Pentagon officials should not have given antibiotics to 900 defense workers suspected of exposure in last month's anthrax scare without consulting local health officials, Virginia representatives told a congressional panel yesterday.
The decision was among the mistakes caused by flawed scientific testing, poor communications and vague chains of command, according to Pentagon and regional government reviews disclosed to a House Government Reform subcommittee on national security.
Chairman Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said the federal and local responses to the March 14 mailroom alerts at the Pentagon and office buildings in Fairfax County were marred by an inability to determine the facts, swiftly communicate the risks to the public and decide who was in charge.
Lawmakers said the breakdowns were troubling because so much time has passed since the 2001 anthrax attacks and earlier terrorist strike against the Pentagon. They said they feared the Department of Homeland Security and its federal and state partners would not learn from last month's scare, a false alarm triggered by cross-contamination at a contract defense laboratory.
"What you had was the homeland security equivalent of the fog of war," said Philip Schaenman, president of the TriData division of System Planning Corp. of Arlington, hired by Virginia officials to review the incident. "In most situations . . . you're not going to have good information. . . . You need to deal with it and you need better protocols."
Klaus Schafer, the defense secretary's deputy assistant for chemical and biological defense, and John N. Jester, director of the Pentagon Force Protection Agency, said the errors began March 11, when Commonwealth Biotechnologies Inc. of Richmond probably mishandled a sample taken from a filter in the Pentagon Remote Delivery Facility, which adjoins the Pentagon.
The problems were compounded because a mailroom contractor, Vistronix Corp. of McLean, violated procedures by releasing mail to 20,000 Pentagon users early March 14 without awaiting for final test results, Jester said.
When the Richmond lab mistakenly confirmed its results about 9 a.m. March 14, the Pentagon shut down the delivery facility, quarantined mail and notified Arlington County and a regional automated telephone alert system. But the system lacks a way to confirm that regional governments are receiving the message, he said. Also, all federal agencies did not become aware of the possible anthrax mail attack until four hours later, Jester said.
Meanwhile, Pentagon officials put 236 delivery facility workers on medication. An additional 600 workers were locked down in place and provided medication after another alert was raised at 2 p.m. at a Baileys Crossroads office complex that houses defense workers and contractors. It turned out that the latter alarm was not caused by a biohazard sensor but a jam in a filtration hood unit, Jester said.
Since the alerts, the Pentagon has turned over mailroom testing to an internal laboratory, required results to be reported in 24 hours, tightened mail delivery rules and started reviewing notification protocols, he said.
Arlington County Fire Chief James H. Schwartz said the Pentagon violated emergency management protocols adopted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when it distributed powerful antibiotics without consultation. Public health officials limit the use of such drugs because they have strong side effects and overuse can gradually reduce their effectiveness.
"The fact that the Department of Defense made the decision to pass out prophylactic medications without consent of local public health officials, that is a decision that should be made out of the unified command structure," Schwartz said.
Jester acknowledged a chain-of-command problem but defended the decision to distribute the medication. Jester said the decision came five days after possible exposure was thought to have occurred.