Anthrax cases expose gaps in bioterrorism defenses

Confusion, contradiction called cause for alarm

War On Terrorism

October 21, 2001|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Terrorism experts warned for years that federal, state and local governments were ill-prepared to handle a biological attack, and elaborate drills found glaring gaps in coordination, communication and command. This month, real life looked frighteningly like the practice runs.

As the nation grappled with anthrax, the FBI at first took a letter that turned out to be harmless from NBC News to a New York City Health Department laboratory for testing, and when the letter containing anthrax was finally tested days later, technicians accidentally contaminated a chamber in the lab, forcing its closing.

Officials in Florida told executives at a tabloid newspaper office on a Friday that there was no reason to close shop because a photo editor had died of anthrax, then shut the office down that Sunday after much of the staff had worked there all weekend.

And nowhere was confusion worse than at the seat of government on Capitol Hill. When more than two dozen workers were exposed to anthrax from a letter opened in the office of the Senate majority leader, Tom Daschle, House Speaker Dennis Hastert suggested wrongly that people were "infected" and that spores were in the ventilation system. He sent his members home, while the Senate, which had raised the alarm, closed its offices but met as usual.

One person has died, and a handful out of thousands tested have been infected and are responding to treatment with antibiotics or are cured.

But repeated confusion about coordination, communication, politics, bureaucracy and science amplified on television and the Internet 24 hours a day also exposed many of the basic weaknesses in the nation's sprawling and disparate emergency response system that the experts had warned about.

It was just the kind of confusion that drills such as "Dark Winter" - a make-believe smallpox attack staged this summer by several think tanks - had shown might occur.

"Today is a horrific reprise," said Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma, who played himself in the exercise, in which 1 million people were "killed," public order collapsed, state and federal officials disagreed over how to handle the situation and put out information, and the National Security Council wound up discussing the need for martial law.

Assessing how various levels of government have responded since anthrax killed the tabloid photo editor in Florida on Oct. 5, Keating said, "There was too much contradictory information too soon," instead of "crisp, intelligent, accurate information that is not contradictory and confusing."

The anthrax scare pales in comparison to the doomsday situations played out in several previous exercises, which involved contagious diseases and feuds inherent when federal agencies such as the FBI and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were suddenly forced to take leading roles in coordinating the work of state and local health and law enforcement officials.

"We have long known about the problems with communications, or about who's in charge; we shouldn't have been surprised," said Randy Larson, a retired Air Force colonel and director of the Anser Institute for Homeland Security, which helped devise "Dark Winter."

Senior government officials say they have learned painful lessons about what and what not to say and do in the future.

"There was a quasi-uncoordinated effort, because we'd never done anything like this before," one senior Bush administration official said. "You can't see critical mass coming until you're already swept up in it, and you don't have instant answers. It's not just a matter of miscommunicating. It's science, and it takes time."

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