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Is America Prepared for Bioterrorism?

Aired October 11, 2001 - 19:30   ET


ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: After a third person tests positive for anthrax exposure in Florida, new worries about bioterrorism. But how big a threat is it really and is America prepared?


Good evening and welcome to CROSSFIRE. It is now established that three people were exposed to the deadly anthrax diseases at the same Florida office building, one of them fatally. And, yes, this has become officially a criminal investigation. But no, there is no evidence whatever that these cases can be linked to bioterrorism. So is the great Florida anthrax scare a matter of media induced hysteria or do the American people really have something to worry about? We're asking Dr. Mohammad Akhter, executive director of the American Public Health Association and Larry Johnson, former State Department counterterrorism expert -- Bill Press.

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: All right, Johnson, today, the FBI issued a warning that there could be more terrorist attacks coming against the United States, in next couple of days. They didn't say exactly where, but they did mention water supplies and they mentioned building ventilation systems. Doesn't that prove or demonstrate certainly that the threat of bioterrorism is next that it's real and we have to take it seriously?

LARRY JOHNSON, TERRORISM EXPERT: We have been taking it seriously. It is a real threat, but it needs to be put in its proper context. Fiscal year 2000 out of $10 billion Congress spent to combat terrorism, 8.2 went to deal with chemical, biological and nuclear terrorism. Over the last five years, do you know how much money was spent to protect aviation security? Less than a hundred million. We spent a 100 percent, a hundred times more to combat bio, chemical and nuclear.

I've been involved with scripting exercises with the U.S. military. I did the first anthrax exercise and you know what, we've had fewer people die in this one than in that one. So the system is working. There's a threat there, but there's a system in place to respond to it.

NOVAK: Dr. Akhter, you created quite stir here in Washington the other day when you, as a former public health commissioner of the District of Columbia wrote a column in the "Washington Post" in which you said that the city was not equipped for any kind of biological warfare, talked about the possibility of tens of thousands people going into hospital. You even talked about hundreds of thousands of people being killed by this disease. Now in all due respect Dr. Akhter, you are a public health -- professional public health bureaucrat. You won another billion dollars in public health spending. You are not a terrorism expert are you?

DR. MOHAMMAD AKHTER, AMERICAN PUBLIC HEALTH ASSOCIATION: All right, let me tell you, I'm a disease expert. I'm a public health professional. I went to medical school, went to the School of Public Health. I know I was health director in Missouri. I was health director here in Washington, D.C. The reality of thing is when there's one case, it's one case, when there are two cases, you start connecting the dots. When one plane hits a tower, it's an accident, when two planes hit the tower we can connect the dot, it's no accident.

In Florida, what's happening, it's no accident. Somebody has developed the ability to manufacture this stuff. And they can put in your systems, ventilation system and a lot more people could get infected.

NOVAK: But you -- but we are talking about the idea if a criminal investigation, somebody brought it in, who knows what. What the point is, again, sir, in all respect, you don't know anything about terrorism. You have no credentials to say that this is an example bioterrorism.

AKHTER: I know a lot more about how diseases spread. The disease spreads much faster than we ever know. And when you know that, how diseases spread, you need to be very careful and never err on side of just saying nothing will happen.

PRESS: Well, Larry, I want to ask you about it because let's look at Florida. I mean you say we got a system in place. I look at what happened in Florida, it's been like the keystone cops. I mean first, they didn't seal the building. They said it's no big threat. Now, they did. Then they found another one. Then they said everything is OK. Then they found a third one.

I mean - and if somebody was able to steal that from a lab and get that somehow into perhaps the mail room, in the "National Enquirer" building down there, what if these terrorists who were able to commandeer four planes in the same morning and crash them, three out of four into public buildings, what if - what if - what would they have been able to do with that same kind of weapon?

JOHNSON: Well, I come back to my original point. We spent and did nothing to defend airplanes. We spent quite a bit to deal with a threat of chem-bio. The doctor is theoretically correct that yes, you can get millions of casualties, but he ignores the reality of how these are deployed as weapon systems. And while I'm not a physician, I do know how these are deployed as weapons systems and I've been there with the very best that United States has to offer. And this I can tell you with certainty - No. 1, for these terrorists, even Bin Laden, right now, does not have the capability to produce and manufacture the lethal, chemical, biological agents. If they're going to use anything, they'll be more likely to use common chemicals that are readily available in the United States, like chlorine. And I think we do unnecessarily inflame and alarm the public, particularly because they look to someone like Dr. Akhter as being a man of credentials and a man of credibility, and to hear that from his mouth, it terrifies people. And I think it's irresponsible.

AKHTER: It's not a question of terrifying people. It's a question of being prudent and being prepared. Let me tell if you, a few cases were brought in -- originally people came in here of small pox. Local population has no resistance. Villages after villages, local, indigenous population wiped out by small pox.

JOHNSON: But Doctor, what would you...

AKHTER: Look at this look at this, at this moment, as we speak, terrorist don't need to make the bombs. They don't need to have sophisticated system.

JOHNSON: They did.

AKHTER: What they're going to do is to bring in a few and infected people who are willing to die and send them throughout airports.

JOHNSON: With which agent?

AKHTER: And -- smallpox.

JOHNSON: So you're saying this is small pox not anthrax.

AKHTER: So small pox. They come in. They...




AKHTER: No, no, wait a minute. Wait a minute.

PRESS: Could be talking about small pox.

JOHNSON: How about tularemia?

AKHTER: It's not - I don't know what the terrorists are going to use.

PRESS: OK, that's the point. NOVAK: That...

AKHTER: We don't know what they're going to use so we better be prepared.

PRESS: That is the point.

NOVAK: Dr. Akhter, the point that Mr. Johnson makes... AKHTER: Yes.

NOVAK: ... is that the people who could be -- have the capability of attacking us with the kind of assault that you are implying are the Russians and the Chinese. They're not going to do it. They're not going to do that. That's not going to happen.

And the question is -- how in the world can you talk of a situation in Florida where you have one office building, one office building, with one fatality, two cases -- we don't even know if these other people are even sick -- and go on the air and write in the "Washington Post" about the possibility of hundreds of thousands of cases? Is that is responsible?

AKHTER: It's very responsible to warn the people, to be prepared for it. These terrorists are vicious. They use simple technologies. They use our technology on us! They don't know how to make planes. They use our planes to kill our people! And all I'm trying to do is to make sure that we all are prepared, we keep eyes open, we put a system in place so that this will not happen. NOVAK: You can spend a billion dollars...


NOVAK: You can spend a billion dollars more if you want to.


PRESS: Well, if that's what it takes, it's worth it. If - it's not just Russia and China. How about Iraq? I mean Iraq -- we don't know what this guy is making over there. We don't know what he is buying. He's already used poisonous gas against his own people! You know -- we know he's allied with the Osama Bin Laden forces.

JOHNSON: Help me out on math. Help me out on the math here. Here's what I don't understand -- from November of 1990 through March of '91, the United States destroyed this much of the Iraqi chemical and biological weapons system. From that point on, we are told by both the White House and the U.N. Commission that from '91 through '98, we destroyed more than was destroyed during Gulf War. Now what I don't understand is how we destroyed this much and then this much more and now he's got more than he had at the start of the war? Well, that doesn't make sense.

PRESS: Well, I don't understand why you believe all the Pentagon propaganda about what's going on inside Iraq.

JOHNSON: Well, it's not - it's not...

PRESS: Because we don't know what's going on?

JOHNSON: It's not Pentagon propaganda. But here's -- this much I know, Bin - I mean Saddam would love to use this stuff. I have no doubt about that and I know that he's trying to reequip. But I'm simply saying let's recognize he's not built back up to levels that he had prior to the Gulf War. NOVAK: The U.N. inspector, Scott Ritter, says he is. He is well sure there is no biological weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But I don't want to get off on the Iraqi train. I'd like to - I'd like you to - I'd like you to listen...


NOVAK: No, that's what Scott Ritter says. He knows a hell of a lot more than do you Press. But I want you to...

PRESS: Dismiss Iraq - dismiss Iraq, sure. That's right.

NOVAK: I want you to listen to something else that was taken -- said the other day by the microbiologist, Blaine Mathison of the Arizona Department of Health and I think this is a very prudent warning. Let's listen to it.


BLAINE MATHISON, ARIZONA DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH: Everyone is just getting scared. The media is causing paranoia in people, telling them go to the hospitals and get checked. You know, every little sniffle is not going to be anthrax.


NOVAK: Isn't that the problem, somebody gets the flu, somebody gets the cold and they say, "Ah, anthrax! I'm dying!" Isn't -- when you talk about -- I have to come back to a hundreds of thousands of casualties, aren't you going to really create a state of hysteria among Americans who are being scared out of wits by media every day?

AKHTER: No, no, no. If hysteria is being created, it's created by the media. All I need to do is to tell the policymaker, tell the people responsible, look at the reality on the ground, look at it. Fifty state health departments, half of them don't have a disease detective in them.

Can you imagine a police department having no detective in it? But this is reality. We may be well prepared in New York and Washington, D.C. and some of the big towns. But if the same case were to have taken place in small town Iowa, we wouldn't even have known it until it spread to other people.

PRESS: Larry, I want to pick on one of the doctor's example earlier because it's about - I believe you talk about anthrax. But small pox is probably the bigger threat.


PRESS: And let's say that the agents came in with a small pox, OK, and went around this country. How much vaccine is there? How prepared is it? How ready is it for that kind of a...

JOHNSON: Well, I think all of us at this table, we've been vaccinated. People younger than us haven't and that's a threat. So we have to - no, what I'm saying here is we can develop a coherent, logical approach to deal with the problem without this nonsense that hundreds of thousands of millions are going to die. That is -- I think being prepared is appropriate.

PRESS: Quickly, the "National Journal" has -- in this week's edition, talks about Johns Hopkins University. They did a test for anthrax. A guy went through the emergency room, went through regular doctors. Nobody is equipped to deal with it. He was told to call the state. He called the State of Maryland said, "I've got a bioterrorism problem. I need help." Three days later, he got a call back.

JOHNSON: But what we don't know is...

PRESS: We're not prepared?

JOHNSON: We really don't know over the last 20 years how many people died under similar circumstances where they may have acquired anthrax and died and people thought it was the flu. So because of the heightened attention, people are paying more attention right now. And we apt to be...

NOVAK: Doctor, let me ask you question and I hope I can agree with you. Should people run out and buy gas masks?

AKHTER: Oh, no, not at all.

NOVAK: Ah, we agree.

AKHTER: Not at all. Not at all. Not at all. Not at all.

JOHNSON: Under one circumstance...


JOHNSON: I have two big flatulent laden dogs and that's what it is.


PRESS: All right, on that point, gentlemen, it's a interesting debate. Only the President of the United States could interrupt this debate. But he's going to because we're going to go to CNN now to get ready for the presidential news conference coming up at 8:00 right here on CNN.




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