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Chair, MTCR
May 19, 2021
U.S. Under Anthrax Attack; Bioterror Source Unknown
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Rebecca Whitehair

As of October 29, a bioterrorist attack using anthrax has killed three people in the United States, and dozens more have been infected or exposed to the bacterium, many apparently from handling mail contaminated with anthrax spores.

Government officials have not yet determined the source of the anthrax, which has been delivered to media and government offices via the U.S. Postal Service, nor have they determined whether the anthrax attacks are related to the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. On October 25, Attorney General John Ashcroft said, “We are not able to rule out an association with the terrorist acts of September 11, but neither are we able to draw a conclusive link at this time.”

The first case of anthrax was reported October 4, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that a photo editor at American Media, Inc. in Boca Raton, Florida, was infected with inhalation anthrax, which is contracted by breathing airborne anthrax spores and is usually fatal if untreated. The man died the next day.

Initially, it was suspected that the case was isolated and that the man might have contracted the disease naturally, but there has been no known case of inhalation anthrax in the United States since 1976. Fears that the death was the result of a biological attack heightened after a second American Media employee was diagnosed October 5 with inhalation anthrax, which is not contagious, and after investigators subsequently found anthrax spores at the company.

The following week, anthrax cases began emerging in New York City. On October 12, the CDC reported that an NBC News employee who opened an anthrax-laden letter had cutaneous anthrax. Days later, the CDC confirmed that the infant son of an ABC News employee and a CBS employee also had tested positive for cutaneous anthrax. Cutaneous anthrax is contracted when anthrax spores come in contact with a broken area of the skin, such as a cut or sore. It is treatable with antibiotics and is less dangerous than the airborne form of the disease.

The case took a dramatic turn October 15, when an aide to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) opened an envelope containing anthrax spores. Daschle’s office was immediately shut down following the discovery, and mail service to House and Senate office buildings stopped temporarily. Hundreds of congressional members and staff lined up to be tested and to receive prophylactic antibiotics. Thus far, 28 have tested positive for exposure but are not infected.

The exposures prompted Senate and House offices to close for further investigations, and, in an unprecedented precautionary measure, the House adjourned for five days. Inspections of Capitol Hill buildings found anthrax spores in other Senate and House offices.

Another series of significant events took place October 19-22, when two postal workers in Washington died from inhalation anthrax, a letter containing anthrax spores was discovered at the offices of the New York Post, and postal workers working in facilities that processed contaminated letters in Washington, D.C., and New Jersey contracted anthrax.

As fears about the safety of the mail spread and the number of postal workers infected increased, facilities shut down, mail was rerouted, and medical tests and antibiotics—as well as masks and gloves—were offered to thousands of postal employees. The postal service also ordered equipment to irradiate and kill potential anthrax bacteria.

Between October 23 and 29, findings of anthrax spores continued to emerge in the Washington-area postal facilities that process mail for the White House, State Department, Supreme Court, Central Intelligence Agency, and Justice Department. Spores also appeared in more congressional offices; the building that houses the Food and Drug Administration and Voice of America; the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and its research institute; and the basement mail room of the Supreme Court, forcing the building to close and the justices to meet elsewhere.

As of October 29, 12 people have been confirmed as infected with anthrax, and another six cases are suspected. Three people have died, all from inhalation anthrax. More than 30 people have tested positive for exposure. The United States has placed more than 13,000 people on antibiotics and even negotiated with the pharmaceutical company Bayer to increase the production of the antibiotic ciprofloxacin, one of the drugs approved to treat anthrax, in the event of further outbreaks.

No Known Source

Nearly a month after the first anthrax case was reported, no conclusive evidence has publicly surfaced pinpointing who is behind the anthrax attack, but there has been considerable debate as to whether an individual, terrorist group, or foreign government is responsible.

Investigators do know that the letters sent to NBC, Daschle’s office, and the New York Post were all postmarked Trenton, New Jersey, and contained anthrax from the same genetic strain.

Also, on October 25 Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said that, based on DNA testing, the anthrax samples from Florida, New York, and Washington are “indistinguishable,” identifying them as the “Ames strain” of anthrax. Distinguishing what strain of anthrax a particular sample is could help investigators identify the anthrax’s origin. Because the Ames strain has been distributed to research labs throughout the world, however, knowledge of the strain-type helps little in this case.

Questions of how sophisticated the anthrax samples are, a clue that could help narrow the list of suspects, have also been raised. According to Ridge, it is “clear that the terrorists responsible for the attacks intended to use this anthrax as a weapon.” He said that the spores found in the letter to Daschle were small and highly concentrated, making them more easily inhaled.

The New York Times and The Washington Post reported October 25 that, according to experts, the anthrax spores that contaminated the Daschle letter appear to have been coated with a chemical additive that would allow the anthrax spores to remain suspended in the air longer, thereby increasing their volatility. The experts claimed the coating was so sophisticated that only a government-sponsored laboratory in the United States, the former Soviet Union, or Iraq could have produced it.

In contrast, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said October 26, “While we cannot rule out that [the anthrax] may have been from a foreign nation or state sponsored, its sophistication also indicates it could be produced by a Ph.D. microbiologist—it could be produced in a lab of some sophistication.” He said that such a lab could exist in the United States or abroad.

Speculation has emerged that Iraq might be behind the anthrax attacks, but no proof indicating Baghdad’s involvement has surfaced. Iraq is known to have produced anthrax for use as a biological weapon, and Iraq’s claims that it has destroyed all of its biological weapons agents have not been verified.

However, in response to a question posed during an October 29 briefing, federal officials said that further testing revealed that the spore samples from the Daschle and New York Post letters did not contain the presence of bentonite, a mineral compound that would have made the anthrax more easily airborne. According to UN weapons inspectors who served in Iraq after the Persian Gulf War, Iraq used bentonite in its biological weapons program.

During an October 15 interview, Condoleezza Rice, the president’s national security adviser, told the Arab Al Jazeera satellite broadcast network that “the United States will act if Iraq threatens its interests.”


As the government scrambles to respond to anthrax attacks and continues to investigate who sent the letters, it is also broadening its legal authority to address terrorism. On October 26, President George W. Bush signed legislation that significantly increases the government’s powers to track down suspected terrorists.

The new law, known as the USA Patriot Act of 2001, addresses the bioterrorist threat by, among other measures, expanding upon the Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989, which outlaws the development or possession of biological weapons. The new legislation increases the prohibited range of activity from possessing a weapon to possessing biological agents or toxins for prophylactic, protective, bona fide research, or other peaceful purposes.

The anti-terrorism law also prohibits the possession of biological agents and toxins by “restricted persons,” including fugitives, illegal aliens, and those convicted of or indicted for a crime that carries a prison sentence longer than one year. This restriction mirrors laws that ban the use of firearms by certain people, who now may not possess, ship, transport, or receive biological agents and toxins that have been cultivated, collected, or extracted from their natural source.

The law further calls upon the United States to make “a substantial new investment” to increase “international cooperation to secure dangerous biological agents, increase surveillance, and retrain biological warfare specialists,” among other measures.

International cooperation to address biological weapons is centered around the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, the international treaty that outlaws development and possession of biological agents and weapons for offensive purposes but permits defensive activity.

In July, the United States rejected a draft protocol to strengthen compliance with the convention but promised at that time to put forward alternatives to the protocol. Washington plans to introduce these measures at a convention review conference scheduled to begin November 19 and is consulting with its allies abroad on the measures.

During an October 10 speech to the UN General Assembly First Committee, Avis Bohlen, assistant secretary of state for arms control, hinted at ideas to come, which she said would focus on stemming biological weapons use. Such measures could include national laws “criminalizing use and transfer” of biological weapons, she said, adding, “We must all agree that use and transfer are crimes to which our many mutual treaties of extradition would apply.”

Other measures discussed by Bohlen include the ability to “distinguish an outbreak of illness caused by [biological weapons] from a naturally occurring illness” and to cooperate internationally “to mitigate and respond” to biological weapons attacks. She said, “We must give ourselves the means to challenge in the event of suspected use,” possibly referring to inspections of some kind.

In July, the United States also said it would explore reinvigorating the Australia Group, an international export control regime, and pursue “codes of ethics” as alternatives to the protocol that it still does not support.