Dispositions Aid in Preventing Unauthorized Access to Biological Agents and Toxins

Originally published in the April 2015 edition of the CJIS Link, Volume 17, Number 1

From research and manufacturing to transfer and usage, thousands of individuals across the United States handle biological agents and toxins every day. In fact, food and medical industries depend on these individuals’ responsible management of such materials. To help ensure that Biological Select Agents and Toxins (BSATs) are not accessible to those who may represent a threat to the United States’ interests, the FBI’s Bioterrorism Risk Assessment Group (BRAG) screens individuals applying for positions that deal with them. In making eligibility determinations, the Personnel Security Specialists (PSSs) in the BRAG rely on the criminal history records maintained at the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Division—and, ultimately, the law enforcement and criminal justice agencies that submit them—for the most complete and accurate information.

The CJIS Division formed the BRAG in March 2003 as a result of the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 (Public Law 107-188), also known as the Bioterrorism Act. Part of that act involves conducting security risk assessments (SRAs) of individuals who possess, use, or transfer biological agents and toxins.

How an SRA Works

Any individual who handles any agent or toxin that could conceivably be used to make a weapon of mass destruction or that could cause terror must undergo an SRA, and approved individuals must reapply every three years. An applicant fills out a three-page form that includes date of birth, place of birth, and country of citizenship and sends the information, along with their fingerprints, to the BRAG.

Upon receipt, a PSS researches the information provided using the CJIS Division’s databases, such as the National Crime Information Center, the Interstate Identification Index, and the Next Generation Identification. Additional databases checks are conducted using information provided from other governmental agencies, such as the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Veterans Affairs to determine if the applicant should be denied access or granted limited access to specified agents.

If an applicant’s name and descriptive information match any records in the databases, a PSS further researches the applicant to determine his or her eligibility. In some cases, this can involve calling a local law enforcement agency to determine whether the criminal history records being reviewed include the most complete information available on the applicant, (e.g., disposition or want/warrant information). Considering all of the available data and the list of prohibitions for granting access (see sidebar), the PSS determines the individual’s eligibility and returns the results of the SRA to the sponsoring agency which notifies the applicant of whether access is granted or denied. Responses are sent to one of two sponsoring agencies, the Centers for Disease Control or the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (which is part of the United States Department of Agriculture).

The gravity of these determinations further demonstrates how imperative it is that law enforcement and criminal justice agencies submit their information to the CJIS Division in a timely manner. Concerning notifications and requests for information, BRAG supervisor John E. Strovers says, “If you hear from us, please respond quickly because it is a national security issue.”

By the Numbers

BRAG supervisor John E. Strovers estimates that the BRAG receives about 100 applications a week, and staff try to return each SRA within 45 days; most are completed within 30 days. PSSs conduct checks of the computer systems expeditiously, although some research requires more time. A lack of disposition information often requires the BRAG staff to reach out to law enforcement agencies.

From its inception through mid-February 2015, the BRAG staff conducted more than 56,000 SRAs and denied 338 individuals from possessing BSAT. Although that is less than 1 percent of the total number of applicants, percentages cannot quantify the importance of having prevented these 338 people from gaining access to biological agents or toxins and the potential harm averted. Agencies with questions should contact the BRAG by telephone at (304) 625-4900.

Prohibitors for Access to BSAT

An individual can be denied access to BSAT for the following reasons:

  • Being under reasonable suspicion of having committed a federal crime of terrorism
  • Having involvement with an organization that engages in domestic or international terrorism
  • Being an agent of a foreign power
  • Being under indictment for a crime punishable by a term that exceeds one year
  • Having a conviction in any court for a crime punishable by a term that exceeds one year
  • Being a fugitive from justice
  • Being an unlawful user of any controlled substance
  • Being an alien illegally or unlawfully in the United States
  • Being an alien (other than a lawfully admitted alien for permanent residence) who is a national of a country that has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism
  • Being adjudicated as a mental defective or having been committed to any mental institution
  • Having been dishonorably discharged from the United States Armed Forces.