Thursday, September 29, 2011

Jeanne Guillemin's "American Anthrax"

Jeanne Guillemin is a senior fellow in the Security Studies Program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in the Center for International Studies. She is the author of Anthrax: The Investigation of a Deadly Outbreak and Biological Weapons: From the Invention of State-Sponsored Programs to Contemporary Bioterrorism.

She applied “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, American Anthrax: Fear, Crime, and the Investigation of the Nation's Deadliest Bioterror Attack, and reported that it passed the test:
Page 99 of American Anthrax picks up the story of the letter attacks in late October 2001, just after President Bush signed the USA PATRIOT Act and declared the administration’s “war on terror.” Two Washington, DC, postal workers, Thomas Morris and Joseph Curseen, had just died of inhalational anthrax. The US Postal Service and the Centers for Disease Control had been denying the health risks to postal employees across the board, despite clear signs that spores had leaked from three anthrax letters aimed at media targets in New York City and Boca Raton, Florida and a fourth letter, to US Senator Tom Daschle (a fifth letter, to Senator Patrick Leahy, was discovered in November, 2001). In reaction to the two deaths, the CDC pitched in to protect exposed workers, and Jack Potter, the Postmaster General, had to explain to the American public that the US mail was not necessarily safe to handle without gloves.

But who had sent the anthrax letters, which ultimately killed five people, sickened another 17, and exposed thousands of others to danger? Vice-President Cheney’s belief was that al Qaeda, armed with anthrax from Iraq, was the source, and that the next attack on the United States would be with smallpox. In contrast, FBI’s experts believed that a “lone wolf” scientist had perpetrated the anthrax attacks. After five years of meticulous research, the FBI was able to match the DNA of the letters’ anthrax spores to that of spores in a flask at the US Army’s infectious disease laboratory in Fort Detrick, Maryland. Bruce Ivins, the microbiologist in charge of that flask, soon became the Bureau’s prime suspect. But Ivins’ suicide in July 2008 made it impossible to bring the case to trial.

Were the letters sent by a foreign enemy or the result of a serious breakdown in US national security? The weight of known evidence points to Ivins, a troubled individual whose long-time work developing anthrax vaccines was about to be phased out, but the debate continues.
Learn more about American Anthrax at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue