Seeking the Anthrax Source
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GWEN IFILL: Three experts join me for that: Amy Smithson, director of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Non-Proliferation Project at the Henry L. Stimson Center, a nonprofit research organization in Washington; Michael Cherkasky, president of Kroll Incorporated, a global risk consulting company — he is a former chief of the investigations division for the New York County District Attorney; and Michael Moodie, president of the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute, an independent policy research organization.
He was a senior arms control official in the first Bush Administration, specializing in chemical and biological threats.
Mr. Cherkasky, you were an investigator. Tell us, what are the questions that investigators need to be getting an answer for at this point?
MICHAEL CHERKASKY: Well, I think there are really three different approaches. And what we need to do is we need to approach this from having good intelligence, street work and kind of narrowing if we have particular people who, in fact, we suspect of having done this… these crimes.
In looking at the intelligence, what we clearly need to do is we need as investigators to work really hard at listening to and understanding what kind of source information we have that can narrow the field — doing investigations of envelopes. And again, many times in law enforcement we deal with crimes that are committed through sending things through sending things through the mail. It is difficult. Those are difficult types of criminal activity to pinpoint. So you try to narrow it by having intelligence. And here hopefully with the electronic intelligence, the other source intelligence we have, we can start to narrow the potential sources or suspects.
Secondly is doing very, very thorough groundwork. There’s enormous amounts of information that’s contained in an envelope. The envelope itself, where it’s manufactured, the ink that’s used, the writing, obviously where it’s postmarked, the ability to start to narrow the potential sources of that envelope and particularly with something that has biological, it may be that you can actually go back and look at the potential sites where they were deposited and test, do swabbings for spores.
GWEN IFILL: Right.
MICHAEL CHERKASKY: And finally it’s the ability to narrow the particular suspect group. I understand what the FBI said. And I think they’re being very cautious and maybe appropriately so.
But we have a group that has proclaimed that they intend to kill Americans. And we know historically that they have dealt with chemical and biological agents or tried to develop them. So we have a group that, in fact, is high, high level of suspicion that, in fact, we can start to center on that group and the cells that are involved in the United States.
GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Mr. Moodie to follow up on that. It seems to break down in three different possibilities: Organized domestic activity, organized international activity or unorganized lone actors here or elsewhere. Based on what you’ve been able to discern about these attacks or incidents, which is likely?
MICHAEL MOODIE: I think the scenario that’s least likely is the unorganized lone individual. I think this effort suggests a level of sophistication and scientific and technical knowledge that is probably beyond the scope of a single person. So I think what we’re dealing with is either an organized domestic situation or an organized international one.
Doing this kind of thing, especially producing good quality anthrax, is not an easy thing to do. It’s not something that you can do at home in your bathtub. And so there’s a combination of scientific, technical, operational skills that are needed for something like this that I think goes beyond a single individual to some kind of organized effort.
GWEN IFILL: So, Amy Smithson, assuming there’s some sort of sophistication that’s needed what kind of clues do you look for that would lead you to a reasonable suspect?
AMY SMITHSON: Well I’d actually like to add another combination… a letter to your list. I think we don’t know at this stage whether or not it’s something international or something domestic or a combination there of because prior to these recent events there have been literally hundreds of anthrax hoaxes for a series of years.
And whether or not the tragedy of September 11 brought someone else or some other groups out of the woodwork I think remains to be seen. I know that there are messages in these letters and they might provide some additional clues but then they could also be very misleading. So I think both our law enforcement officials and our epidemiological authorities have a great challenge in front of them. And it’s going to require some patience on the part of Americans.
GWEN IFILL: The President and the Vice President have both said they have suspicions that there’s a connection between these anthrax incidents and the events of September 11. Do we have any reason to believe that al-Qaida, for instance, had any kind of an interest in biochemical terrorism prior to this?
AMY SMITHSON: Well, there are certainly satellite photographs that indicate that al-Qaida may have a rudimentary chemical capabilities. In fact they appear to have gotten as far as Aum Shinrikyo did.
GWEN IFILL: In Japan.
AMY SMITHSON: In Japan.
GWEN IFILL: With the saran gas poisoning in the subways —
AMY SMITHSON: Right. They apparently have staked animals and perhaps killed them with chemical agents. It’s tough to tell something like that from the sky. But I’m not necessarily sure that I would go all the way to biological at least from those photographs.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Moodie.
MICHAEL MOODIE: Osama bin Laden has in his early write-ins made it very clear that he finds chemical and biological options justifiable in the war against the West and the United States in particular.
He’s articulated a very elaborate rationale to justify the use of these capabilities. While he has never said he has them, he couches it "If we had them, these would be blessings from Allah." So there is no hesitation on his part, I don’t think, to secure these capabilities if he was able to do so and probably to use them.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Cherkasky, do you agree with that assessment?
MICHAEL CHERKASKY: I certainly do. I think that we have very good intelligence that indicates that al-Qaida and bin Laden very specifically have attempted to develop chemical, biological and procure nuclear.
And I think we have very, very good circumstantial evidence that this is a group that is attempting to kill us and has and will use any means. I think that it is… while we can’t rule anything out, as a member of law enforcement you have to look at who is the most likely.
And overwhelmingly the most likely right now is the al-Qaida group and that the focus has to be on those individuals who are associated with those cells.
GWEN IFILL: Is there a clue to be taken… We heard the fellow from the CDC a few minutes ago talking about different strains of anthrax. If we could find out what kinds of strains these are, is there a clue that we can take from that to help us with the investigation?
MICHAEL CHERKASKY: Well, there might be. I think that the ability to narrow the type of strain and do some tracking back, I’m not an expert but the doctor was an expert.
Certainly the ability to do genetic testing and track back where this was potentially manufactured or what kind of strain was used and to discover where in the world that kind of anthrax strain has been manufactured or is present really will, I think, give us an ability to start to narrow the potential scope.
GWEN IFILL: Ms. Smithson, among all of our fears these weeks, one of them is that there would be mass casualty attack. How likely is it, I suppose, using anthrax, and are we prepared should that happen?
AMY SMITHSON: I think a mass casualty attack is several orders of magnitude more difficult than what we’ve seen to date. One of the things that often gets discussed is the possibility that crop dusters could be used. And the grab-and-go scenario whereby somebody would jump into one of these things, fill the tanks with the biological agents simply doesn’t work out because these are aircraft that are not suited to disperse agents in the required particle size.
They disperse materials in 100 microns or greater. And what’s needed in order to infect the human lung would be that one to five or one to ten micron particle size. I’m not saying that it can’t be done. Certainly governments have figured out how to do this. But the scope of intended harm here is very limited but quite frankly a great psychological number is being done on the entire country.
GWEN IFILL: Is this… What’s worse here, that they’re trying to kill us or trying to scare us?
MICHAEL MOODIE: It’s impossible to determine I think right now because it may be they’ve thought they would be able to kill us in large numbers using this, and it didn’t work. They were mistaken. They thought they had a technique that was going to kill more people than it has. I think that the events in Florida, the fact that although it’s a tragedy, only one person has died, does provide a sense of reassurance as to how difficult this would be to achieve mass casualties.
On the other hand, it may be they’re doing exactly what they want to do. They certainly have had a profound psychological effect on the American people. Just talking to my friends and family, you can see the concern they have, the sense of vulnerability, and there’s something particularly heinous and reprehensible about using the life sciences to destroy life that I think taps something very deep in people’s psyche and makes them… And intensifies all of those… That sense of vulnerability that we already have.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Cherkasky, let’s move from the intangibles of fear and vulnerability to the tangibles, how do we protect ourselves or guard against something that we don’t know what it is?
MICHAEL CHERKASKY: Well I think just thoughtful security measures. One of the things we can’t do is overstate this risk. Every day, 120 Americans on average are killed when they get in their automobiles. So we have to understand the risk and we certainly have to take it seriously. I think there’s going to be a long, a long struggle. It may get worse before it gets better.
But taking thoughtful measures to mitigate that risk — businesses are doing it. Government has to do it. It doesn’t mean that we change our life. But it does mean we start to… And you’ve seen some of the measures. We start to control the flow of how things get into buildings so that people who are trained are looking at those packages and letters first, before its disseminated to all the different secretaries, that you have trained people who are controlling the flow of individuals into locations.
You control the flow of commerce. These are things that we can do, preserving our commerce and preserving our open pluralistic society. It will take some national debate, but we can use technology very effectively to prevent these things from happening.
GWEN IFILL: Ms. Smithson.
AMY SMITHSON: He just referred to how often car crashes occur. When Americans get into their car, they know to buckle their safety belt. That reduces the risk that something bad will happen to them.
These particular circumstances I think we’ve all been told several times in the last few days that if it doesn’t have a return address, if there’s something else suspicious about the package, you might want to think twice, if it’s marked personal, confidential, all those types of things. I never have opened junk mail to begin with. It’s a great time saver, but if you’re worried about something, I wouldn’t necessarily go ahead and open it.
GWEN IFILL: I guess the question….
AMY SMITHSON: Not everything is going to be one of these. So let’s calm down.
GWEN IFILL: The question is, how do you measure that risk between driving a car and opening your mail? How do you measure this?
MICHAEL MOODIE: I think you act with common sense. I think more than buying cipro, more than going out and buying a gas mask, the single most important thing that people can do is educate themselves about this. That they have good, solid, factual information so that they know the reality of what it is they’re dealing with, and therefore won’t be subject to misinformation or distorted or hyped kind of scenarios.
And if that’s the case, I think a… An educated public is a public that will not be prone to panic and that will respond appropriately in a situation in which something like this… They have to confront.
GWEN IFILL: We’ll leave the conversation there for tonight. Thank you all for joining us.
AMY SMITHSON: Thank you.
MICHAEL MOODIE: Thank you.