The Overlooked Attack

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

PRESIDENT BUSH, not unexpectedly, used his visit to the FBI Academy at Quantico yesterday to praise the brave men and women in and out of uniform who are engaged in the global war on terrorism. His speech reviewed successes against the al Qaeda network in the Persian Gulf and Southeast Asia, linked the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan to domestic measures to defend the homeland, and touted the resolve of his administration to build a successful democracy in Iraq and strike at terrorists "before they can strike our country and kill our citizens." Missing from his address, however, was any reference to the strikes on U.S. soil that occurred in the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, from a biological agent called anthrax -- a grave, ongoing and unsolved threat.

The human and economic costs of the anthrax attacks, the nation's first major act of bioterrorism, are too enormous to have been neglected in a presidential speech on terrorism. A small amount of powder in five letters managed to kill five people in Washington, Florida and New York, and sickened 17. The U.S. postal system was brought to its knees in several cities. Congressional offices were evacuated. The cost of responding to the attacks on the U.S. Postal Service alone reached an estimated $1 billion, and that's not counting the additional costs of protecting its employees, customers and the mail system from future exposure to biohazardous material, according to a 2003 Postal Service report. The cost of cleaning up the Hart Senate Office Building and other offices on Capitol Hill ran into tens of millions of dollars. Testing and capital investments by government and nongovernment entities in response to the attacks have required spending millions more. What's worse, the threat of attack by a weaponized biological agent remains as real as it was the day those contaminated letters arrived at the offices of a tabloid newspaper in Florida, on Capitol Hill, and in postal facilities and media outlets in and around New York.

The threat is not only present, it is by all accounts increasing. The evidence of terrorists developing biological weapons has been established by a presidential commission. Missing, however, is evidence that the administration, in praising its plans to protect the homeland, is as focused on the threat posed to the country from biological, chemical and radiological weapons as it is on fighting the enemy abroad. The person or people behind the anthrax attacks were here at home, and may still be here, undetected and certainly uncaught. Quantico provided an excellent opportunity for the president to tell the nation how his administration intends to stay a step ahead of this kind of enemy by producing vaccines and treatments needed for the most serious biological and chemical agents. His failure to do so is one more warning of a biological war on American soil that we are not yet prepared to win.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company