From today's Memphis Commercial Appeal, an "investigation" by Scripps-Howard news service reporter Thomas Hargrove into the nation's ability to detect--and respond--to a bioterrorist attack.
Over the course of his article, Mr. Hargrove lists a number of recent outbreaks of food-borne illnesses across the U.S. But only one of these incidents could be truly classified as a terrorist-style attack, a 1984 effort by members of an Oregon cult to sicken local residents who might have voted against their cause. Cult members used salmonella cultures--purchased legally from a medical supply company--to make a potentially deadly "salsa" that was sprayed on restaurant salad bars and vegetables in a local supermarket. A total of 751 people became ill and almost 50 were hospitalized, but (fortunately) no one died. It remains the first--and largest--germ warfare attack in U.S. history. Other outbreaks listed in the article were traced to "non-hostile" causes, including inadvertent contamination of food.
Is Mr. Hargrove guilty of hyping the threat? I don't think so. Bioterrorism remains a serious threat, and he raises valid concerns about the ability of local and state-level labs to detect outbreaks of food-borne illnesses. But his article ignores the group that is perhaps most interested in launching a biological attack against us--Al Qaida. The terrorist organization's interest in biological weapons is long-standing and well-documented. This 2003 article from USA Today highlights Al Qaida's efforts to obtain various chemical and biological agents, including the toxin ricin, which can be introduced through food supplies.
A 2004 CIA report, cited by the Terrorism Research Center, affirmed Al Qaida's pursuit of WMD, suggesting that future attacks might be smaller-scale affairs (in comparison to 9-11), using chemical, biological, nuclear or radiological weapons. A more comprehensive listing of Al Qaida's various biowarfare efforts can be found at The Center for Nonproliferation Studies website. Obviously, many of the plans and plots described at that site never came to fruition, but the long list confirms Al-Qaida's long-standing interest in developing--and using--biological weapons.
The real question is why Mr. Hargrove fails to link the terror group's interest to potential attacks against the U.S., using biological weapons. Planning and executing a biological attack is, admittedly, a difficult proposition. Slight variations in temperature or even rudimentary precautions (such as careful washing of fresh produce) can sometimes foil an attack. But despite these obstacles, Osama bin Laden and his minions remain undeterred. Given the opportunity, Al Qaida would certainly launch a biological strike against the U.S., an attack that, under the right circumstances, might inflict catastrophic casualties (and strategic paralysis) within our government. Three years before 9-11, three USAF officers outlined the potentially devastating consequences of a combined biological and cyber attack against the United States. While their scenario is a bit dated in some respects, their warnings about our vulnerability to a biowarfare remain valid.
But that danger seems oblivious to Mr. Hargrove, who appears lost in a sea of statistics on food-borne illness outbreaks that (apparently) were not the work of terrorists. Is this simply a case of sloppy reporting, or is Hargrove simply following the post-9-11 rules of American journalism, where legitimate threats are often downplayed--even minimized--to avoid the appearance of "toeing" the administration line, or openly supporting the War on Terror.
You be the judge.