Confirming continuing congressional allegations, a General Accounting Office (GAO) report says that until June of this year, security at the nation's top laboratory for deadly animal diseases was dangerously lax. Although many improvements have since been made, the lab's acting director admits that security is still not as tight as it needs to be.
"This report is not just a wake-up call; it's a blaring alarm," said Rep. Tim Bishop (D-NY), a persistent critic whose district includes the Plum Island Animal Disease Center.
The island facility, just northeast of Long Island, NY, and 12 miles southeast of New London, Conn., was operated by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) until June 2003, when the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) took it over. The GAO investigation began in November 2002 and continued until September 19, 2003, when the report was completed.
In a late August 2003 letter included in the report, DHS's undersecretary for science and technology, Charles McQueary, wrote that Plum Island "still has fundamental problems that leave the facility vulnerable to security breaches."
"It is alarming to me that USDA was not moving effectively to address many of the security shortfalls at Plum Island," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who requested the inquiry by Congress' investigatory arm, the GAO.
The probe revealed that USDA officials once allowed eight foreign scientists free rein in the biocontainment area where diseases are stored, even though they had never undergone mandatory federal background checks. Foreign students attending classes at the facility never underwent such checks either. Because guards carried unauthorized firearms, local police departments refused to agree to provide assistance during potential bioterrorist attacks.
Physical security was also inadequate, said the report, which Harkin released Monday (October 20) after a 30-day review period. Electronic locks on doors and on refrigerators containing disease samples did not work correctly. Some outdoor security cameras looked out blindly over areas too dark to see anything at night because USDA had never installed adequate security lighting.
DHS spokesperson Michelle Petrovich said Tuesday (October 21) that her department is "more than half-way through" implementing the report's recommendations. The Plum Island center's Acting Director Marc Hollander added, "By December 31 of this year, we're going to have finished our modifications to the facility, which are going to address an awful lot of the [report's] concerns..." Hollander said that he is planning a 5-year program of comprehensive improvements.
The soon-to-be-finished modifications include major physical upgrades that USDA ordered in June 2002 after contracting with national security experts at the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico to redesign its security system. Sandia advised USDA officials not to undertake a broad, sweeping overhaul, because terrorists could obtain dangerous pathogens more easily from other sources.
But GAO disagreed. "The risk that an adversary might try to steal pathogens is, in our opinion, higher than USDA believed it to be in 2001… because of the [labor] strike that occurred [at Plum Island] in August 2002 and the hostility surrounding it." One former employee has been convicted of tampering with the island's fresh-water system as he walked off the job to strike.
Partly as a result of the labor strike, DHS has decided to pick a new contractor by January 1 to oversee the island's operation. Bishop's Press Secretary Jon Schneider said this move was perhaps the most important one so far and that DHS has made significant improvements already, albeit not as fast as the congressman would like to see.