AnalysisU.S. protection against importation of bioterror agents depends on honor system

Published 24 February 2006

Vado Diomande left New York for West Africa in early December to visit his hometown of Tousingha in the Ivory Coast. There he bought five goatskins, packed them in a box, and sent them on a plane to a warehouse in Brooklyn. He returned to the United States, took the skins out of the warehouse, cleaned them, and turned them into the drums for the music he plays as a club dancer. The dancer collapsed when he was overwhelmed by the infection at a performance at the Mansfield University in Pennsylvania, which was attended by more than a 100 people. U.S. officials now suspect that the skins he bought during his two-week trip to Africa ultimately made him sick with inhalation anthrax — a very rare affliction, but one which points to serious vulnerabilities in U.S. defenses against the importation of bioterror agents.

Security experts in the field say that Diomande’s case highlights a fundamental reality: It is all but impossible systematically to stop the entrance of all potentially lethal germs, whether anthrax or other organisms, in plants, insects, or animals. The ports are porous, and systems are not in place to inspect everything, law enforcement officials said. Only a tiny fraction of things brought into the United States winds up being thoroughly reviewed, in part to keep the travel and commerce of the world moving. Despite the presence of security agents, a great deal hinges on the honor system.

So much depends on the honor system because, more than four years after 9/11, there is other system in place. U.S. authorities had at least two chances to prevent the spread of the inhalation anthrax Diomande brought with him from the Ivory coast — but, importantly, both depended on Diomande’s telling the authorities the details about what he was bringing back from Africa. As of yesterday, he had not. The first time that Diomande was obligated to inform authorities about his purchases was when he packed the shipments of goatskins to send them out of Ivory Coast as cargo. A law enforcement official said that Diomande shipped the skins in a plane’s cargo hold, not as part of his carry-on bags or checked personal luggage. It is unclear on what date he did this. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials say that if Diomande had followed regulations precisely, an entry form filed with a Customs broker would have spelled out what was being imported.

The second opportunity for Diomande to reveal his cargo was when he flew to Kennedy International Airport on 20 December on an American Airlines flight. He was subjected to standard questioning, but officials say he did not tell anyone of his shipment. Had he said anything at any point, a long list of standard procedures would have kicked in. Customs agents say they would have debriefed him more thoroughly, and federal agriculture officials very likely would have become involved.

-read more in Al Baker’s and Marc Santora’s New York Times report; also see this report