Fear of White Powder

Since the anthrax letter attacks of 2001, fear of bioterrorism has spawned a $70 billion biodefense industry. But are we safer?

Jeanne Guillemin, Ph.D.’73
Photo by John Guillemin
Jeanne Guillemin, Ph.D.’73

Just weeks after the 9/11 attacks, a Florida photo editor for a national tabloid was mysteriously infected with pulmonary anthrax. At first it was believed the anthrax came from a natural source. But when another worker became ill and virulent spores were discovered at their workplace, the mystery turned sinister.

A few days later, on Oct. 12, the public learned that a letter containing deadly anthrax spores had been sent to NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, along with a message containing the words “Death to America” and “Praise to Allah.” On Oct. 15, a similar letter containing spores and a threatening message was opened in the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. The letter sickened several postal workers who processed it, bringing Congress and government mail delivery to a standstill. Soon, another anthrax-laden letter addressed to Senator Patrick Leahy was discovered in the quarantined mail.

A naturally occurring bacterium known for centuries, anthrax can infect grazing animals that eat or inhale dormant spores in soil. The disease can be transmitted to humans when infected meat is consumed, when the bacteria come into contact with skin lesions, or when spores are inhaled, as in the letter attacks. Bacillus anthracis can also be weaponized — even small amounts of microscopic anthrax spores in an aerosol release can cause a fatal lung infection.

By the time the letter attacks were over, five people, including the Florida photo editor, had been killed by inhalational anthrax, and almost two dozen more — mostly postal workers — had been made ill. Still reeling from the attacks on the World Trade Towers, the nation was clamped in a vise of fear of foreign bioterrorism.

As it turned out, the letter attack, dubbed Amerithrax by the FBI, was not masterminded by al-Qaida or any other foreign terrorists. Ultimately, strong circumstantial evidence suggested that the perpetrator was a mentally unstable government microbiologist researching defenses against anthrax for U.S. troops. That scientist, Bruce Edwards Ivins, was briefly considered a suspect early in the investigation but was dismissed, because for years he had been working on an anthrax vaccine for the Army — he was a “good guy.” It took the FBI almost five years to circle back to Ivins as a suspect, using DNA analysis to trace the letter spores back to an anthraxstrain in his lab.

In the intervening years, the Amerithrax investigation was fraught with missteps, not to mention a successful multimillion-dollar lawsuit brought by a falsely accused suspect. In 2008, Ivins killed himself, depriving the FBI of its prime suspect in the nation’s deadliest act of bioterrorism. With Ivins’ suicide, the investigation was finally closed, without a trial or conviction.

Anthrax spores

Courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Anthrax spores can remain dormant in soil for decades

But many larger issues raised by the attacks and the costly investigation (estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars) remain wide open, says Jeanne Guillemin, Ph.D.’73, one of a coterie of nationally known bioterrorism experts. As a professor of sociology at Boston College, Guillemin spent decades investigating epidemics and the history of weaponized pathogens; since 2000, she has been a senior fellow at MIT’s Security Studies Program, within the Center for International Studies. While she holds no security clearance — and wants none because of the conflict it would pose with academic transparency — she also consults to federal agencies like the departments of homeland security and defense.

Although public concern about anthrax as a weapon of mass destruction has historically waxed and waned, Guillemin says 9/11 gave new urgency to the threat of weaponized germs deployed against Americans. “Frankly, I would have been glad to study other diseases less exotic than anthrax, but after 9/11 and the letter attacks, I felt genuinely called to service,” she says.

Last fall, on the 10th anniversary of the letter attacks, Guillemin published “American Anthrax: Fear, Crime and the Investigation of the Nation’s Deadliest Bioterror Attack” (Times Books, 2011) to critical acclaim and robust media interest. Reviewers called it “a brilliant examination” of the government response and a “spellbinding, chilling book.” In this account, as with her two earlier books — a history of biological weapons and an investigation into a mysterious 1979 anthrax outbreak in Sverdlovsk, Russia — Guillemin demonstrated an investigative journalist’s knack for unearthing facts and a crime novelist’s approach to suspenseful narrative.

The book delves into the lives, motives and emotions of those affected by the attack and the investigation. The opening even includes a “cast of characters” to help readers keep the dramatis personae straight. “I wanted future historians to have a basic narrative to start with,” explains Guillemin.

What we don’t know is critical, Guillemin believes. Looming over her account are troubling questions about how the government handled the investigation; the perceived threat of bioterrorism; and Washington’s ability to coordinate an effective response to a mass biological attack.

Guillemin writes that initially the government did a poor job of investigating the letter attack — in part, because of an “institutional blindness” that left authorities hesitant to accept the idea of a domestic terrorist, much less a government-employed one. (On the other hand, she notes, the White House did a masterful job of using the threat of biological weapons of mass destruction as a justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.)

“In a world divided into ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys,’ anthrax scientists for the U.S. Army [like Bruce Ivins] were definitely beyond suspicion. Most modern terrorists were young, foreign ideologues. The Amerithrax case inverted that model by proposing that an aging biodefense microbiologist had used the lethal B. anthracis against U.S. civilians.” And to the government, that crime was unthinkable, writes Guillemin.

In the aftermath of the attacks, perception and reality diverged in other ways as well. The intangible yet hugely powerful perception — by the government as well as the public — of a bioterrorism threat, is “always waiting there to be exploited,” she says. Indeed, the once-tiny budget for biodefense research and development has surged since 9/11, though with little to show for it.

“Since the anthrax letter attack, a $70 billion biodefense industry has arisen. Is there a new anthrax vaccine? No. Is there an improved smallpox vaccine? No. Is there a better understanding of all the different pathogens? Yes, marginally so,” says Guillemin. “But after so many years and so much money, it’s high time for an accounting. What is certain is that there are many stakeholders in biodefense with a vested interest in promoting the threat.”

One of the greatest lessons of the letter attacks concerns government accountability. “During the anthrax letter attacks, nobody knew what to do,” asserts Guillemin. Authorities were scrambling around at the federal level. Even now there are real problems with accountability and communication. Guillemin contends it’s a central command issue: Who’s in charge in the event of a mass biological attack? With the ongoing national reduction in public health employees, the burden shifts increasingly to ordinary citizens to figure out what to do in the event of an attack.

“If there should be a bioterror attack that affects larger numbers of people, I’m not sure our government has worked out to whom the public should turn for advice or instruction,” says Guillemin. “Who’s responsible? What single spokesperson would understand the immediate clinical needs and the public health needs, and also how to weigh the intelligence and criminal aspects of such an event?”

Making the challenge even murkier is the public’s low regard for government. “The fact that we are currently in a phase of distrusting the federal government makes it even more imperative that we have a single credible source of information and response coordination if there should be an emergency,” she contends. Stockpiles of antibiotics and vaccine are necessary, she says, but so is effective communication between the public and the government, which, after all, should be actively working on all fronts to prevent dangerous disease outbreaks from any source.

Ten years after the Amerithrax case began, the threat of bioterrorism, foreign or domestic, surely remains elusive. There have been no repeats of those deadly anthrax letters. Still, 9/11 and the letter attacks introduced a sense of widespread unease that we will probably never entirely dispel. At the end of the day, as Guillemin notes, we have to recognize the difference between living in fear — being personally and politically overwhelmed by an existential threat — and living with fear — keeping that threat in reasonable perspective. Only the latter approach allows the development of lasting solutions to terrorism in all its forms.