The Forgotten Anthrax Attacks

We just recently passed the 22nd anniversary of the 9/11 Attacks, the greatest terrorist strike in human history and an event whose political reverberations dominated world politics for most of the two decades that followed. Our Iraq War was soon triggered as a consequence, a disastrous decision that dramatically transformed the political map of the Middle East and eventually led to the death or displacement of many millions, while our failing twenty-year retaliatory occupation of Afghanistan only finally came to a humiliating end in 2021.

American society also underwent enormous changes, with a considerable erosion of our traditional civil liberties. On the fiscal side, by 2008 Economics Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz and his collaborators had conservatively estimated that the total accrued cost of our military response had exceeded $3 trillion, a figure that later studies raised to $6.4 trillion by 2019, or more than $50,000 per American household.

In the days after those dramatic events, the images of the burning World Trade Center towers and their sudden collapse were endlessly replayed on our television screens, accompanied by the near-universal verdict that American life would forever be changed by the massive terrorist assault that had taken place. But a tiny handful of skeptics argued otherwise.

The Internet was then in its infancy, with the initial dot-com bubble already deflating, while Mark Zuckerberg was still in high school and social media did not yet exist. But one of the earliest pioneers of web-based journalism was Mickey Kaus, a former writer at The New Republic, who had recently begun publishing short, informal bits of punditry one or more times each day on what he called his “web log,” a term soon contracted to “blog.” Along with his fellow TNR alumnus Andrew Sullivan, Kaus became one of our first bloggers, and was inclined to take contrarian positions on major issues.

Thus, even as a stunned world gaped at the smoking ruins of the WTC towers and the talking heads on cable declared that American life would never be the same again, Kaus took a very different position. I remember that not long after the attacks, he argued that our cable-driven 24-hour news cycle had so drastically shrunk the popular attention-span that coverage of the massive terrorist attacks would soon begin to bore most Americans. As a result, he boldly predicted that by Thanksgiving, the 9/11 Attacks would have become a rapidly-fading memory, probably displaced by the latest celebrity-scandal or high-profile crime, and that the long-term impact upon American public life would be minimal.

Obviously, Kaus’ forecast was wrong, but I think it never had a fair test. Very soon after he wrote those words, our national attention was suddenly riveted by an entirely new wave of terrorism, as the offices of leading media and political figures in Manhattan, DC, and Florida began receiving envelopes filled with lethal anthrax spores together with short notes praising Allah and promising death to America.

Although nearly all Americans had seen the destruction of the WTC towers on their television screens and become outraged at that attack on our country, probably few had felt personally threatened by those September attacks. But now during October, the dreadful spectre of biological terrorism moved to the forefront of popular concerns, staying there for many months.

Those anthrax mailings had targeted particular high-profile individuals and the letters were tightly sealed, but the media soon revealed that rough handling at postal centers during the automatic sorting process had caused the tiny seeds of death to leak through the pores of the envelope paper, contaminating both the buildings and the other mail being processed. As a result, some of the subsequent deaths were those of random individuals who had received an accidentally-contaminated letter, seeming to place all Americans at terrible risk.

Moreover, despite all the visual scenes of massive destruction inflicted on 9/11, only about 3,000 Americans had died, but then our political and media figures soon warned that terrorists could use anthrax or smallpox to kill hundreds of thousands or millions of our citizens. Indeed, we were told that just a few months earlier during June 2001, the government’s Dark Winter simulation exercise had suggested that over a million Americans could die in a smallpox attack unleashed by foreign terrorists.

According to early news reports, the anthrax in the letters had been highly weaponized using techniques far beyond the rudimentary capabilities of al-Qaeda terrorists, facts that therefore indicated a state sponsor. Numerous anonymous government sources stated that the deadly spores had been coated in bentonite, a compound long used by the Iraqis to enhance the lethality of their anthrax bombs, thereby directly fingering Saddam Hussein’s regime, and although those claims were later officially denied by the White House, large portions of the American public heard and believed them.

As the weeks went by, the FBI and most of the media declared that the anthrax had apparently come from our own domestic stockpiles, suggesting that the mailer was probably a lone domestic terrorist merely pretending to be an radical Islamicist, but much of the public never accepted this.

Indeed, a year later when Colin Powell made his famous presentation to the UN Security Council, attempting to justify America’s planned invasion of Iraq, he held up a small vial of white powder, explaining that even such a tiny quantity of anthrax spores could kill many tens of thousands of Americans. His public focus demonstrated the continuing resonance of the biological warfare attacks that our country had suffered more than a year earlier, and which many die-hard Americans still stubbornly believed had been a combined effort by al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.

The handful of anthrax letters had only killed five Americans and sickened 17 more, a tiny sliver of the 9/11 casualties, and the last envelope sent had been postmarked on October 17, 2001. But I think the impact upon American public opinion during the year or two that followed was fully comparable to that of the massive physical attacks we had suffered a few weeks earlier, or perhaps even greater. For all the death and destruction inflicted on 9/11, without the subsequent anthrax mailings, the Patriot Act would never have passed Congress in anything like its final form, while President Bush might not have gained sufficient public support to launch his disastrous Iraq War.

The anthrax mailings were almost totally forgotten within just a few years and today my suggestion that their impact had matched or even exceeded that of the 9/11 Attacks themselves might seem utterly preposterous to most Americans, but when I recently reviewed the articles of that period, I discovered that I had hardly been alone in that appraisal.

Renowned investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald was just beginning his career, joining Salon in 2007. He soon began publishing a number of columns on the anthrax case, with one of the first including this paragraph near the beginning:

The 2001 anthrax attacks remain one of the great mysteries of the post-9/11 era. After 9/11 itself, the anthrax attacks were probably the most consequential event of the Bush presidency. One could make a persuasive case that they were actually more consequential. The 9/11 attacks were obviously traumatic for the country, but in the absence of the anthrax attacks, 9/11 could easily have been perceived as a single, isolated event. It was really the anthrax letters — with the first one sent on September 18, just one week after 9/11 — that severely ratcheted up the fear levels and created the climate that would dominate in this country for the next several years after. It was anthrax — sent directly into the heart of the country’s elite political and media institutions, to then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD), Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt), NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, and other leading media outlets — that created the impression that social order itself was genuinely threatened by Islamic radicalism.

So I think it’s perfectly possible that without those now long-forgotten anthrax mailings, Kaus might have been proven correct in his predictions and the 9/11 Attacks would have become a fading memory by the end of 2001. Without a handful of small envelopes filled with anthrax, there might never have been an Iraq war nor a Patriot Act nor all the other momentous political and social changes in America during the years after September 11, 2001.

There were also some very direct consequences. American government support for biodefense had been strong under Clinton, then sharply reduced once Bush came into office. But those few deadly envelopes changed everything, and during the years 2002-2011, our government spent an estimated $70 billion on biowarfare/biodefense, vastly more than ever before. These days our total biowarfare outlays have far surpassed the hundred billion dollar mark, but almost all of that gusher of funding was triggered by a handful of envelopes bearing $0.23 stamps. During September 2001, a biological defense contractor named BioPort was on the verge of collapse and bankruptcy, but once the mailings reached the headlines, the company was saved by a flood of anthrax-vaccine government contracts; later renamed Emergent BioSolutions, it played a controversial role in the production of our Covid vaccines nearly twenty years later.

If Americans were asked to name the half-dozen most consequential global events of our young 21st century, I doubt whether even one in a thousand would include the forgotten anthrax attacks of 2001 on that list; but without those mailings our entire history and that of the world might have followed a very different trajectory.

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