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.