The Anthrax Letters

Letter Envelope
On September 11, 2001, foreign terrorists attacked the United States. Citizens of the United States were shocked, scared and grieving. It was a time of paranoia and distrust. People wondered when and if the country would be attacked again. Then, a matter of days later, something happened that caused nearly everyone to believe that the U.S. was still under attack. A number of letters containing spores of the bacteria that causes anthrax were sent to public figures. People who had been exposed to these letters, or letters that had come into contact with the anthrax letters, began falling ill.

Anthrax is a disease that is caused by the bacteria Bacillus anthracis. It typically affects herbivorous mammals, but can infect any mammal, as far as we can tell, including humans. Most human anthrax infections are caused by contact with infected animals or infected animal byproducts. There are three ways to contract the disease, through open skin, breathing in spores or eating the bacteria. It is not contagious, meaning it cannot be spread from one infected human to another. The bacterium is tasteless, odorless and the amount needed to kill a person is invisible to the naked eye.

Anthrax that is contracted through the skin, or cutaneous anthrax, causes necrosis. It starts as a small bump that escalates into a painless ulcer. This form of anthrax is highly treatable. Only one percent of treated cases of cutaneous anthrax will cause death. The mortality rate is 20 percent for untreated cases.

Anthrax that is contracted through the digestive system can cause a painful death. The symptoms are nausea, vomiting and loss of appetite. Later symptoms include bloody vomit and diarrhea. Twenty-five to fifty percent of people who contract anthrax in this manner will die.

Anthrax that is contracted through the lungs is the deadliest form of the disease. Symptoms start like the common cold and progress to severe difficulty breathing. Eventually it becomes so bad that victims have described the sensation as having your head held under water. Shock is very common in this form of anthrax. Roughly 75 percent of people who contract anthrax through their lungs will die. The Anthrax letters of 2001 caused five deaths. All of them occurred in individuals who had inhaled the bacteria.

According to the F.B.I., there were four letters (there are claims of more, however). The first two were sent on September 18, 2001. Their intended recipients were Tom Brokaw of NBC and the New York Post. Two more were sent October 9, 2001. The intended recipients of these letters were Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. All of the letters were mailed from a box in Newark, New Jersey. According to the CDC, 23 people contracted anthrax as a result of these letters; one of them was a baby. Obviously, the person or group was sending these letters did not care who got hurt.

Through handwriting analysis, the F.B.I. was able to conclude that the same person wrote each of the letters. Of course, this did not rule out the possibility that a group planned the attack. The popular (and logical) thinking, initially, was that a foreign terrorist group was responsible for the attack. Authorities knew that they had to uncover the person responsible and fast. Terrorists who are capable of using biological weapons and are not afraid to use them are a scary prospect. However, authorities did not uncover a foreign terrorist group. When it was found that the anthrax came from an American source, the F.B.I. turned their attention to possible domestic terrorists.

The first public "person of interest" in the anthrax letters case was Doctor Steven Hatfill. Hatfill was an Army doctor. He was closely scrutinized by the F.B.I. for quite some time. He was eventually found innocent of any wrongdoing. However, he had been so closely watched that he felt it had damaged his career. He sued the government for invasion of privacy and won.

The next noteworthy "person of interest" in the anthrax letters case was an unassuming Army biodefense expert, Doctor Bruce Ivins. The F.B.I. had concluded that the anthrax causing bacteria had come from his laboratory (experts have since claimed that the F.B.I.'s evidence for this was not conclusive). They subjected Bruce to the same scrutiny that they subjected Steven to. However, they found many things that led them to believe that Bruce was their guy. Bruce had a number of photos of blindfolded women in his computer (circumstantial); later in the investigation, they found correspondence of Bruce's in which he claimed to have multiple personalities (circumstantial); the F.B.I. discovered that Bruce was obsessive about women (circumstantial) and they also listened in on a conversation in which Bruce said that he couldn't remember having mailed any anthrax letters and that he thought (hoped) he wasn't capable of such a thing (decidedly not a confession). Dr. Bruce Ivins committed suicide by ingesting an overdose of Tylenol in 2008. He never confessed to the crimes, nor has direct evidence been found linking him to the anthrax letters.

In February of 2010, the F.B.I. officially closed their investigation into the anthrax letters of 2001. They concluded that Dr. Bruce Ivins was responsible for the letters and that he acted alone. Many people believe that the F.B.I. closed the case prematurely and/or that they based their investigation on preconceived notions. Lawrence Sellin Ph.D., and others, believes that, while it could have been Ivins, the case has yet to be thoroughly investigated. Furthermore, it is the belief of some that Ivins' mental issues (apart from his obsession with women, which hardly makes him a murderer), including his suicide, were a direct result of the investigation.

Read more from the F.B.I.'s investigation here.

Sources

Council on Foreign Relations, The Anthrax Letters, retrieved 5/1/10, cfr.org/publication/9555/#p1

Shane, Scott, F.B.I., Laying Out Evidence, Closes Anthrax Case, retrieved 5/1/10, nytimes.com/2010/02/20/us/20anthrax.html


Questions and Answers About Anthrax, retrieved 5/1/10, bt.cdc.gov/agent/anthrax/faq