September 18, 2001: Terrorism by Mail – Will Your Next Piece of Mail Kill You? (The Anthrax Scare)

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A Brief History

On September 18, 2001, in the wake of the terror attacks of September 11, people in the United States were jumpy and on edge, not knowing if another attack would occur.  They did not have to wait long.  Just one week later, the first “Anthrax Letters” were mailed.  Believed at first to be “weaponized” Anthrax, that is Anthrax enhanced with silica to facilitate infection, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) ultimately refuted this claim.

Digging Deeper

Called the “Amerithrax Case” by the FBI, a series of letters laced with powdery Anthrax were sent in two batches in September and October.  Because they were opened at various times, it gave the impression of several more mailings.  The tainted letters were sent to major media outlets and to 2 U.S. Senators.

A total of 5 people died from contracting Anthrax, and another 17 were sickened by the letters laden with Anthrax spores.  It seems Anthrax is common in nature, but normally it is found in concentrations too low to cause disease.  It is when someone gets a large dose (a small puff of pure Anthrax spores is a large dose) that the body gets overwhelmed and contracts the disease.

The panic that ensued caused Congress to be closed, and all the available Ciprofloxacin (the antibiotic used to treat Anthrax) disappeared quickly as everyone with a potential exposure was recommended to take it and the government stockpiled it for congressmen and government employees.  The Police departments and the FBI were overwhelmed by citizens reporting various forms of dust and powder in all sorts of letters, boxes, cartons, as well as on various public fixtures such as drinking fountains and countertops.  Untold thousands, perhaps millions, of items were either taken to the police or calls were made to the police demanding pick up and removal of possibly contaminated items.  Of course, except for the several letters sent by the one source, all the rest of these were false leads and an incredible waste of time and effort.

The FBI conducted one of the most massive criminal investigations in history as it tried to track down the perpetrator and source of the Anthrax-containing letters.  A specific strain of Anthrax, called the Ames Strain and known to have originated in Texas, was identified.  This particular strain of Anthrax had been studied at Iowa State University and had been used by the U.S. Army at Fort Detrick, Maryland, and at 16 other U.S. locations as well as in labs in Canada, Sweden and the UK.  Obviously, all personnel with access to this strain of Anthrax immediately became suspects.

Mysteries and controversy concerning the incident and its investigation abound.  People were shocked to learn that White House personnel had been put on a Cipro regimen before the Anthrax letters had even been sent, with Vice President Cheney and his retinue starting on September 11, 2001!  Conspiracy, anyone?  Or did the White House know something it did not share with the public?  Another questionable event was the destruction of 70 years worth of Anthrax samples at Iowa State University in early October of 2001, supposedly with the approval of the FBI and the Center for Disease Control (CDC).  This destruction of evidence hindered the investigation.  Conspiracy, anyone?  In the examination of evidence, some scientists claimed various compounds (such as silicon dioxide and/or smallpox, among others) had been added to the Anthrax.  In addition, some of those scientists later retracted earlier statements about the content of the Anthrax they had studied.  Conspiracy, anyone?

Another mysterious angle to this terrorist crisis was the theory that the perpetrator had concealed a coded message in his handwritten letters in the Anthrax mailings.  Investigators cannot even agree about this.

Ultimately, a main suspect was selected from all the candidates, a scientist by the name of Bruce Ivins who had worked at the lab in Fort Detrick.  When he received news that charges would likely be filed against him, he committed suicide by taking an overdose of acetaminophen.  Although no direct evidence linking Ivins to the crime was ever recovered, just days after his death, the FBI declared that he had been solely responsible for the attacks.  Is the government blaming a dead guy who cannot defend himself?  Is he a real suspect or just a scapegoat?  We, the public, may never know.  In any case, at least the letters did not keep coming, except for the copycat hoax letters that contained baby powder, cornstarch and other white, powdery stuff.

Question for students (and subscribers): Will we be hit with another terror-through-the-mail campaign?  Will we fall for all the hoaxers and copycats next time?  Was Bruce Ivins really responsible for the original attacks?  Let us know your opinion in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Coen, Bob and Eric Nadler.  Dead Silence: Fear and Terror on the Anthrax Trail.  Counterpoint, 2009.

MacQueen, Graeme.  The 2001 Anthrax Deception: The Case for a Domestic Conspiracy.  Clarity Press, Inc., 2014.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.