Immediately after the Sept. 11, 200l, attacks, U.S. intelligence operatives and officials who'd been tracking the al Qaeda terrorist group for years didn't doubt for a second. “I knew immediately this was [Osama] bin Laden,” former CIA Director George J. Tenet told CBS News six years later. “There was no doubt what had happened.” But no such certainty accompanied a deadly anthrax attack that was launched soon after 9/11.
Arguably, it posed an even scarier future than the 9/11 attacks. Finding unknown enemies is far tougher than tracking down foes who, ultimately, announce themselves, as bin Laden eventually did.
And stopping the spread of a disease or infection poses a bigger challenge than looking for survivors of a bombing. For one thing, no cures exist yet for some disease agents, including the Ebola virus. Nevertheless, the extent to which terrorists are capable of deploying bioweapons is a subject of sharp debate.
Controversy also surrounds the 2001 anthrax case. The government's only suspect killed himself last year without leaving a confession, but FBI officials say they're confident that Bruce E. Ivins, a career microbiologist at the U.S. Army's biodefense laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md., mailed the envelopes filled with powdered anthrax spores that killed five people and sickened 17 others in September and October of 2001.
But before announcing that conclusion, the FBI had spent years building a case against Mark Hatfill, another Fort Detrick scientist. And officials concede that the evidence concerning Ivins isn't absolutely conclusive.
Far from it, some independent scientists say. Microbiologist Richard O. Spertzel told The New York Times last year he's unpersuaded that Ivins had transformed anthrax spores into a weapon by drying them. But if he did, Spertzel said, and “an individual can make that kind of product, just by drying it, we are in deep trouble as a nation and a world.”
Independently, a congressional panel announced in late 2008 that trouble looms. “Unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013,” said the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism. “The Commission further believes that terrorists are more likely to be able to obtain and use a biological weapon than a nuclear weapon.”
While the commission conceded that highly specialized knowledge and equipment would be indispensable to mount a bioattack, it noted that trained biologists are relatively numerous. “Terrorists are trying to upgrade their capabilities and could do so by recruiting skilled scientists,” the commission said.
Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported in late 2008 that security is sub-par at two of the five U.S. laboratories authorized to handle deadly pathogens, the WMD commission said. The two insecure facilities were at Georgia State University in Atlanta and the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio, Texas.
No one questions that advanced science can provide lethal weapons to people who want to wreak death and destruction. But it's not as clear that a biological assault on the United States looms in the near future.
Milton Leitenberg, senior research scholar at the University of Maryland's Center for International and Security Studies, cites evidence that terrorist groups lag far behind the scientific curve. Pointing to the 2001 anthrax attack, Leitenberg asked a recent conference held by the Cato Institute think tank, “What does this have to do with what a terrorist group could do, and how soon they could do that?” Answering his own question, he replied, “Next to nothing. What we've found so far is that those people have been abysmally ignorant of how to read the technical, professional literature. What is on jihadi Web sites comes from American poisoners' handbooks sold here at gun shows, which can't make anything. What it would make is just garbage.”
He reached that conclusion following an exhaustive study of the evidence left by al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan — the same evidence that some experts have cited as a sign of the growing danger of a biological weapon attack. In a study published by the U.S. Army War College, Leitenberg said the evidence shows, in fact, that U.S. officials' public voicing of alarm at terrorists armed with bioweapons prompted al Qaeda's interest in the first place.
Computer disks with writings by Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda's second-in-command, show him remarking that “the enemy drew our attention to” the possibility of deploying bioweapons. Leitenberg traces the source to a 1997 press conference by then-Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, who held up a five-pound bag of sugar to show how small a quantity of anthrax spores it would take to cause mass fatalities.
“An edifice of institutes, programs, conferences and publicists has grown up which continue the exaggeration and scare-mongering,” Leitenberg wrote. “This persistent exaggeration is not benign: It is almost certainly the single greatest factor in provoking interest in BW [biological warfare] among terrorist groups.”
Bioweapons could become a menace in the future, Leitenberg told the conference. But for the foreseeable future, naturally occurring epidemics pose a far bigger danger. HIV, tuberculosis and malaria kill 5 million people a year, he said. And bioterrorism? “Zero.”