Deadly Blind Spot in Bioterror War

A key section of President Bush's anti-terrorism bill drastically expands the criminal penalties for possessing a biological agent, toxin or delivery system with clear intent to do public harm. The offender is subject to a fine and a 10-year prison sentence. With public and official fears soaring over the possibility of a full-blown bioterror attack, this seems like a modest penalty. But as modest as it is, the individuals federal and state agents nabbed with deadly toxins prior to the September 11 attack, didn't receive even this modest punishment. In one case, the would-be bioterror attacker received no jail time and was placed on probation.

The would-be bioterrorists weren't connected with Osama bin Laden, or his al-Qaeda terror cell. The potential bioterrorists that have been arrested and prosecuted in recent years have been members of white supremacist groups, individuals influenced by them, and Hitler admiring kooks. The Southern Poverty Law Project and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which actively monitor racist hate groups, say that the anti-Semitic rants in the anthrax-laced letters to Senate Majority leader, Tom Daschle are typical of the language used by these hate-filled individuals.

Here's a sampling of known bioterrorists accused or suspected of planning lethal toxin attacks.

* Thomas Lavy. In 1993, Canadian officials caught the Alaskan white supremacist red-handed with guns, nearly $100,000 in cash, and a container of toxin ricin. He was released, and was not prosecuted.

* Larry Wayne Harris. In 1995, the Ohio white supremacist was caught with a mail-order shipment of a bacterium that causes bubonic plague. Harris was not prosecuted for possessing the lethal toxin, but for wire fraud. He was placed on 18-month probation. Three years later he was caught in Las Vegas with equipment that could be used to manufacture anthrax. Though Harris didn't have the substance (it was a vaccine), and despite his violent, hate-filled history, and the danger he posed in possessing lethal toxins, the charges were dropped.

* Thomas Leahy. In 1996, FBI agents found a pile of ricin in the Hitler devotee's Wisconsin home. It was enough to kill more than 100 persons. Leahy got 12 years. The extra years were piled on to his sentence not for possessing deadly toxins, but for shooting his stepson. He may not be in jail much longer. An appeals court branded the sentence "excessive," and sliced it in half.

The hand-slap sentences federal courts have ladled out to white potential bioterrorists are appalling enough. But they also obscure the fact that native white Americans, not foreign terrorists, commit the overwhelming majority of domestic terror attacks.

During the past two decades, the number of federal prosecutions of domestic terrorist, almost all individuals affiliated with white extremist groups, though sparing, still dwarf those of foreign-born terrorists. The rogues' list of white supremacist groups whose members have been hauled into federal court include: Aryan Nation, Arizona Patriots, Covenant, Sword and Arm of the Lord, the KKK, The Order, The Order II, Sheriff's Posse Comitatus, and the White Patriot Party. These homegrown terrorists have bombed and torched homes, businesses and churches, assaulted and murdered blacks, Jews and gays.

They also blame the media and the federal government for all of America's social ills. It is hardly inconceivable that racist groups, or crackpots influenced by them, now use the bioterror threat to sow more fear and panic among the public. The FBI reports that family planning clinics, the other favorite target of rightist extremists, and government agencies have received thousands of threats of anthrax and other chemical weapon attacks since Sept. 11.

Bush's counter-terrorism law gives the Justice Department sweeping power to spy on the email and cell phone calls of anyone deemed a suspected terrorist, prosecute fundraising by foreigners, seize bank records and trash due process by lengthening the time it can hold individuals suspected of terrorist ties without formal charges, and stiffen sentences for possession and transport of deadly toxins. But the draconian law virtually ignores the danger from within of domestic terrorists even when federal officials know or suspect that the actual or potential attackers are homegrown.

The Washington Post, using data from the World Federation for Culture Collection's Office of Technology Assessment, fingered 46 germ banks world-wide that supply anthrax bacteria, and 17 nations with suspected biological weapons programs. Yet, not one of the possible terror sources they identify is in the U.S.

The weak or non-existent prosecution by federal officials of Leahy, Lavy, and Harris continues the long pattern of denial that bioterror attacks may be more likely to come from the homes and makeshift labs of domestic extremists than from terror camps and bioterror chemical labs in Afghanistan, Libya, or Iraq. This gaping blind spot puts Americans at even deeper risk from bioterror attacks from within.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website:

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