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Assuring the Safety of the Pentagon Mail: Letter Report (2003)


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Suggested Citation:"CONSIDERATIONS OF RISK AND ITS MANAGEMENT." National Research Council. 2003. Assuring the Safety of the Pentagon Mail: Letter Report. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10901.
Page 4
Suggested Citation:"CONSIDERATIONS OF RISK AND ITS MANAGEMENT." National Research Council. 2003. Assuring the Safety of the Pentagon Mail: Letter Report. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/10901.
Page 5

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4 USPS mail and packages coming into the Pentagon are inspected. This process provides some additional risk reduction for mail received from the USPS and therefore provides a comfort level and threat reduction. The committee's recommendations were made after exploring three decision options related to the Pentagon's procedures: continuing the Pentagon's present approach, modifying the Pentagon's procedures, or using procedures being employed by another Federal agency. The committee found that certain procedures were unnecessary and therefore should be discontinued, other procedures should be modified and improved, and new procedures should be added. [Other specific and detailed conclusions and recommendations, if disclosed publicly, might provide details that could lead to the circumvention of Pentagon procedures leading to harm to Pentagon employees or the Department of Defense. Therefore, these specific and detailed conclusions and recommendations are presented in an appendix that will not be disclosed to the general public in accordance with Section 15 of the Federal Advisory Committee Act and current Justice Department guidelines interpreting the exemption provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.] The committee also examined procedures that other federal agencies and elements of DOD are using to ensure the safety of their mail. It examined the cooperation and collaboration between units involved in the total mail-handling system, beginning with the USPS and ending with the recipients of the mail. CONSIDERATIONS OF RISK AND ITS MANAGEMENT The committee's recommendations were considered in a framework of risk assessment and risk management. In risk analysis, one should separate risk assessment from risk management. The former consists of the identification and quantitative characterization of threats, the likelihood of occurrence of adverse events, and their probable consequences; the latter involves decisions as to what can and should be done to mitigate the risks identified. By taking extraordinary measures, it may be possible to increase the certainty that no anthrax or other biological agents in the Pentagon's incoming mail goes undetected and non-neutralized. Extraordinary measures to address small residual risks tend to both be very expensive and often to produce little improvement in safety. When a change in a safety inspection procedure is contemplated, a risk-management decision is necessary to determine whether the change in protection warrants the extra cost (or savings). The Pentagon mail-screening process entails the following costs: • The cost of the screening process, including facilities, equipment, labor, and organization • The costs to operational efficiency arising from delay in incoming mail • Reduced security and privacy of information contained in mail • The costs and disruptions entailed in responding to false alarms • Lowering of morale owing to constant physical reminders of the ongoing biological-agent threat • The cost entailed by an actual biological-agent attack that, despite the screening program, is not detected before it can cause harm and disruption

5 Other costs in the total mail system are associated with reducing threats including the sorting, packing, and irradiation procedures implemented by the USPS, and costs to the receiver of mail embodied by its deteriorated condition due to irradiation. The Pentagon mail-screening system has several benefits (beyond those provided by the USPS irradiation): • Increased security of Pentagon operations and their freedom from disruption by a biological-agent attack via the mail • Increased protection of the health and safety of Pentagon personnel • Increased deterrence of biological-agent attacks on the Pentagon through lowering the likelihood that an attempt would succeed and enhancing a public image of invulnerability • Increased personal vigilance on the part of employees, prompted by the visibility of institutional vigilance • Increased morale of Pentagon personnel by providing a “comfort factor” that the mail is safe and that the organization is acting to protect employee welfare Any changes in the mail screening procedure will alter the various costs and expected benefits. One could make the determination that irradiation of the mail is sufficient to protect recipients from biological attack and therefore that screening of the mail is not necessary. If one determines however that irradiation alone is not sufficient to prevent attack and decides to screen materials that have been irradiated, then the following considerations should be evaluated. A screening program that attempts to find rare true positives (an attack has occurred) will have the property that most positives (most “alarms”) will be false positives. Even if the probability of triggering an alarm in the absence of a true effect is very small, when hundreds of thousands of mail items are screened, even a very small false-positive rate will lead to a number of alarms. It is clear that an effective and efficient screening program must focus not only on detection of attacks but also on an effective program for responding to alarms—a program that recognizes that most alarms will be false alarms. The follow-up needs to have a second tier of diagnostic procedures that can quickly verify or refute an alarm. The containment of the potential problem is important not only to minimize the consequences of a true attack, but also to avoid overreaction and undue expense in acting on a false alarm. Caution needs to be exercised in devising an overly-rigorous screening system for detecting a biological- agent attack. There are consequences in which the most rigorous screening system can actually raise overall risks. If such a screening process creates undue inconvenience or mail delay or degradation of mail, it increases the incentive for mail recipients to circumvent the screening. Any such circumvention may lead to greater vulnerability to attack and an increase in risk. Finally, the aim of the mail-screening system is to detect an attempted biological-agent attack through the Pentagon mails. Clearly, any effective system must do this well. But it is also important to recognize that the overall effectiveness of the system will also deter attacks in the first place. To deter attacks, such systems should be publicly known to be effective. To the degree that mail attacks are perceived as unlikely to succeed, attempts will be deterred. The aim should be to provide enough public information to

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