Combating Bioterrorism:

Actions Needed to Improve Security at Plum Island Animal Disease Center

GAO-03-847: Published: Sep 19, 2003. Publicly Released: Oct 20, 2003.

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Scientists at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center are responsible for protecting the nation against animal diseases that could be accidentally or deliberately introduced into the country. Questions about the security of Plum Island arose after the 2001 terrorist attacks and when employees of the contractor hired to operate and maintain the Plum Island facilities went on strike in August 2002. GAO reviewed (1) the adequacy of security at Plum Island and (2) how well the contractor performed during the strike. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) assumed the administration of Plum Island from the Department of Agriculture (USDA) on June 1, 2003. While DHS is now responsible for Plum Island, USDA is continuing its research and diagnostic programs.

Security at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center has improved, but fundamental concerns leave the facility vulnerable to security breaches. First, Plum Island's physical security arrangements are incomplete and limited. Second, Plum Island officials have been assuming unnecessary risks by not adequately controlling access to areas where pathogens are located. Controlling access is particularly important because pathogens are inherently difficult to secure at any facility. Although this risk may always exist, DHS could consult with other laboratories working with pathogens to learn different approaches to mitigate this risk. Third, Plum Island's security response has limitations. For example, the guard force has been armed but has not had the authority from USDA to carry firearms or make arrests. Moreover, Plum Island's incident response plan does not consider the possibility of a terrorist attack. Fourth, the risk that an adversary may try to steal pathogens is, in our opinion, higher at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center than USDA originally determined because of hostilities surrounding the strike. Also, when USDA developed its security plan for Plum Island, it did not review their defined threats with the intelligence community and local law enforcement officials to learn of possible threats--and their associated risks--relevant to the Plum Island vicinity. Although these reviews did not occur, USDA subsequently arranged to receive current intelligence information. Despite a decline in performance from the previous rating period, USDA rated the contractor's performance as superior for the rating period during which the strike occurred.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To complete and enhance Plum Island's security arrangements, the Secretary of Homeland Security should, in consultation with the Secretary of Agriculture, correct physical security deficiencies by fully implementing the physical security measures.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Science and Technology

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Measures have been taken to better secure Plum Island. In addition, DHS will make further improvements in fiscal year 2005.

    Recommendation: To complete and enhance Plum Island's security arrangements, the Secretary of Homeland Security should, in consultation with the Secretary of Agriculture, correct physical security deficiencies by addressing the specific security shortcomings identified by our Office of Special Investigations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Science and Technology

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to DHS, actions have been taken on all recommendations.

    Recommendation: To complete and enhance Plum Island's security arrangements, the Secretary of Homeland Security should, in consultation with the Secretary of Agriculture, correct physical security deficiencies by better securing certain features of the physical infrastructure that supports the continued operation of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Science and Technology

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to the Director of Plum Island, DHS secured the physical infrastructure through a variety of security improvements.

    Recommendation: To complete and enhance Plum Island's security arrangements, the Secretary of Homeland Security should, in consultation with the Secretary of Agriculture, correct physical security deficiencies by better securing the foot-and-mouth disease vaccine bank.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Science and Technology

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to the Director of Plum Island, the facility in general is better secured through the use of pan-tilt zoom closed circuit televisions, alarming doors and windows, and increasing frequency and intensity of security patrols. In addition the foot and mouth disease bank is better secured.

    Recommendation: To complete and enhance Plum Island's security arrangements, the Secretary of Homeland Security should, in consultation with the Secretary of Agriculture, limit access to pathogens by further developing and enforcing specific procedures, including internal control checks, to ensure that all individuals involved in laboratory activities in the biocontainment area--including students and regardless of citizenship--have been approved, in accordance with the law.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Science and Technology

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DHS told us in 2010 that it implemented a Visitor Authorization and Control Program for the Plum Island Animal Disease Center that is intended to provide the federal law, standards, guidelines and procedures for proper visitation.

    Recommendation: To complete and enhance Plum Island's security arrangements, the Secretary of Homeland Security should, in consultation with the Secretary of Agriculture, limit access to pathogens by further developing and enforcing specific procedures, including internal control checks, to ensure that background checks of these individuals are updated regularly.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Science and Technology

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to the Director of Plum Island, DHS requires that background checks be updated regularly. If they are not updated but the paper work has been submitted, then they are escorted while in biocontainment.

    Recommendation: To complete and enhance Plum Island's security arrangements, the Secretary of Homeland Security should, in consultation with the Secretary of Agriculture, limit access to pathogens by further developing and enforcing specific procedures, including internal control checks, to ensure that cleaning, maintenance, and repair staff entering the biocontainment area are escorted at all times by individuals with completed background checks.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Science and Technology

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to the Director of Plum Island, DHS now utilizes continuous line of sight escorting.

    Recommendation: To complete and enhance Plum Island's security arrangements, the Secretary of Homeland Security should, in consultation with the Secretary of Agriculture, consult with other laboratories to identify ways to mitigate the inherent difficulty of securing pathogens.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Science and Technology

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to the Director of Plum Island, DHS is consulting with other laboratories to identify ways to better secure pathogens.

    Recommendation: To complete and enhance Plum Island's security arrangements, the Secretary of Homeland Security should, in consultation with the Secretary of Agriculture, enhance incident response capability by resolving the issue of the guards' authority to carry firearms and make arrests.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Science and Technology

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Plum Island security personnel carry firearms in accordance with New York state law. Arrests, when necessary, can be made by Southold Police Department.

    Recommendation: To complete and enhance Plum Island's security arrangements, the Secretary of Homeland Security should, in consultation with the Secretary of Agriculture, enhance incident response capability by developing and implementing a policy on how guards should deal with intruders and use weapons.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Science and Technology

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to the Director of Plum Island, DHS has developed and implemented a policy for how guards should deal with intruders and use weapons.

    Recommendation: To complete and enhance Plum Island's security arrangements, the Secretary of Homeland Security should, in consultation with the Secretary of Agriculture, enhance incident response capability by increasing the size of the guard force.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Science and Technology

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to the Director of Plum Island, DHS has increased the guard force per shift on Plum Island.

    Recommendation: To complete and enhance Plum Island's security arrangements, the Secretary of Homeland Security should, in consultation with the Secretary of Agriculture, enhance incident response capability by completing an agreement with local law enforcement agencies to ensure backup assistance when needed.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Science and Technology

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: A Memorandum of Agreement with the Southold Police Department is in place to ensure backup when needed.

    Recommendation: To complete and enhance Plum Island's security arrangements, the Secretary of Homeland Security should, in consultation with the Secretary of Agriculture, enhance incident response capability by defining an adequate response time for law enforcement to respond to incidents.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Science and Technology

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: To provide for an adequate response, DHS has increased the size of the Plum Island guard force and has arranged for Southold police to provide additional law enforcement assistance when necessary.

    Recommendation: To complete and enhance Plum Island's security arrangements, the Secretary of Homeland Security should, in consultation with the Secretary of Agriculture, enhance incident response capability by developing an incident response plan that includes precise detail about what to do in the event an incident occurs that exceeds the capability of the security system, such as a terrorist attack.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Science and Technology

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to DHS, in 2009, it developed a plan addressing what to do in the event an incident occurs that exceeds the capability of the security system.

    Recommendation: To complete and enhance Plum Island's security arrangements, the Secretary of Homeland Security should, in consultation with the Secretary of Agriculture, enhance incident response capability by conducting exercises with local law enforcement to test the efficiency and effectiveness of Plum Island's response capability.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Science and Technology

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to DHS, since 2007, the agency conducted several exercises and responded to real life incidents that involved local law enforcement and others, testing the efficiency and effectiveness of Plum Island's response capability.

    Recommendation: To complete and enhance Plum Island's security arrangements, the Secretary of Homeland Security should, in consultation with the Secretary of Agriculture, reconsider the security risks at Plum Island, taking into account recent acts of disgruntled employees.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Science and Technology

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to the Director of Plum Island, DHS officials have reconsidered the security risks at Plum Island, taking into account recent acts by disgruntled employees.

    Recommendation: To complete and enhance Plum Island's security arrangements, the Secretary of Homeland Security should, in consultation with the Secretary of Agriculture, consult with appropriate state and local law enforcement and intelligence agencies to revisit the threats specific to the Plum Island Animal Disease Center.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Science and Technology

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to DHS, it has met with appropriate law enforcement and intelligence agencies during 2006 and 2007 and has obtained updated threat information specific to Plum Island.

    Recommendation: To complete and enhance Plum Island's security arrangements, the Secretary of Homeland Security should, in consultation with the Secretary of Agriculture, revise, as necessary, security and incident response plans to reflect any redefined, risks, threats, and assets.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Science and Technology

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to DHS officials, the security plan has been revised twice since 2007 and the agency intends to do so on a regular basis.

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