The Pentagon was too slow to inform local officials about the anthrax scare in Defense Department mail facilities last month and gave antibiotics to workers without coordinating with public health officials, an assessment of the false alarm concludes.
Moreover, the Homeland Security Department “needs to be involved earlier in such incidents,” according to a summary of the report obtained Monday by the Associated Press.
“Perhaps the greatest information concerns of the state and local governments involved the adequacy of updates from DOD on the testing taking place, and DOD’s role in making prophylaxis [antibiotics] decisions alone,” the summary said.
The report was prepared under the direction of Maryland, Virginia and D.C. officials and was expected to be released yesterday.
The assessment examined local and state response to the two-day, mid-March scare that prompted nearly 900 Washington area workers to take precautionary antibiotics and invoked memories of the 2001 anthrax-by-mail attacks that killed five persons.
It did not assess blame for the false alarm, according to an official involved with writing the report.
Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Rose-Ann Lynch said the Defense Department is cooperating fully with an ongoing federal review of the scare by the Homeland Security Department.
Homeland Security spokes-man Brian Roehrkasse said that at a meeting two weeks ago, “all entities agreed that coordination during this event was greatly improved over the anthrax response in 2001.”
“However, we are always looking for ways to improve, and will review the report to determine how it could enhance coordination,” Mr. Roehrkasse said.
The department is in charge of coordinating federal response to terror attacks with state and local authorities.
The report summary described confusion and frustration among state and local officials after sensors mistakenly detected anthrax contamination in a military mailroom at the Pentagon and a separate alarm was issued at a nearby satellite facility in Fairfax County.
It highlighted a conference call among 80 participants who were allowed to speak at will, often sharing outdated information, with only vague guidance from the Defense Department about whether the scare was legitimate.
“The state and local governments were not sure if they were getting the latest information from DOD, or whether DOD itself was having problems getting clear test information, or both, at various times,” the summary said.
One official involved in writing the report said many local and state officials also questioned the Pentagon’s decision to distribute antibiotics to civilian contract employees without coordinating with public health departments.
Doing so, said the official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, led to a heightened sense of alarm by workers who were not told whether there had been actual exposure to anthrax.
The report also found that the alarm raised in Fairfax County was not triggered by a purported detection of anthrax, the official said. Instead, that facility closed after experiencing an equipment problem that they feared was linked to the Pentagon incident, the official said.