Anthrax Lessons

In an era of scapegoating and diminished accountability, how safe are we from our own weapons of mass destruction?

by Robert C. Keating, Editor
August 14, 2008

As Americans were dealing with the shock of 9-11, many wondered how many more would have died had the attacks included biological or chemical weapons. Then, just 24 days later, anthrax-laced letters started showing up at a tabloid in Florida, NBC News in New York, and Sen. Tom Daschle's office in Washington.

The letter to Sen. Daschle was dated "9-11-01." It read, "We have this anthrax. You die now. Allah is great."

The mysterious anthrax-laced letters mailed from a New Jersey post box killed five people, sickened seventeen, crippled mail delivery for months, shut down a Senate office building and cost an estimated $25 billion.¹

For years, no real progress was made in finding the perpetrators. But suspects were quickly targeted.

Two weeks after the letters were sent, Sen. John McCain was on David Letterman's show identifying Iraq as "phase two" in the war on terror, saying there was "some indication" the anthrax may have come from there.


McCain's scapegoating of Iraq for the anthrax attacks just 38 days after 9-11 was a remarkable harbinger of the misguided Iraq war to come, since:

  • the U.S. had already identified Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan as masterminding 9-11, and had launched military operations there;
  • 14 of the 18 hijackers (like Bin Laden himself) were from Saudi Arabia;
  • biological and chemical weapons had been destroyed in Iraq at the end of the first gulf war in 1991;
  • senior intelligence officials had already informed the White House and top members of Congress that no Iraqi connection to 9-11 could be found.

With the Iraq lead not panning out, the career of a government scientist, Stephen Hatfill, was effectively destroyed when Attorney General John Ashcroft identified him as a "person of interest" in the case. No charges against Hatfill were ever brought. He sued the government and collected a $5.8 million settlement in July, 2008.

Cold Case

The one-two punch of 9-11 and anthrax had America traumatized. Then the anthrax attacks stopped as suddenly as they had begun.

Over the seven years since they occurred, Americans fell into two groups: those who kept the antibiotic Cipro on hand as a precaution, and those who basically forgot about anthrax, as their attention drifted from the failed hunt for Bin Laden to the failed hunt for weapons of mass destruction and finally away from the War on Terror altogether.

Soon more Americans were googling "Botox" than "Anthrax" (perhaps a poison that doesn't make us look good isn't worth our attention), and "iRaq" gave way to iPods and iPhones in the collective unconscious. With no draft, the war on terror was something other people were taking care of. A Saturday Night Live sketch even included a laugh line for its perpetually depressed character, Debbie Downer: "And you know, they never solved that Anthrax case." Wah-wahhh.

Leads in the case seemed cold until August 1, 2008, when David Willman broke the story in the Los Angeles Times that Bruce E. Ivins, 62, an anthrax researcher at the Army's main biodefense laboratory, had apparently committed suicide on July 29 with an overdose of Tylenol after he was advised that the FBI planned to charge him in the attacks. Ivins, who worked for 28 years at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Ft. Detrick, Maryland, 50 miles north of Washington, D.C., specialized in developing vaccines against anthrax and other biological weapons. He had even helped the FBI analyze the powdery material recovered from one of the envelopes sent to Sen. Daschle's office in Washington.²

News that a government Anthrax scientist had committed suicide with the FBI closing in had Cipro-stockers everywhere breathing a sigh of relief. After seven years of no arrests for the worst bioterrorist attacks in U.S. history--with politicians fingering Iraq and the Feds fingering the wrong scientist--news of Ivins' death was the best news in the war on terror since it all began...even if the perpetrator would be providing no further information about the case. Ivins' group counselor, Jean Carol Duley, who'd been seeing him for six months, had just obtained a protective order on July 24 when she warned a Maryland court that Ivins was a "sociopathic, homicidal killer" who planned to kill his co-workers "because he was about to be indicted on capital murder charges."

Thank God (assuming Ivins was the perpetrator) he was dead.

But David Willman's report in the Los Angeles Times also included a disturbing detail of how the U.S. Army failed to follow up on Ivins' extremely suspicious behavior in 2002. It makes one wonder how safe we are from our own weapons of mass destruction.

Ivins...earlier had attracted the attention of Army officials because of anthrax contaminations that Ivins failed to report for five months. In sworn oral and written statements to an Army investigator, Ivins said that he had erred by keeping the contamination episodes secret--from December 2001 to late April 2002. He said he had swabbed and bleached more than 20 areas that he suspected were contaminated by a sloppy lab technician.

"In retrospect, although my concern for biosafety was honest and my desire to refrain from crying 'Wolf!'...was sincere, I should have notified my supervisor ahead of time of my worries about a possible breach in biocontainment," Ivins told the Army. "I thought that quietly and diligently cleaning the dirty desk area would both eliminate any possible [anthrax] contamination as well as prevent unintended anxiety at the institute."

The Army chose not to discipline Ivins regarding his failure to report the contamination. Officials said that penalizing Ivins might discourage other employees from voluntarily reporting accidental spills of "hot" agents.

But Ivins' recollections should have raised serious questions about his veracity and his intentions, according to some of those familiar with the investigation. For instance, although Ivins said that he swabbed ares near and within his personal office, and bleached surfaces to kill any spores, and that some of the swabs tested positive, he was vague about what should have been an essential next step:

Reswabbing to check whether any spores remained.

"I honestly do not recall if follow-up swabs were taken of the area," Ivins wrote. "I may have done so, but I do not now remember reswabbing."

"That's bull----," said one former senior USAMRIID official. "If there's contamination, you always reswab. And you would remember doing it."

The former official told The Times that Ivins might have hedged regarding reswabbing out of fear that investigators would find more of the spores inside or near his office.

Ivins' statements were contained within a May 2002 Army report on the contamination at USAMRIID and was obtained by The Times under the Freedom of Information Act.²

Pattern of Army Unaccountability

To not discipline a top research scientist for failing to report anthrax contamination for five months, immediately after anthrax was used in the worst bioterror attack in U.S. history, is incredible, and yet symptomatic of the Army brass's breakdown of accountability under the unaccountable Bush administration.

Consider that during World War II, which the U.S. fought and won in less time than the Iraq War, 23 U.S. Army generals were fired or replaced for cause. But during the Bush administration's "War on Terror" since late 2001, only one general has been fired or replaced for cause³...even with the failure to capture Bin Laden, the failure to secure Iraqi munitions after the invasion, the travesty of Abu Ghraib, et al.

Get it Wrong, Get the Presidential Medal of Honor

In fact, George W. Bush not only didn't fire, but actually gave Presidential Medals of Honor to:

  • CIA Director George Tenet, who famously told Bush that the case for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was "a slam-dunk"
  • Coalition Provisional Authority leader Paul Bremer, who without consulting commanding General Jay Garner, arrived in Iraq and disbanded the Iraqi military, putting 80,000 armed Iraqis out of work and creating the insurgency
  • General Tommy Frank, whose forces had Osama Bin Laden cornered in Tora Bora before he outsourced the mission to Afghan warlords; then commanded the Iraq invasion, leaving just one month after Bush declared that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended" in May, 2003

Get it Right, Walk the Plank

On the other hand, there was no Presidential Medal of Freedom for a general who gave the right advice from the start. In February, 2003, Army General Eric Shinseki advised Congress that Iraq would not be a cakewalk, and that the U.S. would need at least 200,000 troops there to quell Iraqi violence against U.S. troops and each other. Turns out he couldn't have been more right, but on August 1, 2003, Defense Secretary replaced him as Army Chief of Staff with Gen. Peter Shoomaker. Rumsfeld and then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz called Shinseki's estimate "wildly off the mark." Wolfowitz famously predicted, "I am fairly certain they will view us as liberators, and that will help us to keep requirements down."4 In return for his uncanny accuracy, Wolfowitz went on to get the top job at the World Bank (which he lost for conflict of interest in promoting his girlfriend there).

Three years after Shinseki's prophetic testimony, head of Central Command General John Abizaid told the Armed Services Committee on November 1, 2006 that "General Shinseki was right that a greater...force...should have been available immediately after major combat operations."5 Shinseki did not get his job back, however.

Meanwhile, the N.Y. Daily News and N.Y. Times are reporting that a former aide to then-FBI Director Robert Mueller says that President Bush put Mueller and others under enormous pressure to pin the anthrax attacks on Middle Eastern perpetrators. Looks like John McCain was on board that straight talk express before anyone.

Scariest Part--Are Anthrax Vaccines a Ticking Time Bomb Among Our Scientists?

One anthrax expert suggested that Bruce Ivins' deteriorating mental state after 2000 might have been affected by the annual vaccinations he would have received over his 28-year career to protect against infection by the potent anthrax spores he culitvated. The old anthrax vaccine was linked to psychological effects in a report by the National Academies of Science Institute of Medicine. Examining active-duty military personnel who received shots from 1998 to 2000, the study found that the diagnosis for psychoses and other personality disorders more than tripled after the vaccinations.6

That should help us all sleep better at night! Is there another Bruce Ivins going quietly nuts somewhere among the hundreds of oft-vaccinated scientists working with anthrax and other deadly materials?

In other words, just how safe are we from our own weapons of mass destruction?

© 2008 Most


¹ Los Angeles Times, August 4, 2008, Bob Drogin

² Los Angeles Times, August 1, 2008, David Willman

³ Harper's Magazine, Harper's Index, June, 2008; Sources: Lt. Col. Robert Bateman, Washington, and U.S. Army Public Affairs
4 Encyclopedia, "Eric Shinseki"

5 USA Today, November 15, 2006

6 Los Angeles Times, August 10, 2008, Stephen Braun, David Zucchino & Nichole Gaouette

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