Bioterrorism outreach must be enhanced, FBI analyst

October 19, 2011 11:14:00 AM

David Miller -


STARKVILLE -- Terrorism is often associated with suicide bombings and militia-style warfare.  


But for every foiled attempt to detonate a bomb in the United States, there's an equal number of times a plot to develop a biological weapon is uncovered.  


Following the 2001 anthrax attacks, which were delivered by mail and killed five people, the Federal Bureau of Investigation established a Weapons of Mass Destruction directorate to increase investigations and intelligence analysis for biosecurity -- measures to protect against the intentional spread of infectious diseases for malicious purposes. 


The FBI realized the greatest biosecurity threats could come from channels narrower in scope -- domestic labs and scientists and students targeted and exploited by terrorists. 


"We have to enhance bioterrorism outreach with academia, industry and the scientific community," said FBI Policy and Program Analyst William So, who spoke Tuesday at Mississippi State University's biosecurity workshop. "We're not a regulatory agency; we're not a compliance agency. But we need to strengthen the relationships with the scientific community. New medicine and technologies, we need to develop that partnership. How can the FBI support you to make sure the threat isn't coming near you? And at the same time you guys advise us on what new technology is coming so we know what to look for." 


So said the FBI is constantly working to develop "tripwires" and countermeasures to mitigate threats by strengthening its networks with the scientific community -- essentially following the same pattern potential terrorists may use to hatch their plots. 


Terrorists can reach out to scientists in chat rooms, via email or apply for a job in a lab. Their intent may be veiled by simpleton curiosity of a scientific process. Terrorists can pose as fellow scientists or professors looking to share research. 


The FBI has a system in place where they can determine the legitimacy of people trying to obtain biological agents. Their system depends on their understanding of the agent and its potential uses. Having a constant, open dialogue with scientists helps build a database to track, and possibly prosecute, those seeking the agents. 


"There are gaps everywhere," So said to the 85 attendees, made up of law enforcement members, students and professors. "We're trying find the gaps and fill them. You being here today is helping the United States." 


Terrorists aren't necessarily looking for an airborne pathogen that could infect millions, he said. It could be as simple as releasing a research animal into the wild that could affect local produce. 


Safeguarding against accidents is just as much a part of biosecurity as identifying potential terrorists, So said. 


"We're concerned about the health and welfare of our people, animals, wildlife and crops," said Patricia Cox, biological safety officer at MSU. "We monitor anything that might have a deleterious effect on that. If you'll see the movie 'Contagion,' you'll see why it's so critical to public health and agricultural safety to monitor infectious organisms and toxins. Diseases that affect our poultry and swine can not only affect our ability to eat, but also what we export." 


Cox's role is to monitor research involving hazardous materials on campus, which could include lab inspections and lab spill response procedures. She ensures all research entities on campus meet criteria to handle specimens and perform DNA work. 


"I stay pretty busy," Cox said, "and I'm getting busier." 


Cox said the strongest countermeasure to prevent an internal attack, at least at the university level, is the personal reliability of people. Monitoring every step of an experiment and tracking every piece of equipment is vital. 


Faculty and researchers must also guard against being exploited for economic value. 


"We've got to protect everything we work with," Cox said. "Keeping our people trained, and opening up dialogue between public health, academia and private industry, is essential."