Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Anthrax Scare of 2001... Five Years Later.

Is it just me, or is anyone else puzzled about the anthrax scare that occurred around this time shortly after 9-11? It's not that the culprit has not been caught- after all, Osama Bin Ladin is still kicking back in some Afghani/Pakistani cave complex, drinking brackish tea, cutting up jackpots and chewing qat. No... what confounds me is that the story died stillborn in the media. We can't go six hours without hearing about al-Qaeda, but no one talks about the terror sent through the mail.

I remember it quite well, because it was the genesis of a tradition in my house that continues until this day. It is my job to get the mail from the box. M. decided she was done with that when the news of the poisoned post broke in late 2001. So I take it upon myself to confront the awful danger of bringing in the junk mail. Of course it's absurd to think that we would be targeted here in our comfortable community within the Pittsburgh metropolitan area. Surely, I have not stirred the nest of Islamic fundamentalism so much as those irreverent Belgium cartoonists so noted for depicting Mohammed in compromising positions. But at least our fears would have been marginally more justifiable than those of the paranoid red-staters of rural Pennsylvania... and we all know they see terrorists at their doorsteps in the dark of every night.

The alarming thing is that specific individuals were marked as targets for those envelopes of lethal white powder- TV news anchormen and members of the "opposition party" (like Patrick Leahy, Democratic Senator from Vermont). One might think that solving the case would be a priority that the media and the authorities could rally behind. Five victims died between the dates of October 5 and November 21, 2001. Those deaths have largely been forgotten, while the heroic passengers of flight 93 have been commemorated by Hollywood. Really... what gives?

Two years after the fact, the FBI still rated their search for the perpetrator as their "highest priority". The reward for information was set at $2.5 million dollars. Five years later the so-called "Amerithrax" case seems dead in the water. This past August, the investigator-in-charge (Richard Lambert) was transferred out of his position. The agency claims to have held their commitment to the investigation, but no charges are expected to be filed anytime soon.

In the run-up to the Iraqi invasion, there were attempts by some to justify the action by pinning the responsibility on Saddam Hussein. Of course, that ended up being a dead end after scientific investigation proved that the anthrax spores were of recent manufacture. It would have been incredibly convenient to establish that link, but the Bush administration was unable to do so.

There are several facets of this incident that combine to present a particularly troublesome picture of the state of the nation and the world. The fact that it is so difficult to determine the source of manufacture for this strain of anthrax prompts questions about just how many possible sources exist. Are there really that many folks working to produce this compound? Why? What possible reason could there be for multiple groups creating a chemical weapon that has been condemned by international law? Or has it become so easy to make anthrax that it is possible that some lone psycho created it in his basement labratory? And the apparent ease of execution, and its relative efficiency are also cause for concern. With the success of the operation, why has it not been repeated since?

Left-leaning commentator Keith Olbermann was recently sent a hoax anthrax letter. He was one of a group of public figures including David Letterman, Chuck Schumer, Nanci Pelosi, and Jon Stewart that were threatened by a series of envelopes containing white powder. These incidents became a point of contention between a varied array of parties. The perpetrator, Chad Castagana, was evidently a disgruntled conservative fan of Ann Coulter, Katherine Harris, and the far-right web site Free Republic. He included written threats that suggests his actions were politically motivated. There are many who suspect that the 2001 anthrax letters also originated from the increasingly militant American right wing. Some see shadows of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and Christian Identity killer Eric Robert Rudolph.

It's these types of comparisons that threaten to transform rational citizens into conspiracists. It's true that the Unabomber's identity went undiscovered for many years. Perhaps having identified the DNA code of the 2001 anthrax letters has not given the FBI the crucial clues it requires to break this case. But five years after the incident, with little to no progress having been made, I wonder exactly what the priorities of the War on Terror are. No one has been convicted of any of the crimes perpetrated during that fall of 2001. Yet we have been subject to restrictions of our civil rights, and billions of dollars have been spent on an invasion of a country that had nothing to do with 9-11. And our politicians seem perfectly content to point out that there is no end in sight to this vaguely defined global conflict. Haven't we been here before?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey! Hi. Bacillus anthracis is the spore forming microorganism that produces the toxin. Like you didn't know... The U.S. really likes this little guy. Check it out,

"In 1986, the U.S. government spent US$42 million on research for developing infectious diseases and toxins, ten times more money than was spent in 1981. The money went to 24 U.S. universities in hopes of developing strains of anthrax, Rift Valley fever, Japanese encephalitis, tularemia, shigella, botulin, and Q fever. When the Biology Department at MIT voted to refuse Pentagon funds for biotech research, the Reagan administration forced it to reverse its decision by threatening to cut off other funds.

There have been reports that the United States Army has been developing weapons-grade anthrax spores at Dugway Proving Ground, a chemical and biological defense testing facility in Utah, since at least as early as 1992."


So, funds for that type of military R&D in 1986 were $42 MILLION.
In 2004, "The $2.23 trillion 2004 budget request that President George W. Bush sent Congress this week includes hefty raises for U.S. military and homeland security research programs."
That year, $70 BILLION went to military R&D. And in 2005, $75 billion.

From the white house web site, "Since 2001, the Administration will have raised defense spending by more than 40 percent and more than tripled funding for homeland security."


11:48 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Good information Laurie. Warms my heart.

9:55 PM  
Blogger Theophilus said...

With all the news on the Iraq Study Group yesterday -- most of the mainstream media seems to have missed an important detail about the Amerithrax investigation that FBI Director Robert Mueller said yesterday in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In a nutshell, NPR is reporting, "Mueller said the case is before a grand jury."

I haven't found this detail reported elsewhere, and I don't see any transcripts available at the Judiciary Committee's site. The Senate site does have a "webcast" option for the two-hour hearing, but that function no longer seems to work, see

As many are aware -- federal prosecutors rarely bring a case before a grand jury unless they have suspects. The grand jury venue allows US attorneys to question witnesses, under oath, whilst they are almost entirely within the prosecutor's control. Defense attorneys are not allowed inside; rather, they must wait outside the hearing room and can be consulted by the witness upon request, with the witness having to leave the hearing room to do so.

Thus the DoJ must have specific suspects, if not subjects or targets, in this investigation.

I believe a federal grand jury has a one-year term, which can be extended up to six months. Thus there is a possibility, at least, that indictment(s) may be coming down at some time less than those periods.

Anyway, below is a transcript I made from yesterday's NPR broadcast, and a link to its webcast, in case you wish to read.
Senators Grill FBI Head on Investigations, Priorities
All Things Considered, December 6, 2006

For Repulican Charles Grassley of Iowa, the issue of the day was anthrax. Five years ago, anonymous letters containing anthrax spores killed five people. The mystery is unsolved. Grassley said despite his requests, it's been three years since Congress was briefed.

This investigation is one of the largest efforts in FBI history, I'm told. Congress has a right and a responsibility to get some detailed information about how all those resources are being used.

Mueller said the case is before a grand jury and any briefing could compromise the proceedings. Ranking Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont interjected,

I avoided making many public comments about the anthrax case, especially on the five-year anniversary I might note at least two people who touched the envelope that I was supposed to open -- died.

Leahy told Director Mueller,

I'm not satisfied with this investigation. I'm not satisfied with the briefings I've had. I'm not satisfied with the information I've received on it."

Leahy said he expects to ask the FBI more questions about the anthrax investigation once he becomes committee chair.

6:18 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


Thanks for sharing that crucial information. I had not heard about any grand jury hearings. Has it really been that under the radar? And once again the Congress is being kept completely in the dark. WTF? Good stuff Theo. keep it coming.

11:26 PM  

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