Bioterrorism rent-seekers (a series)

Posted in Bioterrorism, Ricin Kooks at 9:41 am by George Smith

The look of national bioterrorism defense entitlement spending in Omaha, Nebraska. The flush days may be ending.

“Federal funding for the Special Pathogens and Biosecurity Laboratory at University of Nebraska’s Medical Center peaked at $1.2 million, has been sliced in half in recent years, and could get whacked again,” reads the Omaha World Herald caption on the picture.

It’s the type of article that shows up about once a month now, bioterrorism defense scientists at obscurely named labs built in the great counter-bioterror boom after anthrax, exuding woe that their work is being, or could be, slashed.

The country way over-invested in bioterror defense in the wake of 9/11. Free money went out for almost a decade. No results were required and none were furnished. During the time the public was bombarded with assertions that catastrophic bioterror attacks were easy to mount and likely.

None of the claims of the threat-mongers materialized. That’s zero.

Many of our most famous bioterror defense researchers grew wealthy during a period when millions of other Americans saw their economic futures languish or go up in smoke. Infrastructure repair and spending for the public good shriveled but national security spending ballooned.

Now, in some places, it is getting a much needed haircut. But still not enough.

It’s a hard fact the poor in America have no political voice. But those in national security work always do.

The Omaha World news piece tries to paint a picture of a high tech lab engaged in secret and sensitive work, vital to the safety of citizens.

It does not help the case, however, to mention ricin as a big thing.

From the Herald:

The three-ring binders, each one containing its own nightmare, line one shelf in the lab.

“Bacillus anthracis,??? one binder is labeled …

“Ricin,??? another binder is labeled. That would be the powdery poison that a Mississippi man allegedly mailed to President Barack Obama this spring in the upside-down days after the Boston Marathon bombing.

There are other binders, many others, but as I write down their names, the Omaha scientists who run Nebraska’s Special Pathogens and Biosecurity Preparedness Laboratory politely ask me to stop …

This bookshelf of horrors needs to stay secret, they say.

“We’d let you read this, but then we’d have to lock you up for 10 years,??? says Dr. Steven Hinrichs, director of the Nebraska Public Health Laboratory, which oversees the biosecurity lab.

He points to the ricin binder. He is joking. At least I think he is.

However, the public knows there’s not much book in ricin terrorism having experienced a uniquely remarkable period of it this year.

Ricin, or more descriptively — castor powder, in mail is hardly a hazard. This despite the national line, now twelve years old, that it is profoundly deadly and easy to make.

Yes, powder from beans is easy to make.

A crazy beauty in a Halloween cat-suit did it. A karate studio instructor starring in a Bud Light beer Battle of the Bands promotion did it. And a guy in Washington who looked like he fell off the nasty end of a garbage truck also did it.

In the long period between now and the beginning of the bioterror defense boom there’s been essentially no change in the science used to examine ricin or samples suspected to be contaminated with it. In fact, the science is the almost the same as when I was in grad school working protein biochemistry in the mid-Eighties.

I know. I’ve seen the work from ricin cases, been asked about it from a professional’s standpoint.

There’s nothing new needed for ricin. The FBI gathers its evidence and does preliminary testing. Then it sends its sample to the mega-bioterror defense lab built in the response to Bruce Ivins, the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) in Maryland.

Then the NBACC, despite its vast resources and its ability to do the work in house, outsources the determinative work to yet another lab. And it’s all part of the chain of over-spending established during the war on terror.

Think of it as nationally hiring crews of hundreds to screw in a couple light bulbs.


Perhaps because they were given way too much money.

Because the national leadership over-reacted over a long period of time. Because no very-important-person can suggest the bioterrorism threat has been hyped and inflated and that the response to it is now glaringly inappropriate without losing their career.

The Omaha scientists find their lab “increasingly starved for once-plentiful federal cash,” writes Matthew Hansen for the newspaper.

Then, as many journalists have done before him, he puts his fingers on the scale:

What if everyone decides the [bioterror threat] is no big deal?

An amount of ricin roughly equivalent to three grains of salt can kill a human. A Mississippi man tried to send ricin to the president of the United States in April. A Texas woman — a small-time actress in the TV series “The Walking Dead??? — tried to send President Obama ricin in May.

And yet you would’ve barely known that if you looked at the front page of a newspaper. The first ricin story got crowded out by the Boston bombing, and the second barely made a blip in the 24-hour news cycle.

It’s laughable.

You couldn’t get away from Shannon Richardson during the days leading up to her arrest and after. Her husband made celebrity morning television to speak tearfully of his scheming wife. Thousands of pictures of castor seeds and Shannon in various fetching outfits overflowed Internet gossip sites.

James Everett Dutschke became ubiquitous on the evening news. His
coincidentally bad timing with respect to his ricin mail scheme, coming as it did during the week of the Boston bombing, gave the incident even more publicity.

No, the public got a very good look at ricin terrorism. And there was a cognitive disconnect between what it saw and what it had been told about the allegedly deadly horror of it over the last twelve years.

The [scientists of the Special Pathogens and Biosecurity Laboratory at UNMC] bring up the fact that you can find recipes on the Internet to cook up any number of biological horrors,” adds the reporter.

Something that’s been said thousands of times in the last dozen years. Repeated ad nauseum in the news, worked into television shows, dramatic series and movie plots.

Mostly it’s been convenient bullshit. That it has lost a lot of its power to frighten and persuade is not really a case of public apathy.

But it has always had a lot to do with those defending their career turf.

A secret three-ring binder for lil’ ol’ me? Tee-hee.

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