrax attack is a matter of “when,” not “if.”
Woolsey’s belief in the inevitability of a biological terrorist attack is derived from the terrorist mindset.
“There’s nothing in those beliefs that puts a constraint on dying horribly while killing massively,” he said.
Woolsey said the fanaticism of terrorists makes him nostalgic for the days of the Cold War.
“I don’t miss the oppression of eastern Europe,” Woolsey said. “But there are days when I miss the Soviets when I think of Al Qaeda and Hezbollah.
“The Soviets were a difficult enemy but one we could deter and contain.”