Thursday, November 15, 2007

Plum Island Animal Disease Center: Vulnerable to Terrorist Attack

The main watchdog agency of the U.S. government—the General Accountability Office—is still highly concerned about the Plum Island Animal Disease Center being vulnerable to terrorist attack. And so should we all.
Four years ago, the GAO issued a scathing report: “Combating Terrorism, Actions Needed to Improve Security at Plum Island Animal Disease Center.” The GAO warned that “an adversary might try to steal pathogens” from the center on the island a mile-and-a-half off Orient Point on Long Island, New York and use them against people and/or animals in the U.S.
Recently, the GAO gave a briefing to members of the staffs of U.S. representatives and senators, an update on its 2003 report. We have obtained a copy of the PowerPoint presentation and accompanying document from the office of Senator Charles Schumer. The deficiencies the GAO finds are alarming. Although the GAO said
18 of the recommendations in its earlier report have been implemented, remaining are “four fundamental concerns.”
* “First, Plum Island’s physical security was incomplete and limited.” A continuing problem of to whom the center’s security force reports “to ensure that security- related issues are handled promptly” is cited by the GAO.
* “Second, Plum Island officials had not adequately controlled access to the pathogens.” The GAO said still “there are no name checks or record checks given to contractors and visitors going into the biocontainment area” in which there are virulent disease agents lethal to animal and humans. The GAO tells of access “regardless of citizenship.”
* “Third, Plum Island’s incident response capability had limitations.” The GAO said still required are “exercises with local law enforcement to test the efficiency and effectiveness of Plum Island’s response capability.”
* “Fourth, Plum Island’s security plan did not address all risks and threats.” The GAO said there remains a need to “enhance incident response capability…that includes precise detail about what to do in the event an incident occurs that exceeds the capability of the security system, such as terrorist attack.”
Senator Schumer commented: “Three-fourths safe isn’t nearly safe enough. It’s not enough to be just making progress on measures as basic as background checks on visitors to hazardous areas and contingency plans for a potential attack.”
Michael Christopher Carroll, author of “Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government’s Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory,” the 2004 best-seller, says “the GAO update confirms what we’ve been saying. We’re on borrowed time with Plum Island. It would be laughable if it weren’t so serious and dangerous.”
“Lab 257” opens with an account of CIA agents and U.S. Army commandos raiding the “terrorist front organization” office and residence of Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood in Afghanistan in 2002 and finding data on disease agents including anthrax and “a dossier” on the Plum Island center. “Why would an associate of Osama bin Laden be so interested in some obscure New York Island?” writes Carroll, an attorney and former law associate of ex-New York Governor Mario Cuomo. “If Plum Island isn’t exactly a household name in America, it apparently holds a prominent place in the minds of people like Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood. And it’s not the sandy beaches and swaying palm trees they’re after.”
Last week, Carroll said “the abysmal track record” at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center “does not earn them the confidence to continue.”
Indeed, the Department of Homeland Security announced in 2005 that it would replace the Plum Island center with a new $450 million National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility elsewhere. But then, three months ago, in a surprise move, James Johnson, the DHS director of national laboratories, said Plum Island, although not among the five finalists, is being considered as a site for that facility.
Not long after, Senator Hillary Clinton and Representative Tim Bishop of New York announced that DHS was signing a $203,000 contract with a Baltimore contracting company as a start in $24 million in “upgrades” at Plum Island. “The research conducted at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center is vital to protecting our food supply and agricultural industries,” announced Senator Clinton.
And what about the millions of people in this population hub of the U.S. living in close proximity to this center with its poor security—on a exposed island that can never be adequately protected with it being on busy waterways easily accessible to terrorists?

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