In the post-9/11 era that we live in much has been said about the threat of bioterrorism and the vulnerabilities our nation faces with the prospect of such an attack. If you were a cop around that time then you probably remember the mass confusion that followed when the first wave of Anthrax attacks hit the U.S. mail and the subsequent emergencies that affected police, fire and EMS in response. I remember responding to an evacuated building only to find that the suspected substance was just good ol'fashion dust that attached itself to the mail package in question. That was not the problem. The real issue was that nobody in the emergency services sector had any idea of how to handle this type of incident. When I called the fire chief, he said that was our problem and visa versa. Who could blame the first responders for not knowing how to handle an incident of mass destruction?
Until 9/11, actually 9/18/01 to be exact, we had never had to deal with such an attack. After all, a biological agent that had been weaponized and deployed was a military problem not a civilian pubic safety issue; or so we thought up to that point. The truth is, what was thought to be the first biological terrorist attack on our citizenry did not occur on 9/18/01. Actually, there was a little known biological terrorist attack occurring in our Pacific Northwest in 1984. Back then the 24-hour cable news service didn't exist the way it does now and the mainstream media did not cover the event to the extent they would today. As a result, our nation's first biological terrorist attack on innocent citizens quickly passed into history, practically un-noticed, and only remains, fearfully real, in the memories of those who were its victims. From a law enforcement training perspective we never learned, on a grand scale, about how to handle these types of terrorist attacks. We chose to forget about their possibility and prayed they wouldn't happen.
The Dalles, Oregon (1984) Event
In an effort to destabilize and manipulate, through voter tampering, the local government of the town Dalles, Oregon, and the county of Wasco the cult group Rajneeshee clandestinely poisoned roughly 750 citizens with Salmonella. Their hope was to reduce voter turnout, via poisoning, and thereby take control of the local county judicial system where several seats were being contested for judge. Although several attack attempts were made, the most successful occurred between September and October of 1984 where nearly 12 operators (a.k.a. domestic terrorists) deployed Salmonella in 10 area restaurants. In particular, the salad bars of each restaurant were targeted. Ultimately, several members were prosecuted and served time for federal offenses. Interestingly, The Oregonian (newspaper) reported several years later that the federal and state governments were so concerned as to the success of the attack that the Journal of the American Medical Association decided not report on the event for 12 years, fearing copy-cat events. Thus, the information blackout began and the interest for serious response training, or protocols, for general municipal law enforcement faded into history as well.
The Usual Suspects
There are six, but potentially many others. The possibility of weaponizing biological agents is mind boggling on many different levels. It's a highly technical endeavor, yielding tremendous results, but possible with limited resources; hence the attraction for terrorists. Our purpose here is not to look at all possibilities when educating first responders, but to look at those representing the probability. Here they are: