Whatever happened to ... the anthrax attacks?
Iain Hollingshead | September 9, 2006
The media is slowly cranking into gear for the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, but the anthrax scares that followed soon afterwards have largely been forgotten. Five years later, the crime still remains unsolved.
While the strikes on the twin towers turned modern aeronautical technology into weapons, the anthrax attacks used the more old-fashioned nexus of "snail mail". Four letters, all containing the same Ames strain of anthrax, were sent to the New York Post, the TV channel NBC and two democratic senators.
Dated 9.11.01, but posted sporadically over the next few weeks, the letters - predictable denunciations of Israel and America - were written in childish capitals. The two letters to the media also advised them to "take Penacilin [sic] now". Identical messages to the senators contained a fictitious return address, the fourth grade of Greendale School in New Jersey. "You die now," stated the letter. "Are you afraid?"
Both senators survived, but five people did die, including two postal workers. Mass hysteria ensued when 17 more people were hospitalised. In Montana, specks of flour on hotdog buns were reported to the police as evidence of anthrax. Sales of the antibiotic Cipro went through the roof. Capitol Hill was closed for weeks, forcing staffers to set up offices in the back of their cars. The Washington Post branded them "wimps" for abandoning their desks.
The rest of the world endured a huge escalation in anthrax hoaxes. Clean-up costs in the US came to over $1bn. The FBI launched a huge investigation, called Amerithrax. After ruling out a possible al-Qaida link, it focused on domestic terrorists and then the US biodefence programme. To date, no one has been arrested and only Steven J Hatfill, a physician and bioterrorism expert, has been publicly identified as a "person of interest". After losing his job in the fallout, Hatfill issued a legal writs against the government and media organisations.
An FBI spokesperson now confirms that "two dedicated squads" are still working full-time on the case. Their profiling, however, appears worryingly vague. The suspect is apparently a "non-confrontational person, at least in his public life". He is likely to "prefer being by himself more often than not. If he is involved in a personal relationship, it will likely be of a self-serving nature." Members of the public are helpfully warned not to "open, smell or taste" suspicious packages, especially if "mailed from a foreign country" or containing "protruding wires".
In the absence of anything more concrete, it is not surprising that conspiracy theories abound. One of the more convincing explanations for the lack of progress on the scaled-down Amerithrax operation is that the suspect is privy to embarrassing government secrets. A Newsnight programme in 2002 featured one expert who believed it was a botched CIA project attempting to test the practicalities of sending anthrax through the mail. It has even been suggested that the killer was a misguided patriotic individual wanting to demonstrate the US's lack of preparedness for such an attack.
If so, he has certainly achieved his aim. In the wake of the attacks, George Bush announced a threefold increase in funding for research against biochemical threats. Last March, more than 700 US scientists signed a letter protesting that public health research was suffering as a result.
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