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Anthrax Case Puts Focus On Security Clearances

LIANE HANSEN, host:

A spokesman for the lab where Bruce Ivins worked says scientists there who handled anthrax had to go through medical screenings. Lab employees say he also would have needed a national security clearance. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on how someone described as sociopathic by his counselor could have made it through that screening process.

ARI SHAPIRO: When Bruce Ivins started working at the army's bio-defense research labs back in the '70s, people were not very concerned about limiting access to anthrax. David Danley researched vaccines at Fort Detrick.

Colonel DAVID DANLEY (Project Manager, Joint Vaccine Acquisition Program, Fort Detrick): The emphasis was on creating an open research institution whose scientists were focused on a handful of infectious diseases that could be used for biological warfare.

SHAPIRO: They thought secrecy would make it look like they were developing weapons. And they weren't, he says. They were developing cures in vaccines. Doors were never locked. You could wander the building freely. David Franz ran the research center in the '90s.

Colonel DAVID FRANZ (Former Commander, The U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, Fort Detrick): Most of our scientists had secret clearances but this was primarily so they could look at classified documents. They didn't need the clearances at that time in order to work with the agents.

SHAPIRO: Agents meaning toxic materials like anthrax. People were afraid the enemy would get access to sensitive intelligence, not dangerous materials. That only changed in 2001 after people died from anthrax-tainted letters. After that, everyone at the lab went through a screening.

Col. FRANCE: You couldn't grandfather out of a national background check or clearance.

SHAPIRO: So at some point, Bruce Ivins passed the security clearance test, even though his therapist attested that Ivins had a history dating to his graduate days of homicidal threats, actions and plans.

Michael Woods used to be the FBI's chief of national security law. He says retired law enforcement officers generally do the background checks and there's a wide range in their ability as investigators.

Mr. MICHAEL WOODS (Former Chief, National Security Law Unit, FBI): Whether they're just sort of checking the box, saying yes, they've interviewed you, or whether they're really sort of going into depth.

SHAPIRO: He says people are supposed to reveal everything in these interviews, but often they don't. And once you're approved for a clearance, you're supposed to tell your officer if anything significant happens in your life.

Mr. WOODS: You know, if you get divorced, you get married...

SHAPIRO: You become an alcoholic.

Mr. WOODS: Yes. Now, you could see the problem, obviously.

SHAPIRO: People are required to waive their medical privacy rights when they go through these background checks. But Woods says unless investigators think they have a good reason to study your medical records, they probably won't.

Mr. WOODS: I don't think it's very practical, given the mechanics of the system, to kind of ratchet the level of scrutiny up for everybody. So at the level we have it, it's going to miss people.

SHAPIRO: He should know. At the FBI, Woods investigated espionage cases where criminals had access to the government's most sensitive secrets. Investigators would always ask, how did this person ever get a clearance? Ari Shapiro, NPR News Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.