The Cable

Pentagon: ‘Massive Institutional Failure’ to Blame for Anthrax Debacle

Eighty-six labs in the U.S. and seven other countries shipped live anthrax. Pentagon says oops.

LOS ANGELES - AUGUST 5:  Los Angeles police officers wearing contamination suits secure the area following the explosion of a "dirty bomb" during a simulated attack at a dock at the Port of Los Angeles on August 5, 2004 in Los Angeles, California. In the drill's scenario, a "dirty bomb" smuggled into the port in a shipping container exploded as a bus was driving by, releasing a plume of radioactivity. More than 850 civilian and military personnel representing more than 60 government agencies, community based and private-sector organizations are participating in the terror response drill, "Determined Promise 2004".       (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES - AUGUST 5: Los Angeles police officers wearing contamination suits secure the area following the explosion of a "dirty bomb" during a simulated attack at a dock at the Port of Los Angeles on August 5, 2004 in Los Angeles, California. In the drill's scenario, a "dirty bomb" smuggled into the port in a shipping container exploded as a bus was driving by, releasing a plume of radioactivity. More than 850 civilian and military personnel representing more than 60 government agencies, community based and private-sector organizations are participating in the terror response drill, "Determined Promise 2004". (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

The inadvertent shipment of dozens of live anthrax samples from a U.S. Army lab to facilities across the globe represents “a massive institutional failure with a potentially dangerous biotoxin,” Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday.

Using the strongest language yet to come out of the Defense Department since the scandal first broke in late May, Work said that “we are shocked by these failures” of lab workers at the U.S. Army’s Dugway Proving Ground to ensure that samples of the deadly pathogen had been rendered inert.

Since 2003, Dugway has sent batches of anthrax that were thought to have been neutralized to 86 labs in 20 states, as well as Italy, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Pentagon officials acknowledge that those numbers are likely to rise even higher as the investigation unfolds. Work said that there are still batches out there that are no longer being tracked by the Pentagon, as the labs that received the original samples often sent samples to other labs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is responsible for tracking those shipments, however, and it is actively chasing the samples down.

Of the four Defense Department labs licensed to work with anthrax, the failures in testing the samples only occurred at Dugway, but it is still unclear if any one official, or group of technicians working there, will be disciplined.

A report released by the Defense Department on Thursday concluded that there is no “single root cause” to explain how the Army lab failed to detect the live samples, but Work has tasked Army Secretary John McHugh with launching a formal investigation into how leadership at Dugway failed to detect the failures in its processes. That could mean bad news for the lab’s top official, Col. Ronald Fizer.

Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s acquisitions chief and the head of the internal probe into Dugway, said that his group “did not find that there was any recklessness … at Dugway,” but it did identify “indicators” of sloppy work that the leadership at Dugway should have seen and taken steps to fix.

Kendall’s report found that the issue is “an institutional problem at [Dugway] and does not necessarily reflect on any one individual.” Still, the Army announced late Thursday afternoon that it is opening an investigation “to determine whether there were any failures of leadership” at the facility, which could mean trouble for Fizer and his top aides.

One big red flag was raised when Kendall’s team visited Dugway this spring and asked leadership there how often their samples of anthrax failed verification tests to prove they had been made safe. They answered that it was about two to three percent. But when investigators looked into it, they found it was closer to 20 percent.

“The technical leadership at Dugway should have seen and understood … that,” Kendall said, adding that the discrepancy was why he “recommended a more formal investigation” into the staff at the facility.

While Congress hasn’t made much noise about the scandal, the House Energy and Commerce Committee is planning a hearing on July 28 to begin to investigate what happened.

“There is zero margin for error when it comes to handling anthrax, and there is zero tolerance for such blunders. This has got to stop,” Chairman Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) and ranking member Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) said in a statement. Witnesses from the Pentagon, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Department of Health and Human Services will testify.

Photo credit: David McNew/Getty Images

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