2001 ANTHRAX ATTACKS
The 2001 anthrax attacks, also known as Amerithrax (a portmanteau of “America” and “anthrax”) from its FBI case name, occurred in the United States over the course of several weeks beginning on September 18, 2001, one week after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to several news media offices and to Democratic Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy, killing five people and infecting 17 others. According to the FBI, the ensuing investigation became “one of the largest and most complex in the history of law enforcement”.
A major focus in the early years of the investigation was bioweapons expert Steven Hatfill, who was eventually exonerated. Bruce Edwards Ivins, a scientist at the government’s biodefense labs at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland, became a focus around April 4, 2005. On April 11, 2007, Ivins was put under periodic surveillance and an FBI document stated that he was “an extremely sensitive suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks”. On July 29, 2008, Ivins died by suicide with an overdose of acetaminophen.
The attacks followed a week after the September 11 attacks, which had caused the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City, damage to The Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia and the crash of an airliner in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
The anthrax attacks came in two waves. The first set of anthrax letters had a Trenton, New Jersey postmark dated September 18, 2001. Five letters are believed to have been mailed at this time to ABC News, CBS News, NBC News and the New York Post, all located in New York City, and to the National Enquirer at American Media, Inc. (AMI) in Boca Raton, Florida. Robert Stevens, who worked at the Sun tabloid, also published by AMI, died on October 5, 2001, four days after entering a Florida hospital with an undiagnosed illness that caused him to vomit and be short of breath. Only the New York Post and NBC News letters were found; the existence of the other three letters is inferred because individuals at ABC, CBS and AMI became infected with anthrax. Scientists examining the anthrax from the New York Post letter said it appeared as a clumped coarse brown granular material looking like dog food.
Two more anthrax letters, bearing the same Trenton postmark, were dated October 9, three weeks after the first mailing. The letters were addressed to two Democratic Senators, Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Patrick Leahy of Vermont. At the time, Daschle was the Senate Majority leader and Leahy was head of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Daschle letter was opened by an aide, Grant Leslie, on October 15, and the government mail service was shut down. The unopened Leahy letter was discovered in an impounded mailbag on November 16. The Leahy letter had been misdirected to the State Department mail annex in Sterling, Virginia, because a ZIP code was misread; a postal worker there, David Hose, contracted inhalational anthrax.
More potent than the first anthrax letters, the material in the Senate letters was a highly refined dry powder consisting of about one gram of nearly pure spores. A series of conflicting news reports appeared, some claiming the powders had been “weaponized” with silica. Bioweapons experts who later viewed images of the attack anthrax saw no indication of “weaponization”. Tests by Sandia National Laboratories in early 2002 confirmed that the attack powders were not weaponized.
At least 22 people developed anthrax infections, 11 of whom contracted the especially life-threatening inhalational variety. Five died of inhalational anthrax: Stevens; two employees of the Brentwood mail facility in Washington, D.C. (Thomas Morris Jr. and Joseph Curseen) and two whose source of exposure to the bacteria is still unknown: Kathy Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant resident in the New York City borough of the Bronx who worked in the city, and the last known victim Ottilie Lundgren, a 94-year-old widow of a prominent judge from Oxford, Connecticut.
Because it took so long to identify a culprit, the 2001 anthrax attacks have been compared to the Unabomber attacks which took place from 1978 to 1995.
Al-Qaeda and Iraq blamed for attacks
Immediately after the anthrax attacks, White House officials repeatedly pressured FBI Director Robert Mueller to prove that they were a second-wave assault by al-Qaeda following the September 11 attacks.
During the president’s morning intelligence briefings, Mueller was “beaten up” for not producing proof that the killer spores were the handiwork of Osama Bin Laden, according to a former aide. “They really wanted to blame somebody in the Middle East,” the retired senior FBI official stated. The FBI knew early on that the anthrax used was of a consistency requiring sophisticated equipment and was unlikely to have been produced in “some cave”.
At the same time, President Bush and Vice President Cheney in public statements speculated about the possibility of a link between the anthrax attacks and Al Qaeda. The Guardian reported in early October that American scientists had implicated Iraq as the source of the anthrax, and the next day The Wall Street Journal editorialized that Al Qaeda perpetrated the mailings, with Iraq the source of the anthrax. A few days later, John McCain suggested on the Late Show with David Letterman that the anthrax may have come from Iraq, and the next week ABC News did a series of reports stating that three or four (depending on the report) sources had identified bentonite as an ingredient in the anthrax preparations, implicating Iraq.
Statements by the White House and public officials quickly proved that there was no bentonite in the attack anthrax. “No tests ever found or even suggested the presence of bentonite. The claim was just concocted from the start. It just never happened.” Nonetheless, a few conservative journalists repeated ABC’s bentonite report for several years, even after the invasion of Iraq, as evidence that Saddam Hussein not only possessed “weapons of mass destruction”, but had used them in attacks on the United States.
Evidence of 9/11 link to anthrax
Experts at the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies (CCBS) concluded that one of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers, Ahmed al-Haznawi, had likely been exposed to anthrax. Al-Haznawi and another man arrived in the emergency room of a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, hospital presenting an ugly, dark lesion on his leg that he said he developed after bumping into a suitcase two months earlier. Dr. Christos Tsonas thought the injury was curious, cleaned it and prescribed an antibiotic. After September 11, federal investigators found the medicine prescribed by Tsonas among the possessions of al-Haznawi.
Tsonas came to believe that al-Haznawi’s lesion “was consistent with cutaneous anthrax”, a disease that causes skin lesions. The experts at the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies interviewed Tsonas and prepared a memorandum that was circulated among top government officials. The memorandum said that the diagnosis of cutaneous anthrax was “the most probable and coherent interpretation of the data available” and that “such a conclusion of course raises the possibility that the hijackers were handling anthrax and were the perpetrators of the anthrax letter attacks”.
Several 9/11 hijackers, including al-Haznawi, lived in Boca Raton, Florida, near American Media Inc., the workplace of the first victim of the anthrax attacks. They also attended flight school there. Some of the hijackers rented apartments from a real estate agent who was the wife of an editor of the Sun, a publication of American Media. Further, a pharmacist in Delray Beach, Florida, stated he had told the FBI that two of the 9/11 hijackers, Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, entered the pharmacy seeking medicine to treat irritations on Atta’s hands.
If the 9/11 hijackers were involved in the anthrax attacks, they would have needed an accomplice to mail the tainted letters since the four recovered anthrax letters were postmarked on September 18 and October 9.