Defusing Terrorism: Bomb Precautions for Scientists

Since the late 1970s, academics and corporate leaders have been the prime targets of an elusive serial bomber whom the FBI has dubbed the "Unabomber." Recently, in a development with potentially serious implications for the NIH scientific community, the Unabomber--whose explosive packages have killed three people and injured 23--has begun to direct his terrorist actions at researchers in the fields of computer science and genetics.

Two years ago, Charles Epstein, a geneticist at the University of California at San Francisco, and David Gelernter, a computer scientist at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., were seriously injured when they opened bombs mailed by the Unabomber. This year, on April 20, the same day the bomber sent a package bomb that killed a California timber industry lobbyist, threatening letters were mailed to two Nobel laureates--Phillip Sharp, a biology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., and Richard Roberts, research director at New England Biolabs in Beverly, Mass. Sharp and Roberts shared the 1993 Nobel Prize in medicine for their discovey that genes can be spread over several, separated DNA segments. In a letter sent to The New York Times at the same time, the Unabomber wrote, "We would not want anyone to think that we have any desire to hurt professors who study archaeology, history, literature, or harmless stuff like that. The people we are out to get are the scientists and engineers, especially in critical fields like computers and genetics. ..."

 The Unabomber's threats, coupled with the tragic April 19 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, prompted NIH's Division of Security Operations to sponsor two seminars on June 6 to discuss the proper handling of suspected letter or package bombs and bomb threats. Both seminars were conducted by Maryland's Deputy Fire Marshal Warren Gott, who is an expert bomb technician. Gott says that NIH scientists need to take more precautions than many other types of workers, not only because many scientists here are involved in the type of research targeted by the Unabomber, but because of the wide variety of packages and letters they receive from colleagues and suppliers every day. Researchers and lab staff should be alert to these possible signs that a letter or package may contain a bomb, says Gott: uneven or lopsided appearance, excessive or uneven weight, protruding wires, no return address, excessive tape, greasy black marks, odd smells, and unusual stiffness. Suspicious packages or letters should not be opened, Gott warns. Instead, isolate the package or letter and evacuate everyone from that area. Then, notify the police immediately. At the Bethesda campus, this is done by dialing 115 or 9-911. According to the NIH police, it is not uncommon for scientists to report suspected package and letter bombs. Fortunately, to date, no bombs have been found on the NIH campus.

--Lorna Heartley

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