The Guardian March 13, 2002


American anthrax

by Rowan Cahill

The panic button was hit in America last year when four anthrax laced 
letters turned up in October's mail deliveries, infecting and killing five 
people, and making 13 others ill. Crazies, including Christian 
fundamentalists, anti-abortionists and white-supremacists, helped send 
American panic levels soaring up the Richter Scale with 2500 hoax anthrax 
scares.

To prevent a possible huge loss of life, precautionary treatments were 
administered to some 30,000 Americans, and laboratories worked overtime to 
meet the demand.

White House rhetoric suggested the letters were a follow up to the 
September 11 attacks, part of an orchestrated campaign against America by 
unscrupulous foreign terrorists. The humble letter had become a weapon of 
war, and the object of fear.

Now you just don't go to your backyard shed or a local cave and simply mix 
up a batch of anthrax in a fine powdery form. That requires very expensive 
equipment and high levels of scientific and technical expertise. So it had 
to be the work of a source a bit more sophisticated than the cave dwelling 
Osama Bin Laden and his video camera.

Dirty weapons experts like Australia's own Richard Butler leapt onto 
television screens around the world and helped point the finger at Iraq and 
the evil Saddam Hussein. Iraq was made to appear as a rogue State.

What these experts did not explain was that at least 24 countries, 
including Australia, mess around with and store anthrax in at least 46 
research facilities. Oh yes, and the US had been flogging anthrax around 
the world for years, including to Iraq before the Gulf War.

Indeed the US had probably been the world leader in developing anthrax as a 
weapon. Germany kicked the ball off with non-human experiments during World 
War I, then Japan and the US took up the challenge during World War II.

Japan probably used anthrax during its war against China (1932-45), while 
the US experimented on a remote Scottish island, which it had to 
decontaminate at great expense between 1979 and 1987. The US continued to 
experiment with biological weaponry until this was banned by President 
Nixon in 1969.

It was still okay, however, for the US war machine to engage in "defensive 
biological research".

So it was in October 2001, with America gripped by hysterical fear and the 
media gagging on White House "black" propaganda, that President George W 
Bush vengefully foamed at the mouth. For a while it seemed he would be able 
to use the anthrax attacks as the excuse to extend his war on terrorism to 
Iraq.

But cooler heads prevailed at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). 
According to FBI statistics, between 1980 and 2000 there were 335 acts of 
terrorism and suspected terrorism committed within the US. Of these 247 
were carried out by residents operating entirely within America, totally 
independent of any foreign connection. America tends to grow its own 
terrorists.

So the White House ranting of a Texan cowboy did not contaminate the FBI 
investigation which, as it got under way, became officially known as the 
Amerithrax Investigation. The anthrax killings were treated as a crime.

The small scale of the attacks and various factors common to the four 
anthrax letters, suggested the work of an individual and not a group or 
organisation. Good old-fashioned detective work came into play, backed by 
solid science. Crimes can be solved; wars solve nothing.

It did not take long to smell a rat. Scientific study of the anthrax used 
in the letter attacks showed signs of the preparation techniques used by US 
biological warfare programs and not those used by Iraq. The finger began to 
point convincingly at domestic terrorism. What clinched it was DNA testing 
which showed that, of the 89 known varieties of anthrax, the killer letters 
were laced with the deadly, virulent, resistant, Ames strain.

Now where did this come from? No surprises. It turned out that the culprit 
was almost the exclusive property of the US Army, specifically the US Army 
Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, 
Maryland. Defensive research of course.

The Ames strain had been isolated by a veterinarian from a dead cow in 
Texas in 1981, and almost immediately taken over by US military 
researchers. It was subsequently shared around to five other research 
facilities, each of which also did a bit of sharing. And somewhere along 
the line the CIA also gained access to the strain.

In February 2002, at least 12 subpoenas were sent out to research 
facilities for samples of their Ames strain. A genetic test had been 
developed to try to match any of these with the Ames strain used in the 
killer-letters.

But there was a problem with Fort Detrick, home of the deadly strain. 
During the early 1990s parts of this research facility had been in chaos.

Unauthorised research had taken place in laboratories, 27 sets of anthrax 
specimens had gone missing and no one knows whether this included the Ames 
strain or not; there had been poor inventory controls, security had been so 
lax it hardly existed, there had been little or no organisation, records 
had been tampered with, there had been allegations of ethnic and sexual 
harassment, researchers had taken credit for work done by colleagues, and a 
number of officers had been charged with "mismanagement".

While the genetic investigation continues, the FBI is working its way 
through list of suspects. These are scientists, technicians, and 
contractors who had the motive, means, and expertise to send the killer-
letters.

Originally the FBI compiled a master-list of hundreds of people linked with 
Ames research, with the knowledge to produce biological powders, and who 
harboured various resentments. Investigation has whittled this list down to 
about 20 people. According to reports, Fort Detrick personnel past and 
present have been of "recent and intense" interest.

To help oil the wheels of information, the FB1 and the US Postal Service 
have posted a US$2,500,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and 
conviction of the letter-terrorist.

But don't hold your breath; the investigation may have been compromised.

According to a number of respectable commentators, the FBI has already 
identified the killer-letter culprit, but cannot make an arrest because of 
the risk of exposing secret government "biodefence" programs.

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