WASHINGTON – Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Susan Collins, R-Me., and Ranking Member Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., Thursday asked for a thorough investigation of the response to a recent anthrax scare at the Department of Defense in an effort to ensure its preparedness for a biological attack.
Several aspects of the DOD’s response last month to a positive reading for anthrax in a mailroom led many to wonder if DOD had learned the lessons of the 2001 anthrax attack when five people, including a Connecticut woman, died, the Senators said.
They asked the Government Accountability Office to review the DOD procedures now in place regarding response to a bioterror incident, whether the procedures had been followed, and whether they need to be revised.
“We have already seen the dangerous, potentially deadly effects of a biological attack through the mail,” Collins said. “We must ensure that we have safeguards in place to reliably detect biological agents that could be sent through our vast public and private mail delivery system. We must also have systems and resources in place to ensure we are prepared to react to an attack, particularly to prevent a biological agent from dispersing. We have asked GAO to determine what has been done since the Anthrax attacks, and where we must improve.”
“We know that fast and clear communication is essential in the event of an attack – communication to the people who might be affected by a biological agent and communication among the various federal agencies and first responders responsible for public safety,” Lieberman said. “Three and a half years after a real anthrax attack killed five people – including Ottile Lundgren of Oxford, Conn. – the response to this kind of incident should be well-coordinated and effective. I want to know exactly where the missteps occurred in the DOD case so we can fix them.”
A government contractor waited four days to notify DOD that a routine swab of a DOD mailroom had tested positive for the presence of anthrax. On March 14, the facility and two others were evacuated while further tests were conducted. The incident turned out to be a false alarm and no injuries occurred.
The Senators said the placement of biological sensors in mailrooms was a sign that important steps had been taken to protect workers. But they agreed that media reports of the delayed reaction and DOD’s failure to effectively coordinate with first responders, the Department of Homeland Security, and other public health officials during the scare were extremely troubling.
Following is a copy of the letter:
Dear Comptroller General Walker:
Recent incidents involving what was thought to be anthrax contamination at three mail facilities that handle Department of Defense and other U.S. Government mail raise serious questions about the federal government=s continued lack of preparedness to respond effectively to biological attack through the mails. According to published news reports, on Thursday, March 10, 2005, routine swabs taken from mail screening equipment at the Pentagon=s Remote Delivery Facility in Arlington, VA, tested positive for anthrax contamination. Not until four days later, on Monday, March 14, were Pentagon police reportedly notified, after which Arlington County Fire Department and hazmat units responded and evacuated the facility. Also on March 14, in what appears to be a coincidence, a mail sensor at the DOD=s Skyline mail-handling facility at Bailey=s Crossroads in Fairfax County, VA, detected a suspicious biological substance, and the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue and hazmat units responded and about 800 employees were decontaminated and locked down while tests were completed. The U.S. Postal Service also shut its main government mail center at V Street N.W. in the District of Columbia and began medicating about 200 postal workers. On Wednesday, March 16, after a series of tests came back negative, DOD officials finally expressed confidence that no public health threat ever existed in the mailrooms.
Although, thankfully, these incidents appear to have involved a false alarm, news reports about the incidents raise very troubling questions about the procedures by which the government, and particularly the DOD, responded. For example, had the apparent contamination at the Remote Delivery Facility been real, the four-day delay in notifying DOD could have cost many lives. Even after DOD was notified of the apparent contamination, reportedly thousands of pieces of mail were sent to redistribution points within the Pentagon.
Published news reports also contain allegations that there were significant delays and failures in notifying and coordinating with non-federal first-responders, and with the appropriate emergency response centers of the Homeland Security and Health and Human Services Departments. Further concerns were expressed that an effective and coordinated response was hampered by the fact that the Pentagon has established its own biohazard detection and response systems and procedures that are separate from, and inconsistent with, the national network of sensors, laboratories, and guidelines used by other federal, state, and local agencies to respond to bioterrorism.
We are therefore asking that you conduct an investigation to help ascertain what useful lessons we can learn from these incidents. Specifically, please determine what actions were taken by each of the agencies involved, what were the applicable rules and procedures that governed the detection and response, whether those rules and procedures were followed, and whether those rules and procedures are adequate to protect the health and safety of federal workers and the public against bio-contamination of the mails.
Susan Collins Joseph Lieberman
Chairman Ranking Member