PULLMAN, Wash. — The American public is at risk for a significant biological attack, but that risk is low, said Thomas Preston, a Washington State University associate professor in political science and panel member of the Oct. 24 forum, “The Internal Threat: Bioterrorism and Homeland Defense.”
“Your chances of exposure are as remote as winning the lottery, and I don’t see a lot of lottery winners out there,” Preston, an expert on national security, told the audience of several hundred.
The forum, held in WSU’s Compton Union Building Auditorium, was the fourth in the “An American Tragedy – A Discussion.” The panelists addressed perceived bioterrorism threats, real threats and steps the United States is taking to protect itself. Panelists included Lt. Col. James M. Zuba, U.S. Army, professor of military science; Charlie Powell, public information officer for the College of Veterinary Medicine and a crisis communications specialist; and Bill Edstrom, epidemiologist and bioterrorism surveillance coordinator, Spokane Regional Health District. Joe Barnes, director of strategic communications at WSU, moderated the event.
It is possible anthrax or some other infectious agent could be released in a closed space such as a subway or mall, but mass distribution of anthrax across the United States is nearly impossible, Preston said.
“This isn’t easy material to get a hold of. You don’t have Kmart to get a refill,” he said.
Prevention is one of the best methods for fighting the “silent enemy,” Preston said. Creating of a Federal Homeland Defense office is a step in the right direction, but it cannot be an effort that dwindles over time, “or the events of Sept. 11 are bound to be repeated in the future.” U.S. agencies must coordinate their efforts, share intelligence information and work on long-term changes.
“There are many (Osama) bin Ladens in the world looking for an opportunity,” he said.
Preston also warned that it is too early to suggest the attacks are state sponsored. More likely, a group such as the Qaeda, which has been stockpiling biological agents for years, could be behind the attack.
Zuba reminded the audience of mostly students that “people the same age as you” are “sitting out in a desert, eating cold meals, sleeping in the sand or a foxhole.”
“It’s not very easy out there,” he said. “Think about that as you go through your life.”