The Unsolved Case Of Anthrax
Oct. 15, 2001, is a day I'll never forget. On that day one of my staff members opened an anthrax-laced letter addressed to me, and my office became a part of the deadliest bioterrorism attack in U.S. history. Anthrax was also sent through the mail to a number of other people and organizations -- the National Enquirer, the New York Post, broadcaster Tom Brokaw and Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont. These attacks killed five people, injured 17 others, disrupted operations all over Capitol Hill and alarmed an entire nation.
Twenty-eight people, including 20 on my staff, tested positive for anthrax exposure. Though relieved that they were spared the horror of the disease, I am reminded every day that the families and friends of five others were not so lucky. Robert Stevens in Florida, Kathy Nguyen in New York, Ottilie Lundgren in Connecticut, and Thomas Morris Jr. and Joseph Curseen in Washington were all victims of the attack.
Five years later, the alarm I and many others experienced on that dark day has been replaced by a deep discouragement and dismay.
The investigation's trail has gone cold. Physical evidence that might have been gathered in the first days and weeks after the attacks is long gone. Meanwhile, if a recent article in The Post is any guide, questions remain in the scientific community about the composition of the anthrax and the level of technological expertise required to manufacture it -- even though there is no question about its extreme lethality.
While the FBI has made gains in its scientific capabilities and understanding of anthrax, its slowness to move and its lack of direction in the early stages of the investigation led to missed opportunities. In this age when we face a new kind of enemy, we need to be able to adapt our counterterrorism and law enforcement strategies to meet the threat.
We ought to use this fifth anniversary of the attack to rededicate ourselves to solving the crime and ensuring that we are better prepared to confront similar attacks.
First, the FBI and the Justice Department must treat this investigation with urgency. Solving the crime would send an important message to the perpetrator(s), to those who are contemplating similar attacks and to the American people.
Second, the Sept. 11 commission called for the creation of an FBI national security workforce and for a recalibration of the FBI mission -- from sole concentration on its criminal justice mission and toward increased focus on national security. Late last year the commission gave the FBI a C on its progress. A recent examination of the bureau found that new agents get insufficient counterterrorism training and that the role of analysts is underappreciated. These reforms, like the investigation of the attack itself, need to be implemented with urgency.
Third, progress on the investigation and needed reforms are hindered by a lack of congressional oversight. Part of that is the FBI's fault: Even the targets of this attack have been denied updates on the investigation since mid-2004, the last time I was briefed on it. But Congress cannot and should not be given a free pass on the issue. There has been dramatically little oversight of FBI reorganization in the two years since the Sept. 11 commission's initial report was released and the year since the commission released its review of progress toward implementing its sensible recommendations.
Finally, there has been precious little reform of our public health infrastructure to ensure that we are prepared for future terrorist attacks and health emergencies. Every American deserves to know that he or she will receive the best care this country has to offer if and when the next disaster strikes.
Regrettably, we learned after Hurricane Katrina that emergency health services are both scarce and fragile in this country. Moreover, our funding for public health infrastructure has lagged, exacerbating the crisis in emergency capacity. And efforts to stockpile necessary drugs have been usurped by inefficient subsidies to drug companies and by bureaucratic indecision.
It's been five years since the anthrax attacks shook our country and took the lives of five Americans. We cannot permit another five to pass before we close this chapter and prepare for the next one.
The writer, a former Democratic senator from South Dakota who served as Senate majority leader, works with the Center for American Progress and for the law firm Alston & Bird.