Progressive Politics Research and Commentary by Janette Rainwater

About Anthrax


Janette Rainwater, Ph.D.

Original Post of December 16, 2001:

Finally a leading Democrat has mentioned the elephant in the livingroom. On December 8th Majority Leader Senator Tom Daschle said he believes it is a good bet that those letters laden with deadly anthrax spores were sent to him and Senator Leahy by someone "with military experience." By this time Ashcroft and Ridge had conceded that it was probably a domestic terrorist and not one of bin Laden's guys. Senator Daschle could have added (but it would have been most unwise politically to have done so) that, given the influential positions of the two Democratic recipients, the sender was most likely a right-wing Republican.

It's interesting that Attorney General Ashcroft has been so slow in sending his FBI to interview past and present military with experience in biological warfare and also past and present workers in microbiology labs. (He's had no problem doing a fishing expedition with immigrants from Middle Eastern countries, and that's a far less specific criterion.)

But as Clayton Lee Waagner, the confessed "anthrax" hoaxer who sent threatening letters containing a white powder to 550 abortion clinics in the last two months, said of Ashcroft, "I understand he's anti-abortion also. He's a good man."

The whole anthrax scare that was so hyped in October by the networks revealed an interesting class consciousness in this administration. Immediately after anthrax was discovered in the Daschle letter on October 15th the area was quarantined, hundreds of people on Capitol Hill were tested, and at least 50 people put on a prophylactic dosage of Cipro for 60 days. The House of Representatives, with no known exposure, closed down for business on the 17th.

Only a week later, after two postal workers died of inhalation anthrax on the October 22, did authorities turn their attention to the postal service that had handled and delivered the letter. The thousands of postal workers who went to the District of Columbia General Hospital for anthrax testing on October 23rd were told that testing was not necessary and handed a ten days' supply of Cipro (this despite the warnings on TV that people should not take the antibiotic if they had not been exposed.)

With only five deaths so far, it is obvious that anthrax, at least in the current delivery system, is a dud as a bioterrorism weapon of mass destruction (familiarly known on Capitol Hill as a WMD.) Where it is useful, of course, is in creating panic and, as in this case, providing a climate wherein legislation curtailing civil liberties can be passed. Since only Russia and the US have the capability of producing anthrax in the Daschle-Leahy form, the conspiracy theorists have been pointing their collective fingers at the CIA and/or military intelligence.

Now a Washington Post news story of December 16, 2001 reveals that the anthrax spores mailed to Capitol Hill have the identical genetic fingerprints as the anthrax stocks maintained by the US Army at Fort Detrick, Maryland since 1980. Only four other labs have samples from the Fort Detrick stock: Dugway Proving Ground, a military research facility in Utah which has processed anthrax spores into the easily-inhaled powdery form; Lousiana State University, Northern Arizona University, and the Porton Down military lab in Britain.The spores used in the Daschle-Leahy letters had to have come from one of these five places. Now that should help narrow your search, Mr. Ashcroft.

Supposedly these labs (including the CIA which has also been experimenting with anthrax spores) were using the samples in an effort to develop vaccines against anthrax. But suspicious minds recall that the US has refused to sign on to the bioterrorism treaty as long as the treaty mandates international inspection of laboratories working with materials that could be used in bioterrorism.

February 19, 2002 update:  Evidently the FBI has had a major suspect since October. Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, the director of the Chemical and Biological Weapons program of the Federation of American Scientists, said the suspect is a former government scientist.  "We know that the FBI is looking at this person, and it's likely that he participated in the past in secret activiies that the government would not like to see disclosed. And this raises the question of whether the FBI may be dragging its feet somewhat and may not be so anxious to bring to public light the person who did this.... I know that there are insiders, working for the government, who know this person and who are worried that it could happen that some kind of quiet deal is made that he just disappears from view." In answer to a question she further said, "The results of the anayses (of the letters and the anthrax in them) show that access to classified information was essential. And that rules out most of the people in the pharmaceutical industry.... We can draw a likely portrait of the perpetrator as a former Fort Detrick scientist who is now working for a contractor in the Washington, D.C. area. He had reason for travel to Florida, New Jersey and the United Kingdom..... There is also the likelihood the perpetrator made the anthrax himself. He grew it, probably on a solid medium and weaponized it at a private location where he had accumulated the equipment and the material.... The FBI has questioned this person more than once." Joseph Dee, Times of Trenton, New Jersey Online, 02/19/02---

March 18, 2002 update:   Dr. Rosenberg further describes her candidate for the anthrax mailings in an article in The New Yorker. He is "a middle-aged man who had worked at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), at Fort Detrick, Maryland, and who was familiar with the method of weaponizing anthrax devised by William Patrick III, the longtime head of bioweapons research at Fort Detrick. The perpetrator now works for a Washington-area subcontractor to the U.S. biological weapons program." Assessing him as "not a normal person," but someone with a "pattern of erratic behavior," she believes he may have had some sort of a setback to his career and decided to seek revenge with the anthax letters not only to demonstrate how good he is (and therefore misjudged by his superiors) but, also to motivate the government to spend more money in bioweapons research. The anthrax, she believes, was prepared in the summer of 2001. With the September 11th attacks he had the opportunity to throw suspicion on the Muslims with an anonymous letter to the police casting suspicion on a former colleague from Fort Detrick who had been born in Egypt, Ayaad Assaad, and with Muslim slog ans included in some of the letters.  Nicholas Lemann, "The Anthrax Culprit," The New Yorker, March 18, 2002.

July 2, 2002 update: Nicholas Kristof, in a most explicit New York Times op-ed, questions why the FBI has refused "to arrest or seriously investigate the most obvious suspect" in last Fall's anthrax-laced letters. He suggests that the suspect will "strike again or, more likely,... flee to Iran or North Korea." His Mr. Z. fits Dr. Rosenberg's description with these added specifics: The FBI has searched his home twice and interviewed him four times. Some of his polygraphs "show evasion." Kristof has discovered at least one alias for the man and says he continues to travel abroad on government assignments including to Central Asia and has "close ties" to the CIA and the US Defense Department. Kristof asks the FBI: "Have you searched the isolated residence that he had access to last fall? The FBI has known about this building, and knows that Mr. Z. gave Cipro to people who visited it. This property and many others are legally registered in the name of a friend of Mr. Z., but may be safe houses operated by American intelligence."

Mr. Z. has claimed to have fought with the white Rhodesian Army against the black guerrillas in the late '70s. Kristof asks if Mr. Z. had any connection with the cutaneous anthrax epidemic of 1978-80 that sickened 10,000 black farmers in what is now Zimbabwe. This was the world's largest anthrax outbreak and is believed to have been spread by the Rhodesian Army---- an operation modeled, perhaps, on the smallpox-infected blankets given by the US Army to Native Americans in the nineteenth century? Mr. Z. was also involved with the former South African Defense Force. Kristof wonders, as do I, why would the US Defense Department employ a man who has served in the armed forces of two white-racist regimes and then give him access to some of the world's deadliest organisms? His top security clearance was suspended in August, 2001---- before 9-11 or the anthrax letters. Why?

However, under our system of law, at least until recently, a person is innocent until proven otherwise. Since Dr. Z. is widely regarded in his community as the prime suspect and is said to be suffering from the suspicions, it would seem only decent to thoroughly investigate the man and then either arrest him or exculpate him and apologize. We don't need another Dr. Wen Ho Lee. "Anthrax? The FBI Yawns," New York Times, July 2, 2002;, July 3, 2002; George Monbiot, "Riddle of the spores-- Why has the FBI investigation into the anthrax attacks stalled? The evidence points one way," Guardian( UK), May 21, 2002.

July 11, 2002 update:  According to Dr. Patricia Doyle's article, "On the Trail of the Anthrax Attack Conspirators," a Dr. Steven Hatfill fits the bill for "Dr. Z." She describes a highly classified risk assessment of sending anthrax through the mail in 1999. In that experiment business-size envelopes were filled with 2.5 grams of an anthrax simulant, b. globigii, taped closed and handled in the lab with no resulting contamination. (The anthrax letters sent to Daschle and Leahy contained a similar amount of material and were sealed in the same fashion.) However, in the risk assessment experiment, the envelopes were not subjected to the high speed sorting machines of the Postal Service which can puncture the envelopes.

The list of people who knew about this risk assessment was very small. It was commissioned by Steven Hatfill and carried out by William Patrick III, the scientist who developed and patented the method for aerolizing, or weaponizing, anthrax.

Doyle posits a "cabal" of conspirators who wanted a bioevent "to scare the Congress and public into accepting major public health changes as well as major funding," but who never intended to kill people or contaminate facilities. Those new public health laws "would virtually subvert the US Constitution" in the creation of concentration camps for those people allegedly exposed to an epidemic disease. She believes the anthrax in the letters was milled by at least two different people.

In another article she includes Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, Ken Alibek and "certain highly placed CIA agents" as part of the Hatfill-Patrick cabal. Ken Alibek is the new name of Kanatjan Alibekov, the former Number Two man in the Soviet biochemical warfare program until his arrival in the US in 1992. Alibek's company, Hadron Advanced Biosystems, Inc., was one of several companies that reaped large profits from the anthrax scare. (His former boss in the USSR, Dr. Vladimir Pasechnik, died in England in late November, 2001, one of the dozen or so microbiologists and immunologists to be murdered or die mysteriously in the weeks following the anthrax letters.)

Dr. Doyle supplies some more items for Dr. Hatfill's resume: He went to medical school in Rhodesia, he worked concurrently for the US Army Institute for Military Assistance at Fort Bragg NC and for the Rhodesian Special Air Squadron in the early '80s. After 1984 he worked for the white South African government including a year of duty in Antarctica. In 1995 he went to work for the US National Institute of Health. In 1997-1999 he worked at his "dream job" at USAMRIID (US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.) From 1997 on he was a very public agitator for more funding for bio-terrorism preparedness and received additional media attention in 1997 after the anthrax hoax package (containing b. cereus) was sent to B'nai B'rith. After his unexpected departure from USAMRIID, he went to work for SAIC (Scientific Applications International Corporation) while maintaining privileges and clearances at USAMRIID, Dugway and Edgewood labs. The Baltimore Sun reported that in August, 2000 he had been observed leaving USAMRIID with two biosafety cabinets. In March, 2002 his security clearances were revoked and he left SAIC. Doyle, "On the Trail of the Anthrax Attack Conspirators," (July 7, 2002); Doyle, "Battelle, Alibek and Anthrax," (May 8, 2002); Leonard Horowitz, "Could the Anthrax Mailings be Military-Industrial Espionage?", July 11, 2002

July 14 update:    Nicholas Kristof suggests that the FBI really should re-examine that package that was sent to B'nai B'rith on April 24, 1997. It had been identified as containing "anthracks" which is reminiscent of the misspelling of "penacillin" in the 2001 letters. (Anyone competent to manufacture anthrax is surely capable of correctly spelling these two words.)

Kristof's Mr. Z. frequently invokes the B'nai B'rith mailing to demonstrate the bioterrorism danger. At the time of the mailing he was in Washington bemoaning the fact that he had not been invited to a terrorism conference taking place there.

Kristof is concerned that the FBI has not re-investigated either the B'nai B'rith episode nor the February, 1999 letters containing powder anthrax that were mailed to government and media targets including the Washington Post, NBC in Atlanta, a Georgia post office adjacent to Fort Benning and the Old Executive Office Building in the capitol. These letters contained powder anthrax at a time when most workers were still working with wet anthrax. (Dr. Z.'s 1999 resumé claims proficiency with both kinds.) The language patterns, the capitalization and the warnings to the recipients are very much like that of the 2001 letters. And isn't there a good possibility that DNA could be recovered from the stamps? Kristof, "The Anthrax Files," New York Times, July 12, 2002.

July 19 update:   Nicholas D. Kristof, the anthrax watchdog at the New York Times (and bully for you, N.K.!) says this today:

It's bad enough that we can't find Iraqi anthrax hidden in the desert. But it turns out that we also misplaced anthrax and Ebola kept in a lab outside Washington, D.C. [Also hantavirus and SIV, the simian version of HIV.]

Internal Army documents about the U.S. biodefense program describe missing Ebola and other pathogens, vicious feuds, lax security, cover-ups and a "cowboy culture" beyond anyone's scrutiny. Moreover, germ warriors in the C.I.A. and the Defense Department decided— without bothering to consult the White House— to produce anthrax secretly and tinker with it in ways that arguably put the U.S. in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention.

It's time for Congress or an outside commission to investigate our nation's biodefense program and establish oversight. [Emphasis added.]

He's talking about USAMRIID at Fort Detrick, Maryland and information contained in the 400 pages of internal documents which he has obtained. There were incidents in 1992 when someone was working secretly with anthrax at night and on weekends. Attempts were made to roll back the counter on an electron microscope to conceal work with anthrax.

He further notes that anthrax spores were found in a hallway and administrative area of USAMRIID shortly after the visit of Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA). "Anthrax spores seem to have it in for Democratic senators." Kristof, "Case of the Missing Anthrax," New York Times, July 19, 2002.

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