Some have asked me why my columns on Fort Detrick are always negative. Don't I understand the contributions the base and its tenants have made to the community and this country? Or that it employs thousands, including some of world's best scientific minds?
My answer, in brief, is that it's not my job, or the job of this newspaper, to be the public relations arm of Fort Detrick. Upbeat news will find its way into the news via press releases. Balance achieved.
It's the news not considered fit for public consumption by Detrick that must be ferreted out. Given its history of being less than truthful (and that's me being positive) the question for journalists is not "what do you want me to report," but "what do you NOT want me to report," and most critically, "why not?"
With the ill-fated Bruce Ivins neatly portrayed as the mastermind of the anthrax letters, Area B named to the Superfund cleanup list at the request of a frustrated Maryland Department of the Environment, and reports of a bioresearch "stand down," keeping a low profile is not an option for Fort Detrick.
The public relations machine is kicking into overdrive.
Witness the story reported in this paper last Friday: "Missing virus samples likely destroyed."
The story came on the heels of our reports Wednesday that a criminal investigation was in the works at USAMRIID over "possible missing samples." Note that the last phrase is in quotation marks because that's the official story we received from the official spokesman at Fort Meade, whose investigators were in search of said samples.
Amazingly, these deadly pathogens went from "possibly missing" to "likely destroyed" in a matter of days. Of course, this is the same group who told us in February that bioresearch was on standby until the "overstock" could be inventoried. Detecting a pattern here.
So the likely culprit of the likely destruction of the actually missing samples was a faulty freezer?
For at least two decades, USAMRIID has had a system in place that makes losing these deadly samples to a malfunctioning fridge nearly impossible. An alarm system alerts a technician on duty 24/7 to outages or other problems. A computer generates a printout of the problem, date and time. Each freezer has a name and phone number attached in case of emergency. The samples from a faulty freezer can be housed in another of the 200 or so freezers available in less than 20 minutes. Once rectified, another printout is generated indicating action taken, date and time; then a security official logs it by hand.
In a phone interview Friday, USAMRIID spokeswoman Caree Vander-Linden said she made it clear to reporters that officials aren't "100 percent" that missing equine encephalitis samples were destroyed, but rather it's a "strong possibility." The information, she said, came from a former worker who was interviewed during the investigation.
With the monitoring system in place, it should be simple enough to find evidence of a freezer down long enough to destroy samples. (By the way, can any of you scientists tell me how vials disappear via poor refrigeration?)
Vander-Linden, who in fairness has a thankless job, said her sources "didn't go into a lot of detail," but she'll look into it.
Possibly, we'll likely get some answers.