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Anthrax: How Big a Threat?

Aired October 22, 2001 - 19:30   ET



DR. IVAN WALKS, D.C. CHIEF HEALTH OFFICER: This is a different today. We have multiple postal workers where we have suspicions, and two confirmed cases, of inhalation anthrax. This is a different day.


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: New concerns about anthrax after two suspicious deaths and two confirmed cases of inhaled anthrax among D.C. postal workers. Tonight, two experts debate just how big a threat is anthrax. This is CROSSFIRE.

Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE.

First, it was members of the media, then members of Congress, and now it's U.S. postal workers here in Washington, caught in the evil web of anthrax. Two workers died today, likely from anthrax. And two others with confirmed cases of inhaled anthrax are in area hospitals. All four worked in the same place, which received and processed a letter laced with anthrax sent last week to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

In response, two postal facilities have been shut down. Over 2,000 postal workers are being tested for exposure to the disease, and House and Senate office buildings remain closed.

So the war on terrorism is now joined by a war on anthrax. Can we win it? How do we fight it? Or despite three deaths now, are we still all overreacting?

We'll debate that topic tonight -- prepared or unprepared -- with two bioterrorism experts: Larry Johnson, former director of the State Department's Office of Counterterrorism -- he joins us from Miami -- and former military intelligence -- I'm sorry, Larry is in Raleigh, North Carolina -- and former military intelligence analyst Charles Patrick Garcia. He joins us from Miami. Tucker Carlson.


Charles Garcia, bioterrorism was always scary, certainly has been in this instance. But for a little perspective, I want you to listen to Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, who was on one of the Sunday shows yesterday. This is how he evaluated the threat overall. This is Senator John Kerry.


SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: The odds are much greater that you're going to have a car accident, fall and hurt yourself, have any number of the daily occurrences of life. So we need to be realistic about the reality of this threat to us as a nation. There are threats that we face. There are risks. But we must as a country not run around in a panic or in fear of this fairly blunt instrument, which the major purpose of which is to disrupt and terrorize.


CARLSON: Now, that's fundamentally true, isn't it? Three people -- possibly three people have died. But still, the average person is still more likely to die in a car accident. Isn't that true?

CHARLES GARCIA, FORMER MILITARY ANALYST: I would agree with the senator that the possibilities perhaps are unlikely, and it's very hard to deliver biological weapons into this country, but we're seeing it today.

I tell you something that is also very, very hard to do. It's very hard to simultaneously hijack four airplanes and crash them into the World Trade Center, bring that down, and our own Pentagon. And this reminds me of -- you know, it took 100 years for an athlete to break the five-minute mile. But when he did, within a year, six other people did it.

And now, that this vulnerability is so open, it allows other people -- whether it's states that we know have anthrax and support terrorism, or terrorists that are tenacious and are going to seek to put these -- to put anthrax together and deliver them into the United States -- it emboldens them, because terrorists attack at our weakest vulnerabilities.

CARLSON: Well, yes, and not to, of course, to minimize this in any way, but again, just for perspective, do you think it's even possible, within the realm of possibility, that this season more Americans will die of anthrax than will die of flu? I mean, it's certain more will die of flu, isn't that true?

GARCIA: I will listen to our own U.S. Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. In 1992, they put out a report that said, if a terrorist or a state that had anthrax took 220 pounds of anthrax and put it into the air in the proper way, it could kill up to 3 million people in three days. This is our own U.S. government telling us. So the threat is real. The question is, can they do it? Will they do it? And what are we going to do about it? What are the solutions?

PRESS: Larry Johnson, good evening. You and I have debated this issue before, most recently just a couple of weeks ago on this show, where I tried to convince you that this threat was very serious. You tended to downplay it. I want to quote exactly what you said on that show. Quote, Larry Johnson: "There's a threat there, but there's a system in place to respond to it." Now since that time, Larry, there has been a worker at "The New York Post" found exposed, there's a worker at CBS found to have this skin disease, there's the letter to Tom Daschle's office, as Tucker pointed out. Two postal workers have died probably from anthrax. Two more are in the hospital. Are you man enough tonight to stand up and say you were wrong two weeks ago?

LARRY JOHNSON, COUNTERTERRORISM EXPERT: Well, I'm man enough, but I'm not wrong. I think this scaremongering is ridiculous. You know, for Charles to bring up that the 200, you know, the 3 million dead, that is so grossly irresponsible that, I mean, it almost defies the ability of rebuttal.

Let's start with this. No. 1, anthrax can be used as a weapon of mass destruction. But to do that, you have to have it in a form, one, that it's going to kill a lot of people, two, that it can not be easily treated, and three, can be dispersed. Now, there are certain countries in the world that have that capability. But I'll tell you right tonight, Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda do not right now have that capability. If they did have that capability, then I think we would be seeing it, because let there be no doubt they were about killing people. That's what they said on September 11th.

And looking at it right now, Bill, they're either incompetent, they are grossly overestimating or got sold a bill of goods in terms of what this would do to people once it got out there or -- go ahead.

PRESS: I just want to talk to you about Iraq just a little bit later. But you go to that extreme. I don't blame you. I want to deal with what we know today.

We know three people have died from this. We know there are another half dozen or more people who have been infected with the disease. A lot more exposed to the disease. Wouldn't you have to admit that there -- bioterrorism is here now? It is real. It's under way. There definitely will be more targets, and we may not have seen the worst of it.

JOHNSON: Bill, I've always admitted bioterrorism is a possibility. I mean, I went through live agent training back in '99.

PRESS: I'm not saying the possibility. I'm saying, isn't it here? Won't you admit that it's here?

JOHNSON: The anthrax is there, yes. But you're not looking at the anthrax that's capable of killing the 3 million people that Charles mentioned.

GARCIA: Let me tell you what I think is irresponsible. I think it's irresponsible as a government or as a people to be like an ostrich and put our head in the sand and act like nothing is going on. The fact of the matter is...

JOHNSON: Charles -- Charles, our head is not in the sand.

GARCIA: Let's talk about -- let's talk about the real threat. Outside of this country, there's 46 germ banks that we know of that have anthrax cultures. And according to "The New York Times," there's very lax security procedures. We also know from two high-level defectors -- Ken Alibek, who defected in 1992 -- was responsible for producing 100 tons, 100 tons of anthrax a year. A lot of different strains. He's testified on numerous occasions since he's...

JOHNSON: OK. That's well -- that is well -- Charles, that's well and good. That's well and good.

GARCIA: ... come to the United States that it's available. And we have it. And any terrorist could get their hands on it.

JOHNSON: That's fine. That's fine.

GARCIA: And you know that.

JOHNSON: You said our head is in the sand. How so?

GARCIA: Our head is not in the sand today, because we've woken up...

JOHNSON: You said our head -- you said our head is in the sand.

GARCIA: OK. Let me tell you how. What we found out is that there was 65,000 Soviet scientists that were in the biological warfare program in the Soviet Union. And in 1992, a lot of it was shut down. But what we have been told by our own U.S. State Department is 7,000 of those scientists are a major proliferation risk. They have gone to either Iran, Iraq...

JOHNSON: Charles, they're a risk, but our head is not in the sand.

GARCIA: ... that they've gone to Syria, they've gone to North Korea. Why haven't we already hired all those scientists and have them in our country working in vaccines, or form a global defense initiative that goes out and brings those scientists, puts their know- how to work in this country?

JOHNSON: There was $8 billion appropriated out of the 10 billion in fiscal year 2000, and that, according to the GAO, went to combat chemical, biological and nuclear terrorism.

You raised the issue of, well, four planes couldn't be hijacked. The fact of the matter is, since 1996, the U.S. government has spent less than $500 million in securing aviation security. So the U.S. government's head has not been in the sand. There are things being done.


CARLSON: I want to ask Mr. Garcia a question quickly. You talked about threats. Now, last summer, as you know, at Andrews Air Force Base, there was a widely publicized exercise called Dark Winter, and it sought to answer the question what would happen if smallpox were to break out in the United States as a result of a terrorist attack.

And one of the things it found was the single-most damaging factor in this -- about 2,000 people died in this exercise, hypothetically. But what really tore the country apart was panic. That's what Dark Winter concluded. That when the people started to really be infected with fear, America disintegrated. Aren't the sort of things you're saying the kind of things that breed panic?

GARCIA: Actually, the most important conclusion of that simulation exercise was that local firemen, police departments and public health officials are not sufficiently trained. That's what the ultimate conclusion is.

Look, we don't have to panic. I mean, we are on the offensive right now. We had nuclear weapons pointed at us for 40 years. We had alarms going off and school children jumping underneath of desks in school. We didn't panic. We resolved the problem.

CARLSON: Wait, but hold on. But the difference here with anthrax is that people can respond themselves to it. I'm talking here specifically about Cipro. And it's turned out to be a real problem.

People can get a prescription for Cipro and they take it, even though they're not infected with anthrax. This can cause terrible gastrointestinal problems by itself. It can also give rise to drug- resistant bacteria, which themselves are a far larger health threat than anthrax has so far proved to be. This is not a problem?

GARCIA: I would say it's a lack of information. I think that, for me, a lot of people say Americans can't handle the truth. I disagree. I can handle the truth. I think Americans can handle the truth. I think that we all deserve the truth, because when we have it we can go to our elected officials and say: Look, I have the facts. Now let's work creatively, ourselves and with other nations, to come at the solutions.

PRESS: Larry Johnson, I want to get to this question about how prepared we are, because if you say we're prepared, I think if you asked the postal workers today, you'd get a little different response.

We shut down the Senate and the House office buildings last week, tested all the employees. It wasn't until this weekend that the word was given to shut down the postal facilities and to test those employees.

Actually, they were told last week by the CDC there was no need to wear protective clothing, no need to be tested. This one gentlemen who died today went to the hospital here in Washington yesterday. He was treated for flu symptoms. They didn't ask him where he worked. They didn't ask him how he might have gotten his symptoms. The post office employee -- he dies today.

And when I think about how well the government is prepared to handle this, I have to think back to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson. And here is his first word of reassurance to the American people on where this problem may have come from. Let's remind ourselves about Tommy Thompson's brilliant statement.


TOMMY THOMPSON, HHS SECRETARY: We do know that he drank water out of a stream when he was traveling to North Carolina last week. But as far as wool or other things, it's entirely possible.


PRESS: That proves we don't know what the hell we're doing, do we?

JOHNSON: Since I'm in North Carolina, maybe I should be afraid. But I'm not.

PRESS: Watch out.

JOHNSON: Look, I have got the perspective of looking back and working on this for about 15 years. We are not where we were 15 years ago, thank God. There have been substantial improvements. Are we where it would be an ideal world? No, we're not there yet. But we're moving in the right direction.

My point is that given the nature of this particular threat right now, how it's being delivered, the kinds of casualties we're suffering and how the medical community is responding, I see it both as manageable. I see it as something that we have under control.

I would agree that with the post office workers, we need to focus our response very carefully on those areas of people that are potentially at risk, such as the Post Office, FedEx employees, UPS. There are some things that can be done that are preventative.

CARLSON: OK. Larry Johnson, Charles Garcia, we'll return in just a minute. We'll ask the question who did it. Could we have prevented it? We'll be right back with CROSSFIRE.


CARLSON: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. One, possibly three are dead. At least 10 are infected, and virtually everyone expects those numbers to grow as America learns the full scale of the recent anthrax attacks. The government urges citizens to stay calm even as it frantically prepares for more outbreaks of disease.

Is America ready? And what is the line between vigilance and panic?

We're debating those questions tonight with former military intelligence analyst Charles Patrick Garcia, who says America has much to fear from bioterrorism, and with terrorism expert Larry Johnson, who advises the country to take a deep breath. Bill.

PRESS: Larry Johnson, there's a lot of speculation -- you touched on it earlier -- about where this anthrax may have come from. Senator Joe Lieberman was on "Meet the Press" yesterday with Tim Russert. Here is his take on that. Please listen up and I've got a question for you.


SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (D), CONNECTICUT: To make it into the stuff that's being sent in envelopes, that requires a real effort, and frankly, more than a couple of guys in somebody's kitchen stirring things up. So it says to me that there's either a significant amount of money behind this or this is state-sponsored or this is stuff that was stolen from a former Soviet program.


PRESS: Larry, do you think it is state-sponsored? And if so, what state could possibly have done it?

JOHNSON: I don't know if it's state-sponsored or not. I think Senator Lieberman raised the three possibilities. And all of those need to be pursued.

You know, I know the blame Iraq game is very popular in Washington right now. And God knows, there's enough to go beat up Saddam for without having anthrax. So I don't want to in any way suggest that we need to go easy on it.

But I think we have to get to the bottom of it. And one problem we face in getting to the bottom of it -- and I know this from having talked to some folks -- we still have a significant gap between law enforcement intelligence and what we're sharing with foreign governments. There's one government in Europe in particular -- I won't name it right now -- they are very incensed. They have been giving the United States a lot of information. There's nothing coming back, and it looks like some of this activity has been occurring over there. We need to break down these walls that are keeping the information from getting out.

PRESS: Well, of all the possibilities, Iraq is the only country that we know of that had an active -- still has an active effort to produce anthrax. The front page of "The New York Post" shows this woman doctor, who...

JOHNSON: Dr. Germ...

PRESS: ... Dr. Germ, who is head of Saddam Hussein's program. We know he's been making it. We know he's got the most sophisticated form of anthrax. Why would he be making it if he didn't intend to use it? Who else would he use it against if not the United States? His own people, of course, but the United States after that, right?

JOHNSON: I'm not sure it's accurate to say he's got the most sophisticated version. Let's remember he had ample opportunity to use it in the Gulf War and didn't. The only reason I am reluctant to believe that he's suddenly gone completely crazy, insane is, if he is behind this, he's a dead man. I mean, there's no doubt about that. And what we've seen over the last three years is him positioning himself to get out from under sanctions. I don't understand why he would go from getting out from under sanctions to coming right in the middle of cross-hairs of what could be a nuclear bomb possibly.

CARLSON: Charles Garcia, the biological threat everyone fears most, of course, is anthrax, which -- is smallpox, rather, which unlike anthrax is communicable. Everyone appears to agree that the Soviet Union produced it and that it is still there somewhere in Russia.

My question to you is -- you hinted at this earlier. Why didn't officials from, say, the Bush administration in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, why weren't they on the ground there buying up what anthrax they could or in some way taking active steps to take this out of a country that was falling apart?

GARCIA: A lot of this came to light after 1992 with Ken Alibek coming over and actually telling us what was going on. We have made efforts with other of our allies to go out and hire some of these Soviet scientists, but the efforts have been sporadic.

What we need is a massive global defense initiative, coming together: Japan, the former Soviet Union, all the different countries in the world. This is not limited to the United States. This is a global problem. And a global defense initiative needs to immediately go after them.

CARLSON: Wait a second. You can't manufacture smallpox. I mean, the samples exist. And so again my question is, why didn't the United States government, either under the first Bush or under Clinton -- that was nine years ago, as you point out -- why didn't someone go make an active effort to get the smallpox samples that exist in the former Soviet Union?

GARCIA: We tried. We've seen interviews in the past couple of days with former Soviet premiers. It's complicated. We wanted to make inspections there. They weren't convinced that we didn't have a biological warfare capability in the United States. In fact, they sent some of their scientists to make inspections here.

They've made a lot of claims that nothing is going on, but we have reliable information that it's still going on and the potential of proliferation to other countries.

I have read that other countries such as North Korea and Iraq have potentially -- may have smallpox as well.

PRESS: Hey, Larry Johnson, I'm having a hard enough time dealing with this anthrax thing living here in Washington. I mean, what is your take on smallpox? I mean, is it really a serious threat? How real is it and how serious is it?

JOHNSON: Well, any disease, if you contract it, is serious. It doesn't matter how many other people get it. If you've got it, it's serious. So I start from that premise. But there is a lot of misinformation out there on smallpox. I'm not a medical professional, but I was fortunate to sit down with a group of NIH's, you know, front-line people on infectious disease, and I was shocked to learn that there's a lot of misinformation being passed around.

Example. The notion that if you were vaccinated before 1972, like at least, Bill, you and I were, the notion is our vaccines are no longer good. Well, that's not based on medical study. That's an assumption. And there are some others who would argue that in fact we would get some benefit from it. So the possibility of that being as infectious may be less.

Secondly, the numbers of fatalities from smallpox are based on pre-1950 data. There is no data that is recent, that is based upon modern medical practice to support the notion of 30 to 40 percent casualties. So it would be possibly looking at far, far less.

So again, you get some people out there, and it's like, "Smallpox, you're all going to die," and people start running for the exits.

PRESS: Well, the medical people that I've talked to have said it's about 20 years is as long as the vaccination is good for. But let's...

JOHNSON: They're wrong, Bill. I sat with some other doctors who sat there and said that's not based on medical evidence. That's an opinion.

PRESS: Let's assume...

GARCIA: Let's talk about medical evidence.

PRESS: Hold it just a second. Let's assume -- let me finish my question. Let's assume they're right. It still means that any Americans over 6 years old since 1972 have not been vaccinated. That's probably half the American population. And Tommy Thompson tells us we've got 15 million doses of smallpox vaccine. That's not nearly enough to go around.

Here again, we're totally unprepared, aren't we?

JOHNSON: Well, you get into some -- you get into liability issues as well. When you start giving these vaccines, there's the possibility for a small number of people -- not a small number -- there's enough that they face the possibility of adverse health consequences. There's some research suggesting that some of the problems that are emerging with some diseases within children that are affecting their cognitive abilities can be caused by the vaccine. So...

GARCIA: Look, I think what's important is that this administration has gone ahead and said, "We're ordering 300 million doses of smallpox." And that is of the vaccine. And that is the exact right move to take, because that's going to calm everyone down. I agree with public health officials: We shouldn't go on a mass vaccination program, but it should be stockpiled all over the country in key points so that if there is a problem, we can immediately be vaccinated.

The last outbreak of smallpox in this country was in New York in 1947 and within one week they were able to successfully vaccinate over 6 million people. We did it then and we can do it again now.

CARLSON: Well, it sounds like you're saying that the United States government has responded pretty well to the threat of anthrax. And it strikes me that the government has done a pretty good job -- rather with smallpox -- with anthrax as well. I mean, the government has been straightforward. Everyone who has possibly come in contact with it has been vaccinated.

You call the government an ostrich. It's not clear to me what the federal government should have done that it didn't do.

GARCIA: I think that we are going on the offensive now, and now we're trying to get prepared quickly. There have been other countries -- for example, I have heard that the Soviet Union and India, who have smallpox vaccines, have offered them to the United States, and I haven't seen a lot of discussion on that front. If there are countries that have the vaccine and they could ship them immediately to us, we should obviously consider that and stockpile that as quickly as possible until we can get our stockpiles up to the $300 million level -- or 300 million dose level that we have been talking about.

JOHNSON: Mr. Garcia is wrong on the lack of preparation. I was up in New York in November of '97. There was a joint exercise with the federal government. These exercises have been under way for quite a while.

PRESS: All right, Larry Johnson, thanks very much for joining us again tonight. Charles Patrick Garcia, good to have you here on CROSSFIRE. Excellent discussion and debate.

Gentlemen, I'm afraid we may see you again on the same topic. And you'll hear Tucker Carlson and me on the same topic, non- contagious closing comments coming up.


PRESS: Tucker, this may be a rare case where you and I speak with one voice, or maybe one finger, as it is.

CARLSON: A single gesture.

PRESS: Anthrax best summed up on the front page of "The New York Post" on Saturday by an employee who works in the editorial room there. She says, "Anthrax this." We say that to all the people who are sending these letters, whoever they are. Domestic or foreign. Anthrax this.

CARLSON: It points up a deeper point, Bill. This is why America is worth defending, because this is the fundamental attitude of Americans. I don't think you could panic most Americans even if you tried. It's not a jumpy group. I'm proud to say that. Proud to be one of them because of it.

PRESS: Well, I am, too, and I'm trying to get back to normal. But I must say it's hard to get back to normal in Washington when Dick Cheney is still hiding somewhere and the members of the Senate and House run out of town.

CARLSON: OK, look, just because...

PRESS: I say stay here and stand up.

CARLSON: Oh, you're wrecking it. Just because it's an undisclosed location doesn't mean it's hiding. It's just not disclosed.

PRESS: Where is he?

CARLSON: I'm not going to tell you.


PRESS: From the left, I'm Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

CARLSON: And from the right, I'm Tucker Carlson. Join us again tomorrow night for another edition of CROSSFIRE. See you then.




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