Plum Island: A Sitting Duck

07/19/2010 03:42 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There's a sitting duck for terrorists off eastern Long Island, NY between Boston and New York City. 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 of Southampton, who represents the area in which Plum Island is located, 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 Long Island's Orient Point, research is conducted into virulent animal diseases -- including foot-and-mouth disease. The diseases include some that impact 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, as cited in the book Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government's Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory, Army commandos and CIA agents found a "dossier" containing "information on a place in New York called the Plum Island Animal Disease Center" on a raid on the Afghanistan residence of Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, a nuclear physicist from Pakistan and an associate of Osama bin Laden.

In 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."

The GOA 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 Plum Island laboratory sits just behind a beach along which pass a line of boat traffic including ferries taking passengers between Orient Point and Connecticut. 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."

The author of Lab 257, attorney Michael Christopher Carroll, responds: "Congressman Bishop is putting coveted government sector jobs in his district ahead of the safety of the largest population center in the United States. For someone in as competitive a race as he is in right now, one would think he would advocate for the best interests of all of his constituents."

Meanwhile, 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, sitting between Boston and New York City and just south of New London and Groton, Connecticut? Work on highly toxic pathogens should only be done at a heavily guarded facility inland, perhaps constructed underground -- not on an island out in the open so close to this crowded area of the United States.