Anthrax Case Raises Doubt On Security
Gaps in Lab Safeguards Prompt Calls for Investigations
Friday, August 8, 2008; Page A01
Revelations about anthrax scientist Bruce E. Ivins's mental instability have exposed what congressional leaders and security experts call startling gaps in how the federal government safeguards its most dangerous biological materials, even as the number of bioscience laboratories has grown rapidly since the 2001 terror attacks.
An estimated 14,000 scientists and technicians at about 400 institutions have clearances to access viruses and bacteria such as the Bacillus anthracis used in the anthrax attacks, but security procedures vary by facility, and oversight of the labs is spread across multiple government agencies.
In Ivins's case, the microbiologist expressed homicidal thoughts to a therapist eight years ago and grappled with mental health problems long before he emerged as the FBI's lead suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks. But his comments never came up in security and medical screenings at the Army lab where he worked.
"The system is supposed to catch and report that sort of information," said Jeffrey Adamovicz, who supervised Ivins at the Army's Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick. "I had never heard of any of this before. His previous supervisor had never heard of any of this before. His current supervisor had never heard of any of this before."
The case sparked calls yesterday in Congress for investigations into whether the labs are physically secure and whether too many scientists have been granted clearances to handle deadly biological agents.
"I think we need to tighten up the procedures," Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), chairman of a House Homeland Security subcommittee, said in an interview. "It surely seems as though [Ivins] was a troubled man and something should have picked this up earlier. He should have been rescreened and reevaluated in terms of his ability to have the access that he had."
Sen. Susan M. Collins (R-Maine), the ranking member of the Senate's Homeland Security committee, said in a statement that the Ivins case "raises serious questions about the effectiveness" of lab security.
More than a year before the anthrax attacks, Ivins told a counselor that he was interested in a young woman who lived out of town and that he had "mixed poison" that he took with him when he went to watch her play in a soccer match, the counselor said in an interview Wednesday.
Even though the therapist told police and Ivins's one-time psychiatrist, Ivins continued to have unfettered lab access at Fort Detrick, where he worked for more than 28 years before committing suicide last week. His bosses were apparently unaware of his e-mails and online postings fixating on the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority, complaints of mental disturbances, an unusual poem hinting at a double life, and suggestions of substance abuse.
Before the anthrax attacks, Ivins and his colleagues at USAMRIID received regular background and medical checks, said Caree Vander Linden, the institute's spokeswoman. She did not know how often these checks occurred, though security risk assessments are now valid for five years. Medical screenings were done every year by base doctors, she said, but she did not know whether they included psychological evaluations or drug tests, both of which have been added after the attacks.
After 2001, labs at Fort Detrick were subject to random inspections by an "elite roving observer force," then constant video surveillance. Ivins and others were required to enroll in a "personnel reliability program," which relies on scientists and technicians to self-report anything unusual, even something as minor as taking cold medicine. Co-workers are required to report abnormal behavior or risk losing their security clearances.