Anthrax case raises concerns about highly secure programs

Source: Greg Carlstrom – The

Bruce Ivins, the biologist suspected of sending anthrax-laced letters to politicians and journalists in 2001, began showing signs of mental illness as far back as 2000 — but he was allowed to access sensitive research facilities until as recently as last year.

And that has caught the attention of military officials and Congress, who are calling for a review of the personnel procedures at secure installations that conduct biological research.

Army Secretary Pete Geren has convened an investigative team to look at the lab where Ivins worked — the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, Md.. Ivins continued working there for years after the attacks, even after the FBI began investigating him.

The Army’s investigation will examine Detrick’s security procedures, such as background checks, medical exams and behavioral screening. Collectively, they’re called the Personnel Reliability Program, an initiative started in 2003 at the behest of Congress.

Army spokesman Paul Boyce said the Army has a “proven track record” of protecting its biological facilities, but the service still has offered no explanation for how Ivins’ case failed to raise alarms. Ivins, who committed suicide last month, had been taking antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs since 2000. And the FBI has known since 2005 that the anthrax used in the attacks came from his lab. Yet he was allowed to work at the lab until November 2007.

Meanwhile, the House Energy and Commerce Committee is launching an investigation into security at Fort Detrick and other Level 3 and Level 4 biological facilities, which are those that conduct research on life-threatening biological agents that can easily be transmitted.

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