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Sitting Duck

Posted on 08 July 2010

by Karl Grossman

There’s a sitting duck for terrorists right off the coast of Long Island. And al Qaeda knows about this. So does the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) which, for security reasons primarily, wants this potential target, the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, eliminated  and its work done elsewhere.

But there’s resistance. Congressman Tim Bishop is concerned about the loss of 200 federal jobs in his district. And livestock interests in Kansas are worried that if the center’s work is shifted there, an outbreak could impact on livestock.

Aafia Siddiqui was convicted by a jury in Manhattan in February of attempted murder.

Dubbed “Lady Al Qaeda,” she holds a doctorate in neuroscience from MIT. Among the documents in her possession when she was captured in Afghanistan in 2008 were hand-written notes about a “mass-casualty attack” and a list of targets: Wall Street, Brooklyn Bridge, Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building—and the Plum Island Animal Disease Center.

At the center, on 840-acre Plum Island a mile-and-a-half off Orient Point, research is conducted into virulent animal diseases—including foot-and-mouth disease. The diseases  include some that impact on both animals and people.

Pakistan-born Dr. Siddiqui was, when captured, the FBI’s most wanted woman in the world. Found with her, too, were jars of poisonous chemicals and details on chemical, biological and radiological weapons. A relative of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, she was convicted of shooting at Americans who had come to question her.

It was not the first time the Plum Island center appeared as an al Qaeda target. In 2002, U.S. Army commandos and CIA agents found a dossier on it in a raid on the Afghanistan residence of Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, a nuclear physicist from Pakistan and an associate of Osama bin Laden. .

The next year, 2003, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report about terrorism and Plum Island. GAO declared there is a substantial risk that “an adversary might try to steal pathogens” from the center and use them against people or animals in the U.S.  It noted that a camel pox strain researched at the center could be converted into “an agent as threatening as smallpox,” and the Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus studied there could be “developed into a human biowarfare agent.”

It emphasized that the center, which the DHS took over from the Department of Agriculture in 2003, “was not designed to be a highly secure facility.”

And it can never be. Plum Island sits exposed amid busy marine traffic lanes. The main laboratory is the big building that ferries taking passengers between Orient Point and New London, Connecticut pass directly in front of. It is not giving away any secret—this has been repeatedly noted—that from a boat terrorists armed with shoulder-fired rockets would have a clear shot. A plane could dive into the laboratory.

Facing this reality of security, DHS thereafter announced it would build a new National Bio and Agro Defense Facility (NBAF) with, later, Manhattan, Kansas picked as the site, and the Plum Island center would be closed, its work transferred there.

DHS has been proceeding with the closure—but there’s no complete certainty it will happen. Mr. Bishop recently declared that “rather than pour hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars down a sinkhole in Kansas and open the Pandora’s box of decommissioning Plum Island, we should abandon NBAF and make use of existing facilities that continue to serve this nation well.”

Buoying the livestock trade groups opposing the NBAF in Kansas, GAO last year estimated $1 billion in livestock losses from an outbreak at it.

But what of an al Qaeda attack on Plum Island? It sits halfway between Boston and New York City. Work on highly toxic pathogens should only be done at a heavily guarded facility inland, perhaps constructed underground—not off a major population center of the U.S.

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