WASHINGTON (CN) – A year after the FBI concluded that the 2001 anthrax attacks were performed by a government scientist, a Senate subcommittee convened a hearing to try to establish responsibility for oversight of biological labs that study dangerous pathogens. Senator Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., appeared frustrated when he said that 15 federal agencies oversee labs, but “no one agency has principle responsibility.”
“Shouldn’t we have more direct responsibility?” Chairman Cardin asked of the panel that convened Tuesday before the Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security. “And does anyone have a handle on the inventories we have?” he said, referring to biological agents.
Jean Reed, a deputy assistant in the Defense Department agreed that there should be some agency with ultimate oversight of the labs.
Fifteen agencies oversee labs that receive their funding. Cardin said this means labs working with the same pathogen might not be under the same restrictions. He asked whether there should be blanket security codes for each category of pathogen, depending on the danger.
Cardin and agency representatives also proposed more intense background checks for those dealing with high-risk pathogens, suggested that pathogens be categorized, that systemwide security codes be developed, and suggested methods to assess the mental stability of scientists.
In 2001, letters containing anthrax were mailed to members of Congress and others, killing five and injuring 17. After years of investigation, the FBI concluded in late 2008 that an Army scientist from Maryland was the culprit. During the investigation, the scientist, Bruce Ivins, 62, committed suicide.
Cardin asked about the system used to determine if a scientist might be at risk of mounting a biological attack.
Daniel Roberts, from the Department of Justice, said that a system is in place to let the department know if one of its scientists is arrested, but acknowledged there is no system to alert officials if a scientist has been hospitalized for psychological problems.
Roberts proposed a two-man system, in which one scientist reports on the other. This system is already used in the nuclear field.
During the short hearing, few concrete answers were proposed. The difficulty, it seemed, lies in maintaining the proper balance between pragmatic security and excessive security.
Cardin reminded the audience that a balance must be struck between security and the interests of the nation’s international allies. Agencies fund some labs outside the United States and rely in part on those countries to oversee the labs.
Reed from the Defense Department also warned against restricting access to foreign scientists, who play a large role in the nation’s biological labs.