Homeland Security

'A Bioterrorist Attack Is Coming,' Panel Warns, But America's 'Fear Level Is Down'

'A Bioterrorist Attack Is Coming,' Panel Warns, But America's 'Fear Level Is Down'
U.S. Capitol police officer Eric Jorgensen looks into the quarantined office of Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) in the Hart Senate office building in Washington on Oct. 17, 2001. (AP Photo/Kenneth Lambert)

WASHINGTON — The nation is going to come under attack with a bioweapon, seasoned policymakers warned this week, and awareness, preparation and prevention measures that comes in “fits and starts” aren’t enough to confront the threat.

The Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense functions with a mission akin to “21st century Paul Reveres,” former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), co-chairman of the group, said at a Tuesday forum on the risks of reactionary biodefense.

Lieberman co-chairs the privately funded commission founded in 2014 with former Pennsylvania governor and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. Former Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, former Senator Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), former Rep. Jim Greenwood (R-Pa.), and former Assistant Attorney General for National Security Kenneth Wainstein round out the panel.

“We need to be a lot more preemptive than reactive… it’s not necessarily good governance to wait until a crisis occurs,” Ridge said of the conference theme.

Lieberman said the panel has the responsibility to “warn our government and, to the extent we can, the American people that a bioterrorist attack is coming — but when, we don’t know — and another infectious disease pandemic is also coming.”

“We can say with a reasonable certainty that both awful events will occur. And the question is how do we determine to the best of our ability when they’re about to occur, how do we prevent them and, if we’re unable to prevent them, how do we organize to respond as quickly as possible to them,” he added. “The bottom line is we don’t think we’re ready.”

Whereas “fear is a great motivator” in homeland security, as demonstrated after the 9/11 attacks, “certainly with regard to a bioterror attack the fear level is down,” Lieberman said.

Daschle recounted Oct. 16, 2001, when a letter containing anthrax was opened in his office in the Hart building on Capitol Hill. An intern opened an envelope and “powder just exploded in front of her,” and there were 28 people in the room at the time who were shut in there from morning until night while officials figured out the next course of action.

Six people had already died at the time, the longtime senator noted, resulting in an “enormous amount of anxiety” among his staff.

Daschle recalled “a lot of confusion, chaos” as “no one really knew what to do.”

Fearing that everyone may have gotten anthrax spores on their clothing, everyone from Daschle’s office was asked to go home and bring their clothing in garbage bags back to the Capitol the next day. The antibiotic Cipro was prescribed for each staffer for at least 100 days, and Daschle noted “we didn’t have one serious medical issue in that time.”

The senator’s Hart office was contaminated. Anthrax powder had gotten into the HVAC system, so officials were worried it had spread to the rest of the building and who knows where.

The Hart building was shut down for months. “Our office had to be totally gutted all the way down to the beams; everything was taken out,” Daschle said, from the furniture to the flooring.

With senators temporarily evicted from Hart, Daschle recalled Republicans offering Democrats office space. “It was the most incredible demonstration of bipartisanship – of course, we had already seen a lot of it coming out of 9/11,” he said.

“I have mixed feelings about that time: I shudder to think what could have happened had my staff not gotten the best care they could, I shudder to think about how much of a tragedy those 28 people might have faced in their lives, but then I think with enormous gratitude how grateful we should be for the professionals who responded, for the kind of attitude the senators all expressed and demonstrated, and ultimately how we were all able to get through it, as difficult a time as it was,” Daschle added.

The anthrax investigation included 10,000 interviews on six continents and 400 in-depth interviews with potential suspects. Congressional mail is now opened off-site.

“We were in some way in a daze in that period of time,” Lieberman said, noting the fear that the anthrax letters signaled a wider, coordinated attack.