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Lawmaker says U.S. 'dodged a bullet' in TB case

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The globe-trotting groom with a highly infectious strain of tuberculosis, whose travels last month caused an international health scare, told Congress today that he had no idea he was contagious.

"I don't want this, and I wouldn't have wanted to give it to someone else," said Andrew Speaker, a 31-year-old Atlanta lawyer under quarantine at a Denver hospital. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "knew that I had this…. I was repeatedly told I was not contagious, that I was not a threat to anyone."

But even as Speaker testified via telephone before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, House members in another hearing room raised concerns about the case's potential implications for U.S. security against terrorists.

"We dodged a bullet," said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. "My question to the administration is, 'When are we going to stop dodging bullets and start protecting Americans?' "

Noting that the 9/11 Commission had found "a failure of imagination" among intelligence officials and Hurricane Katrina postmortems saw "a failure of initiative," Thompson said officials in this case "should have connected more dots."

Officials testifying before both committees outlined an array of failures that several members of Congress called a wake-up call for a serious bioterrorism incident.

Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the CDC, testified that health officials thought Speaker had disregarded their advice not to travel. "In retrospect, we realize by giving this patient the benefit of doubt we put other patients at risk," she said. "We don't want to ever be there again."

Once CDC officials alerted the Homeland Security Department to the problem, department lawyers conferred for two hours with other agency lawyers about how to put someone who was not a terrorism suspect on the airline "no-fly" list, said Dr. Jeffrey Runge, chief medical officer for Homeland Security Department.

At that point, officials began monitoring Speaker's flight reservations back to the United States to make sure he did not change his plans. But he eluded them by making a second reservation to fly to Canada, said Jayson Ahern, assistant commissioner for field operations at Customs and Border Protection. That loophole, he said, will be addressed as U.S. officials confer with the airlines and other countries on how to better monitor international travel.

As Speaker and his bride crossed back into the United States via car from Canada, one border agent decided to wave Speaker and his wife through at the border crossing in Port Champlain, N.Y. That agent, an 18-year veteran now on administrative leave, has said that he received the alert from headquarters but that Speaker did not look sick to him.

"Apparently, he made the determination that the information was not accurate and determined that he did not look sick," W. Ralph Basham, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection.

Basham said the encounter happened about two hours into the agent's eight-hour watch, and that the issue was not one of resources or training but of bad judgment.

"The failure is inexcusable," Basham said. "This has resulted in an awakening that we need to do a better job."

Basham said new rules adopted since the incident would require a second supervisor to clear anyone who is on an alert list. But Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice) said "the blame game is not a good way to handle this." If Speaker had had a communicable disease like smallpox, she said, "we could right this moment have a major national health emergency."

Committee members objected when Runge said the news media had hyped the dangers posed by Speaker. The patient was potentially a walking biological weapon, said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), no less dangerous because he was determined to be married in Europe than he would have been if he were a terrorist intent on importing -- or exporting -- bioterrorism.

johanna.neuman@latimes.comjoel.havemann@latimes.com

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