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Infectious disease researchers kill people, Part 2. (Still not a conspiracy theory.)
Where were we?
Oh yeah. Sept. 11, 2001. A very bad day.
The end of the Pax Americana, though most of us didn’t understand why at the time. I sure didn’t. Only a few people had the foresight to realize that our response would ultimately prove far more dangerous than al Qaeda itself, that we would trample civil liberties and start the Forever War.
In retrospect it is clear we gave Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda far too much credit. The group’s use of civilian jets was a brilliant force multiplier - but it was a one-off that hid the group’s lack of real military capability. We demolished al Qaeda’s camps in Afghanistan and forced bin Laden into hiding within months. In the two decades since, the group has been more a theory than an actual terrorist organization. Neither it nor its successors have mounted any attack nearly as deadly.
But at the time.
At the time watching the Twin Towers come down was beyond frightening. I’d flown that morning, true story, I’d been in South Carolina working on an article and had just taken a quick 6 a.m. regional jet flight from Raleigh to Newark. Beautiful day, smooth flight, easy landing. I was on my motorcycle riding up the New Jersey Turnpike, which has a clear sightline to Manhattan, when I saw the smoke coming off the towers.
They looked like matchsticks a quarter-mile high. A few minutes later they were gone. Gone. Up close they’d been the biggest buildings imaginable, ugly and square and powerful. They’d seemed as permanent as the pyramids. How could they be gone?
The rumors started even before the towers came down and Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania. More planes. Tractor-trailers loaded with C4. Gasoline tankers wired to blow. Dirty bombs, of course. Maybe even actual nukes.
Everything was possible. Not merely possible but expected. They’d killed thousands of Americans in a morning, these Muslim crazies. They were happy enough to die for the cause. What couldn’t they do? Especially since we all knew the former Soviet Union had been a giant open-air bazaar for weapons of mass destruction.
The United States was not merely jittery. It was near full-on panic.
And then the anthrax letters hit.
The first victim was Robert Stevens, a photo editor for the National Enquirer, who died on Oct. 5, 2001. The source of the anthrax that killed him was never found. But about 10 days later, letters containing anthrax arrived at NBC, CBS, ABC, the New York Post, and the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. The letters contained photocopied notes; the one sent to the Post read:
THIS IS NEXT
TAKE PENACILIN NOW
DEATH TO AMERICA
DEATH TO ISRAEL
ALLAH IS GREAT
The warnings were the first public sign that the attacks might not be what they seemed. If al Qaeda or a similar group really was behind the letters, why was it bothering to tell people to “take penacilin”?
Also, real Muslims would probably have written “GOD IS GREAT,” not “ALLAH IS GREAT.” And the perpetrator had taken great care to make sure not leave his DNA or any other evidence on the letters, while Muslim terrorists generally were more than happy to tell the world exactly who they were.
But even before the letters arrived, authorities had reason to believe that the attacks might have come from Muslim terrorists.
They had already identified the particular strain of anthrax that killed Robert Stevens - the same strain used in the later attacks. It was called the Ames strain, for Ames, Iowa. The Ames strain had been found in a dead cow in Texas in 1981 and not been seen in the wild since.
But it was a favorite of American biological defense laboratories, especially the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (aka the Institute) at Fort Detrick, Maryland.
This fact led to certain obvious and uncomfortable conclusions.
What followed bordered on the absurd, despite the incredible stakes. The Federal Bureau of Investigation began an intense investigation in which it was forced to rely for crucial technical expertise on the same scientists who were clearly the prime suspects.
Those scientists merrily pointed fingers at each other, producing nothing so much as Clue: The Institute. The bureau’s attention quickly focused on a virologist named Steven Hatfill, though he had no expertise with anthrax, had not worked at Fort Detrick since 1999, and had no clear access to the Ames strain.
A molecular biologist named Barbara Hatch Rosenberg decided to “help” the FBI with the investigation, pushing for a focus on Hatfill. At the New York Times, my old buddy Nick Kristof (a good guy, really), repeatedly smeared Hatfill, at first with a pseudonym and then by name.
At one point, Kristof wrote that by failing to arrest Hatfill, the federal government “continues to threaten America's national security by permitting him to strike again or, more likely, to flee to Iran or North Korea.”
Flee to Iran? Kristof’s words highlighted the bizarre reality that although almost everyone agreed an American scientist was behind the attacks, the Bush Administration was somehow using them to justify preemptive war against countries hostile to the United States, notably Iraq. The administration’s logic went something like this:
Iraq is dangerous, anthrax is dangerous, Iraqi anthrax would be superduper dangerous, science! S-C-I-E-N-C-E! Besides, Saddam Hussein is a really bad guy.
While the FBI and Nick Kristof made Steven Hatfill’s life hell, Bruce Ivins kept on trucking. Ivins was among the lead anthrax researchers at the USAMRIID. He kept a giant flask of the anthrax strain used in the attacks in a fridge there. He also had several patents on a new anthrax vaccine whose development had largely stalled before the attacks.
Ivins was also deeply paranoid and had a near-obsession with some of his female coworkers - as well as college sororities, including one sorority in particular, that he did not hide. In 2000, he told a therapist that he was considering poisoning a former coworker.
At the time, Ivins was taking not just standard psychiatric medicines like antidepressants, but Zyprexa, among the most powerful antipsychotics available. I am not generally a fan of judging people for the medicines they take, but anyone on Zyprexa should probably be kept well away from weapons of mass destruction.
The FBI’s obsession with Hatfill left Ivins essentially in the clear for years after the attacks. In 2003, he even received the Defense Department’s top civilian award for his work on the anthrax vaccine. Only in 2006, after the FBI replaced the case’s lead agent, did the long-stalled investigation begin to move forward.
Even then, the FBI was stuck with circumstantial evidence. Ivins had spent many hours alone at night in the labs before the attacks. Some samples from the anthrax in his flask matched not just the Ames strain but a substrain found in the attacks - though others did not. He had financial motive. And he had a long history of low-grade sociopathy and using the mail for pranks and tricks. Assuming he had not wanted to frighten rather than kill his targets, the attacks fit that pattern.
As the investigators closed in, Ivins grew increasingly troubled. In March 2008, his wife found him unconscious after an apparent overdose. Four months later, he killed himself - effectively concluding the long and troubled investigation into the anthrax attacks.
By then, though, the attacks had changed the calculus around biological warfare.
The fact the United States found no anthrax or any biological weapons in Iraq didn’t matter. The fact no other attacks followed didn’t matter. The fact an American scientist, not a hostile foreign power, had committed them didn’t matter. They had proven horrible biological weapons existed in the real world, not just spy novels. The United States had to be ready for them at any cost.
As if anthrax and smallpox weren’t scary enough, the 2003 SARS outbreak had proven that “emerging infectious diseases” could also be deadly. By 2005, the White House had decided it needed a new plan to deal with both, a national roadmap to respond to biological emergencies.
What no one seemed to realize that was over the next 15 years the response plan would become less responsive and more predictive - until, finally, it turned into something close to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But that’s a story for another book.