Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

Erie Times E-Edition Article-The 2001 anthrax attacks, a tough history lesson

Posted by M. C. on October 10, 2021

Mark Holman was a Deputy Assistant to the President for Homeland Security under President George W. Bush and is a Partner at Ridge Policy Group.

and he conveniently forgets that the anthrax in question originated in the Fort Detrick biowarfare lab, not from some nation-state enemy. The scapegoat, Bruce Edwards Ivins, was conveniently suicided.

It is time to flush Ridge’s monstrosity. “We have met the enemy and he is us.”– Pogo

The 2001 anthrax attacks, a tough history lesson

The 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks brought back vivid memories for so many Americans. The aftermath of 9/11 landed me in The White House, where I joined Gov. Tom Ridge in the newly formed White House Office of Homeland Security. Governor Ridge had been asked by President Bush to develop a new national strategy to secure the homeland. On Oct. 8, 2001 he was sworn into office in a formal West Wing ceremony with the President, the Cabinet and the nation watching. Little did we know at the time that a biological anthrax attack was about to challenge us in ways we could not imagine. Twenty years later, our nation is still not prepared to adequately detect and respond to such an attack.

Just seven days after 9/11, letters laced with anthrax began arriving in the Halls of Congress, national media outlets and private offices, all carried by the U.S. Postal Service. On Governor Ridge’s first day in office, a full-blown FBI investigation commenced, and this was now our problem at OHS. Without a minute to contemplate a broader national strategy, along with our federal partners, we were called to be experts on anthrax. Many questions arose: Was this weapons grade anthrax that possibly came from a nation-state enemy? Was this another attack from the 9/11 terrorists? Or was this a domestic lone wolf? While we wrestled with these questions, the letters kept coming. NBC discovered anthrax on Oct. 12. Then Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle reported anthrax had arrived in his office Oct. 15. While the postal service scrambled to look for more letters and to protect its workers, hoax letters with white powder began arriving all around the country.

From our White House vantage point, we discovered immediately that our nation was not well prepared to respond to this type of a biological attack. There was not an immediate call for the drug CIPRO to be taken by those infected, or those suspected of being infected. We did not have access to a sufficient supply of an anthrax vaccine to protect our postal workers. Over the next several months a response plan came together as the FBI investigation made progress, but sadly five lives were lost and seventeen citizens were seriously exposed to deadly anthrax.

For Governor Ridge and our team, what was past became prologue. In 2015, Governor Ridge, along with former Homeland Security Committee Chairman Senator Joe Lieberman formed the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense. They recruited, among others, Senator Daschle to assist in the effort. They issued what has become a foreboding report that year which outlined recommendations on what our nation needed to do to get ‘ahead of the curve’ in responding to biological events, whether they be naturally occurring or coming from one of our enemies. And while our team began educating the public, elected and relevant federal officials, absent a crisis, progress was slow building a public health infrastructure that was ready for a ‘100 year’ pandemic.

Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the Department of Homeland Security. And while DHS continues to evolve, from my vantage point, I believe Americans are much better protected than they were prior to 9/11. However, with regard to protecting our public health during a crisis, we remain critically unprepared in so many ways.

Just this week, the Bipartisan Commission on biodefense has released a new report that finds 20 years after the deadly anthrax attacks, our federal government still does not have a national biodetection system that works. BioWatch technology — federally developed and supported detectors placed in 30 large cities across the nation that are supposed to quickly identify a biological agent in the air — still do not work reliably. BioWatch was implemented with the best of intentions, but its failure underscores why the public and private sectors must work more closely together so that we are using the very best technology to address these vulnerabilities.

In January of this year the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense shared its vision for a new Apollo Program, a blueprint for ‘Winning the Race on Biodefense.’ The Biden administration and leaders in both parties in Congress are considering new strategies for responding to today’s pandemic as well as future challenges. While we have made progress since the 2001 anthrax attacks and the COVID-19 pandemic, the recognition that biodefense is primary to our national security is not self-evident. Now is clearly the time to take the painful lessons of the past and invest boldly in solutions for future generations.

Mark Holman was a Deputy Assistant to the President for Homeland Security under President George W. Bush and is a Partner at Ridge Policy Group.

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