The Anthrax Letters

Cover of the book

FROM THE AUTHOR

The ability of biological weapons to evoke fear and terror has long been a matter of grim fascination. It is a subject that I have studied and written about for more than 20 years. So when the news broke that anthrax had been spread through the mail after Sept. 11, 2001, I felt drawn to learn as much as I could about the matter. The Anthrax Letters is the product of two years of intense devotion to that effort. The book brings stunning new perspectives to the search for the anthrax killer, or killers, as it recounts the story of their victims and the people who treated them.
The Anthrax Letters is built on the courage, sadness, frustrations, hopes, and determination of many people. During my research I heard tales of heartrending ordeals and soaring aspirations. The result, which I seek to convey in this book, is a profoundly moving story of sorrow and hope.

FROM THE PUBLISHER

At 2:00 a.m. on October 2, 2001, Robert Stevens entered a hospital emergency room. Feverish, nauseated, and barely conscious, no one knew whatwas making him sick. It was the doctors and public health officials who solved this medical mystery. Stevens was the first fatal victim of bioterrorism in America.
The events of September 11th and the anthrax attacks that followed only three weeks later were horrifying. Many of us felt we were living in a world gone mad. Already shaken by the images of jetliners deliberately flown into the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center, we were soon scared to open our mail. No longer could we look forward to birthday wishes or holiday postcards. We couldn’t even safely face the delivery of our monthly bills. We had now become literally afraid of the microbial menace that could be lurking in our mailboxes. This time terror had struck close to home—to everyone’s home.
But behind the panic and the politics was a key line of defense. While the police and FBI frantically investigated a crime, there were other professionals at work, conducting their own painstaking inquiry – medical and scientific detectives hot on the trail of deadly organisms deliberately set loose in the postal system. Modern heroes in a quickly changing world, the public health officials, physicians, researchers, and scientists who staff our hospitals, clinics, and laboratories will be the first responders on the scene of any future biowarfare event.
Conducting his own detective work, bioterrorism expert Leonard Cole has composed a series of fascinating stories that get to the heart of all the noisy sound bytes and hysterical headlines. Cole is the only person outside law enforcement to have interviewed every one of the surviving inhalation-anthrax victims, along with the relatives, friends, and associates of those who died, as well as the public health officials, scientists, researchers, hospital workers, and treating physicians – indeed, anyone who has something of value to add to the story. Speaking through their voices, the narrative reflects the tension and emotions stirred by the events from the fall of 2001.
Fast paced and riveting, this minute-by-minute chronicle of the anthrax attacks recounts more than a history of recent current events, it uncovers the untold and perhaps even more important story of how scientists, doctors, and researchers perform life-saving work under intense pressure and public scrutiny. The Anthrax Letters amply demonstrates how vulnerable America and the world really were in 2001. It also shows quite clearly how scientific research promises to strengthen our ability to address the challenges we must meet in the future.

Q & A FROM THE AUTHOR:

Q: WHO MAILED THE ANTHRAX LETTERS?
A: In my book I explore the range of probabilitiesmore systematically than others have done. The issue largely divides between those who believe the mailer was a domestic loner and others who think he, she, or they were somehow connected to the Sept. 11 terrrorists. The FBI leans toward the former view, though its most vigorous proponent is Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, an expert on biological arms control. In contrast, Richard Spertzel, who was chief biological inspector for the UN weapons inspectors in Iraq during the 1990s, believes that the anthrax attack was connected to a foreign BW program, most likely Iraqi. I give full airing to both views as well as the opinions of other experts about these views.
Q: WHAT WAS THE BASIS OF THE FBI’S BELIEF THAT THE MAILER WAS PROBABLY A LONE MISFIT WHO OBTAINED ANTHRAX FROM A U.S. LAB?
A: First, the strain of anthrax in the letters (Ames strain) is mainly found in US labs, though samples are also in some overseas labs. Further, the bureau developed a personality profile based in part on the text in the letters and manner of writing. And it acknowledged being influenced by characteristics of the unabomber Ted Kaczynski.
Q: WAS THE FBI TOO QUICK TO MINIMIZE THE POSSIBILITY THAT THE CULPRIT WAS CONNECTED TO THE SEPT. 11 TERRORISTS?
A: Based on what is publicly known, it may have been. Two of the recovered anthrax letters were postmarkedSept. 18, 2001, so those letters would have been mailed no later than six days after Sept. 11. If not prepared well in advance, a lone misfit would have had to work with uncommon speed to secure the anthrax, choose targets, find addresses, write the message, etc.
The Anthrax Letters reveals several other reasons as well that suggest a possible connection of the anthrax attack to the Sept. 11 terrorists. Seems no less likely that the mailer could have somehow been connected to them than have been a lone operator.
Q: HOW PREPARED IS THE NATION FOR BIOTERRORISM TODAY, ESPECIALLY IF GERMS WERE AGAIN SENT THROUGH THE MAIL?
A: We are better prepared for an exact replay. Postal officials would act more quickly to close facilities. The medical community is more alert to biothreats. Physicians are more aware of symptoms caused by anthrax and other likely bioagents. Still, if a drug-resistant strain of a lethal bacteria or virus was mailed or otherwise dispersed, it could cause a catastrophe.
Q: WHERE ARE THE SURVIVORS OF THE ANTHRAX ATTACKS NOW, AND WHY ARE SO MANY OF THEM STILL SICK?
A: All but one of the six survivors of inhalation anthrax remain sick, though most are continuing to improve. Breathing and memory problems persist but are diminishing. Most continue to see their doctors for physical and psychological therapy. It is unclear why their illness lasted so long.
Q: WHAT ARE PHYSICIANS, PUBLIC HEALTH OFFICIALS, LAW ENFORCEMENT AUTHORITIES, AND SCIENTISTS DOING TO BETTER PROTECT THE COUNTRY AGAINST A BIOATTACK?
A: Recent surveys indicate that many public health and law enforcement officials feel unprepared to deal with an attack. In some communities, responder units are understaffed and protective gear is not in stock. Still, overall the country is better prepared than in 2001. Officials are more informed about bioterrorism and many communities have held drills to respond to an attack.
Federal funding has helped states begin biopreparedness programs including coordination of activities among police, fire, medical and other early responders. Billions of dollars are now supporting scientific research to detect and treat illnesses caused by bioweapons.

Bear