Home News Testimony Law Enforcement Response to Bioterrorism
  • James F. Jarboe
  • Section Chief, Counterterrorism Division, Domestic Terrorism Section, FBI
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • Before the House Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Crime
  • Washington, DC
  • November 07, 2001

Good morning Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee. I appreciate the opportunity to appear before you today to discuss the law enforcement response to bioterrorism.

The Bioterrorism threat has risen to a new level. The federal government, in partnership with state and local law enforcement agencies, has always taken the threat concerning intentional release of a biological agent seriously. However, neither the federal government nor state and local responders have been required to utilize their assets to coordinate a response to an actual release of anthrax. The intentional introduction of bacillus anthracis into the infrastructure of American lives has resulted in significant panic and alarm concerning our health and safety. Today, I would like to comment on the manner in which the law enforcement community responds to a suspected act of terrorism involving biological agents, and reinforce the cooperative effort that is in place between the federal government and the myriad of first responders who provide guidance, assistance and expertise.

The response to a potential bioterrorist threat can be broken down into two different scenarios: overt and covert releases. The distinction between the two involves the manner in which the biological threat agent is introduced into the community and the nature of the response. Regardless of whether a biological release is overt or covert, the primary mission of law enforcement and the public health community is saving lives.

An overt scenario involves the announced release of an agent, often with some type of articulated threat. An example of this would be the receipt of a letter containing a powder and a note indicating that the recipient has been exposed to anthrax. This type of situation would prompt an immediate law enforcement response, to include local police, fire and emergency medical service (EMS) personnel. Each FBI field office is staffed with a Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Coordinator whose responsibilities include liaison with first responders in the community. Due to this established relationship with first responders, the local FBI WMD Coordinator would be notified and dispatched to the scene. The FBI investigates these articulated threats involving a biological agent. The response protocol would involve securing the crime scene and initiating the FBI's interagency threat assessment process. The FBI's Counterterrorism Division at FBI Headquarters, coordinates this threat assessment which determines the credibility of the threat received, the immediate concerns involving health and safety of the responding personnel, and the requisite level of response warranted by the federal government. The FBI obtains detailed information from the on-scene personnel and input from the necessary federal agencies with responsibility in the particular incident. In a biological event, representatives from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are the key agencies called upon to assist FBI personnel in assessing the particular threat. Based upon the assessment, a determination is made as to the level of response necessary to adequately address the particular threat, which could range from a full federal response if the threat is deemed credible, to collection of the material in an effort to rule out the presence of any biological material if the threat is deemed not credible.

The method of collecting suspect material is established by protocols set forth by the FBI's Hazardous Material Response Unit (HMRU). These protocols, recognized and followed by state and local Hazmat teams, are necessary to ensure that sufficient evidentiary samples are collected, screened and over-packed according to scientific safety guidelines for transportation to the appropriate testing facility. Over 85 State Health Laboratories perform this analysis on behalf of CDC and belong to a coordinated collection of facilities known as the Laboratory Response Network (LRN). Once the testing has been completed, results are provided to the FBI for dissemination in the appropriate manner. The results of the analysis are then disseminated to the exposed person or persons, local first responders and to the local public health department. Additionally, results will be forwarded to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, GA.

A covert release of a biological agent invokes a different type of response, driven by the public health community. By its nature, a covert introduction is not accompanied by any articulated or known threat. The presence of the disease is discovered through the presentation of unusual signs and/or symptoms in individuals reporting to local hospitals or physician clinics. In this situation, there is initially no crime scene for law enforcement personnel to respond. The criminal act may not be revealed until days have elapsed, following the agent identification and preliminary results obtained from the epidemiological inquiry conducted by the public health sector. Contrary to an overt act where law enforcement makes the necessary notification to public health, in a covert release, notification to law enforcement is made by the public health sector. The early notification of law enforcement in this process encourages the sharing of information between criminal and epidemiological investigators. Once an indication of a criminal act utilizing a biological agent is suspected, the FBI assumes primary authority in conducting the criminal investigation, while public health maintains responsibility for the health and welfare of the citizens. At the local level, involving the FBI WMD Coordinator and the State or local public health department, and at the national level between FBI Headquarters and the CDC, an effective coordination has been accomplished to address the requisite roles and responsibilities of each agency.

The response to an actual threat or one that is later determined to be not credible, or a hoax, is indistinguishable. This includes deployment of a Hazmat team, thorough examination of the potentially contaminated area (including situations where a telephonic reporting is received) and the disruption of the normal operations of the affected entity. Additionally, the individuals potentially exposed to the WMD may experience extreme anxiety/fear due to the reported release. Potential victims may have to be decontaminated or transported to a medical facility. The first responders must treat each incident as a real event until scientific analysis proves that the material is not a biological agent. To both the responding entities and the potentially exposed victims, the presence of a powder threatening the presence of "anthrax" is not a hoax, or something to be taken lightly. The individuals perpetrating such an activity must be held accountable for their actions.

In 1999, the FBI testified before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, discussing the need for improved Federal statutes which address the threatened use and possession of biological agents. During this testimony, it was reported that in 1998, the FBI opened 181 cases related to WMD events, of which 112 were biological in nature. The number of cases has increased since then, with 267 in 1999, and 257 in 2000. (threatened biological releases accounted for 187 and 115 respectively.)

Prior to the events of September 11, 2001 the number of cases initiated for 2001 was 100, of which 67 were biological, and a large percentage of these cases involved the threatened release of anthrax, necessitating a law enforcement response. However, the combined terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the subsequent publicity afforded to a handful of anthrax threats, and the tragic death of four persons, have resulted in a dramatic increase in calls for help from the public. Since mid-September, the FBI has responded to over 7,000 suspicious anthrax letters, 950 incidents involving other WMD matters, and an estimated 29,000 telephone calls from the public about suspicious packages. In that same time frame, the FBI has initiated 305 new anthrax related investigations which exceeds and virtually doubles the normal annual average of all WMD cases. Resources available by law enforcement in responding to the alleged threats and public health laboratories in testing suspicious material for the presence of biological agents are limited.

 
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