Cost of bioterror false alarms, anthrax hoaxes rises
Published 11 March 2009
The U.S. government has spent more than $50 billion since the 2001 anthrax attacks to beef up U.S. defenses against biological attacks; there has not been another attack so far, but the cost of hoaxes and false alarms is rising steeply
In the seven years since the fall 2001 anthrax attacks alleged to have been carried out by Bruce Ivins (see “Scientists Reveal How Culprit in 2001 Anthrax Attacks Was Found, 27 February 2009 HS Daily Wire), U.S. government agencies have spent more than $50 billion to beef up biological defenses.
Seattle Times‘s Bob Drogin writes that no other anthrax attacks have occurred, but a flood of hoaxes and false alarms have raised the cost considerably through lost work, evacuations, decontamination efforts, first responders’ time, and the emotional distress of the victims.
This, experts say, is often the hoaxsters’ goal. “It’s easy, it’s cheap and very few perpetrators get caught,” said Leonard Cole, a political scientist at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, who studies bioterrorism. “People do it for a sense of power.” Among the recent targets:
- Nearly all 50 governors’ offices
- About 100 U.S. embassies
- 52 banks
- Ticket booths at Disneyland
- Mormon temples in Salt Lake City and Los Angeles
- Town halls in Batavia, Ohio, and Ellenville, New York
- A funeral home and a day-care center in Ocala, Florida
- A sheriff’s office in Eagle, Colorado
- Homes in Ely River, New Mexico
The FBI has investigated about 1,000 such “white-powder events” as possible terrorist threats since the start of 2007, spokesman Richard Kolko said. The bureau responds if a letter contains a written threat or is mailed to a federal official. In one recent case, emergency crews cleared and sealed a DHS office in Washington, D.C., after a senior official, who had received a package at home containing white powder and a dead fish, brought it to work for inspection. The contents proved harmless, a spokeswoman said.
Drogin writes that the FBI is trying to figure out who mailed about 150 letters late last year that contained powder and threatening notes. The envelopes were sent from the Dallas area to U.S. embassies abroad and most governors. One letter was addressed to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who left office two years ago. When it arrived in Boston, someone marked “return to sender” on the envelope and popped it back in the mail. The return address was the FBI office in El Paso, Texas.
White powder spilled out when an FBI clerk there opened it on 12 February. Officials emptied the Federal Justice Center, sending more than 300 FBI, Drug Enforcement Agency, and other law-enforcement personnel home. The powder was baking soda, said Mark White, an FBI spokesman in Dallas.
The Justice Department was able to bring criminal charges in two other high-profile cases. Richard Goyette, 47, pleaded not guilty last Thursday in Amarillo, Texas, to charges of mailing 65 threatening letters to banks and other financial institutions in October. The envelopes contained white powder and a warning the recipient would die within ten days. In the second case, a federal grand jury in Sacramento, California, indicted Marc Keyser, 66, in November for allegedly mailing 120 hoax letters to newspapers, a member of Congress, a McDonald’s, a Starbucks and other targets.
In the past two fiscal years, records show, U.S. postal inspectors responded to more than 5,800 reports of letters and packages containing suspicious substances. Only a few-dozen cases have resulted in arrests.
Drogin notes that scientists disagree over whether the nation is more vulnerable to an anthrax attack today than it was in 2001. The U.S. Postal Service in 2003 installed devices to check for airborne pathogens or poisons at the nation’s 271 mail-processing and distribution centers. They have yet to detect a threat, said Peter Rendina, spokesman for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
Some experts fear that the boom in biodefense spending carries a danger. They worry that a tenfold increase in laboratories authorized to work with dangerous bio-agents increases the risk of leaks. The current figures:
- There are 14 BSL-4 labs in the United States (6 already in operation; 3 completed but not yet operational; 5 under construction)
- 15,000 U.S. scientists are authorized to work with deadly pathogens
- More than 7,200 scientists are approved to work with anthrax
These critics say that by vastly increasing the number of researchers and labs authorized to handle deadly substances, the government has made the United States more vulnerable to bioterror attacks (see “Anti-bioterror Programs May Make U.S. More Vulnerable,” 14 November 2008 HS Daily Wire).
Let’s face the fact that the threat of biological attack is now a part of everyday life in America, so why not be prepared to quickly identify credible threats from the hoax. We at AdVnt believe it just makes credible sense to be prepared today.