The Strange Case of Brian Brannman


Or—"That's no drunk! That's a rear admiral!"

Recall that big smallpox scare last week. A flight from New Orleans to Charlotte briefly riveted world attention after a man on board a US Airways plane claimed to have smallpox.

Homeland Security went on scramble, the FBI was called in, 113 passengers were kept on the plane for hours, and the mysterious smallpox man was whisked to a hospital isolation room by a moon-suited hazmat team.

Smallpox is such a threat as a terror weapon that in 2002 President Bush announced a targeted vaccination program for first-responders and government leaders. Of course. This reversed about 25 years of public health policy, which held the deadly disease to be eradicated .

Meanwhile in Charlotte, the story next morphed into a drunken man who had made the smallpox claim as a hoax of some sort. Drunk Man did not have smallpox, nor did he expose others on the plane to smallpox. Still very odd, but not downright scary.

Yesterday the story got weird. Turns out the man who made the smallpox claim is Rear Adm. Brian Brannman of the U.S. Navy.

Brannman was returning from some sort of medical conference in New Orleans on the flight. Brannman has been the director of the Director of the Navy Medical Service Corps since 2004. Until January Brannman was double-hatted as also the head of the Navy's massive medical center in San Diego.

His military bio cites "the Legion of Merit (two awards), the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal (four awards), the Navy Commendation Medal (two awards), the Navy Achievement Medal, the Armed Forces Service Medal, and various service and unit awards."

In short, nothing in Brannman's 28-year military career marks him as someone who would shout "Smallpox!" in a crowded airplane.

Now things get spooky. The investigation into Brannman's conduct on the plane is over.

The U.S. Attorney in Charlotte will not file charges against Brannman for disrupting the flight, let alone bring any kind of terroristic threat charge. The case is, officially, closed.

WBTV, so far the only media outlet reporting on Brannman's role in the incident, cites unnamed sources as saying Brannman suffered from "real mental problems" which contributed to the smallpox scare.

Perhaps. But mental issues or confusion or jokes have not been an effective shield against a federal prosecutor bringing charges in these kinds of incidents, especially since 9/11. If hoaxers or mental patients even make it to a courtroom, that is.

Rigo Alpizar was shot dead in December 2005 by air marshals after he had a panic attack and tried to bolt from a plane in Miami. Federal agents said he shouted something about a bomb. So they shot him.

Among the outstanding questions still to be answered regarding Brannman is the not small matter of access to smallpox. Does or did, Adm. Brannman have any access to the deadly disease in the course of his duties? Is there any kind of official policy on what kind of threats are ipso facto credible or does it completely turn on who you are? Was the incident some sort of first-responder test? Will Brannman continue in his current role with the Navy?

Or should we just go put our heads on our desks?