WASHINGTON -- Tighter background checks and improved security would help prevent a repeat of the deadly 2001 anthrax attacks, military officials said Thursday, while acknowledging there are no guarantees.
It was five months ago that an Army biodefense lab scientist, Bruce E. Ivins, committed suicide after being named the prime suspect in those attacks.
"I can't say for certain it could not happen today," Army Maj. Gen. Robert Lennox, assistant deputy chief of staff for operations and training, told reporters. "But it would be much more difficult." He said there are more hurdles now before someone could remove a biological agent or toxin from a lab and seek to use it.
Lennox said military safety reviews in recent months endorsed many of the security changes already made, from improved cameras and lights to satellite surveillance. But other changes were deemed not workable or too expensive, including limits on scientists' hours or a system that would prohibit workers from being alone with a toxin.
The Air Force and Navy also said they are preparing to resume shipments of dangerous biological agents to and from their medical and research labs. The Army briefly halted its shipments in August, then resumed them after tightening some rules.
The greatest vulnerability, Lennox said, is being able to determine whether someone might be a threat. Ivins' activities largely went undetected by military authorities at the Fort Detrick lab in Maryland despite revelations that emerged that he was a likely threat.
As for transporting toxins, there are now requirements that two workers be present at all times during transit and that there be satellite coverage of the shipment. Also, the military is giving supervisors more training to be able to detect employees who may have problems, and expanding the security clearance checks of potential employees.
Workers at 12 military labs - five Army, five Navy and two Air Force - conduct biomedical research to support counterterrorism efforts, research protection for the armed forces and keep track of infectious diseases across the globe. Employees work with a range of dangerous materials such as anthrax and germs that cause Avian flu and encephalitis.
Ivins allegedly obtained and refined the anthrax used in the deadly mailings that killed five people and sickened 17 others. He committed suicide after being told he would be charged in connection with the attacks.
David R. Franz, who commanded the flagship U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick from 1995 to 1998, said a too-tight focus on preventing insider abuses could slow research and cause the U.S. to fall behind in scientific advances. For example, he said, investigating lab workers for the equivalent of top-secret security clearance can sometimes take years.
"I'm assuming it will chase some scientists away who might choose just to work someplace else if they have a very invasive system," Franz said. "The Chinese and Indians and so on are much less likely to regulate their science than we are. It becomes a national security issue if we're slowing progress in America."
He said biodefense scientists must work harder on showing the public and policy makers the benefits of their work.
"I see more good coming from the life science enterprise than harm," Franz said.
Associated Press writer David Dishneau in Hagerstown, Md., contributed to this report.