September 18, 2001 was just one week after the 9/11 terrorist attacks had rocked the US - and the rest of the world as well. Everyone was still very much on edge, for obvious reasons, and so when someone started sending anthrax in the mail to prominent targets - media outlets and politicians - people were quickly whipped up into a frenzy once again, leading to the FBI opening an investigation into what they termed "Amerithrax" that lasted until 2010. 5 people were killed and at least 17 became sick. and "Amerithrax" became one of the largest and most complex investigations in the history of law enforcement.
So, Anthrax 101: Anthrax is a bacterial infection caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis. It is spread via contact with anthrax spores, which can be breathed in, eaten in contaminated animal products, or via contact with broken skin or an open wound. In the wild, so to speak, anthrax is most prevalent in Africa and central and southern Asia, and also occurs relatively frequently in Southern Europe. There are an estimated 2,000 cases of anthrax globally in a year, and usually only two cases per year in the United States. The most common form of anthrax infection is via skin infection, which accounts for over 95% of cases; the other forms of infection are via breathing in the spores, consuming them, or via injection. Depending on the method of infection and whether or not the victim receives treatment via an antibiotic regime in time, the mortality rate for anthrax is between 23.7% - 80%, with respiratory anthrax being the most lethal form. While anthrax normally exists and is contracted in the wild, it has also been developed and used as a bioweapon by several countries.
The first five anthrax letters were sent out on September 18, 2001, from New Jersey. They were delivered to various media outlets in New York City and Boca Raton, Florida, including the New York Post and the National Enquirer. Not all of these first five letters were later retrieved: it has been inferred that the letters were sent to the media outlets because people there became infected with anthrax. One of the letters that were recovered was from the New York Post, where the anthrax found was described as a "clumped coarse granular material which looked similar to dog food".
The first known victim of the attacks was Robert Stevens, who was a photojournalist who worked for the Sun tabloid newspaper, whose offices were in the same building as the National Enquirer. Stevens was admitted to hospital on October 1, 2001, suffering from vomiting and difficulty breathing. He died four days later, on October 5, 2001.
Three weeks later, on October 9, two more letters were sent; these letters were sent to Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont. The anthrax in these two letters was more potent than the letters sent to the media outlets - it was described as a "highly refined dry powder consisting of about one gram of nearly pure spores."
In total, at least 22 people developed anthrax as a result of being exposed to spores; 11 of those people developed the most lethal inhalational variant. Five of those people died - Stevens; two employees of the Brentwood mail facility in Washington DC who handled the October 9 letters; and two other people whose method of exposure to the anthrax is still unknown - Kathy Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant who lived in the Bronx and worked in the city, and Ottilie Lundgren, a 94-year-old widow of a judge who lived in Connecticut.
Because of the New Jersey postmarks, investigators were able to trace the very mailbox the letters were mailed from out of 600 - a mailbox at 10 Nassau Street, near the Princeton University campus - as it was the only mailbox to test positive for anthrax. They were also able to trace the Anthrax spores to a particular strain known as the Ames strain (which is one of 89 strains currently known and cataloged). The Ames strain was actually from a cow in Texas, but was accidentally mislabelled as coming from Ames, Iowa. The Ames strain was distributed to 16 bio-research labs in the US and three labs elsewhere in the world (Canada, Sweden and the United Kingdom). Investigators were able to perform DNA sequencing and radiocarbon dating on the anthrax to identify it further; the latter revealed that it had been cultivated no earlier than 1999. However, the investigation was also set back by the destruction of the Iowa anthrax archive on October 10-11, 2001. Some felt that the archive might have made it easier to track down and identify those with access to the specific strain.
The FBI's first focus when they began their investigation was Al-Qaeda, which was understandable considering the events of 9/11, as well as the text of the letters, which declared:
DEATH TO AMERICA
DEATH TO ISRAEL
ALLAH IS GREAT
However, at least some of this focus was allegedly because the White House was putting pressure on the FBI to publically blame Al-Qaeda or their perceived allies in the Middle East, according to retired FBI director Robert Mueller. Several news outlets reported a definitive link to Iraq and the anthrax had been discovered in the form of bentonite - a claim that was repeated for several years, even after it had been proven false.
Meanwhile, others involved in the study of bioweapons suspected that a "rogue CIA agent" might have been responsible, even going so far as to give the FBI the name of the individual they considered to be the "most likely suspect". This "suspect" was Steven Hatfill, a doctor, pathologist and biological weapons expert who became the main suspect in the case for several years until he was completely exonerated and cleared of any and all involvement. Hatfill sued a number of people, including the FBI, the Justice Department, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and Reader's Digest. Almost all of them settled out of court with Hatfill.
The next prime suspect, who was eventually named as the perpetrator of the attacks, was Bruce E Ivins, but even this has been controversial. Ivins took his own life on July 29, 2008, shortly after learning that he was going to face criminal charges in relation to the anthrax attacks, and so he never actually was charged or convicted of anything. On February 19, 2010, the FBI released a 92-page document that detailed their evidence against him. Some of this evidence included conversations he had with others while being treated for depression and suicidal ideation in a mental hospital; he stood to gain financially from an anthrax panic because he was a co-creator of a genetically-engineered anthrax vaccine worth $877.5 million; he was allegedly upset that said vaccine was being pulled from the market; he was one of over 100 people with access to the Ames strain; and he used language similar to the wording of the anthrax letters in e-mails.
However, many people were not convinced of Ivins' guilt. Senator Patrick Leahy, one of the targets of the anthrax attacks, did not find the FBI evidence convincing, and a number of Ivins' co-workers believed that he simply did not have the skills to convert anthrax spores into an inhalable powder. Others still testified that Ivins had a "history dating to his graduate days of homicidal threats, actions, plans, threats and actions against therapists" and that he was "homicidal, sociopathic with clear intentions."
Sadly, primarily because of Ivins' death, the case has been considered closed since 2010 and no further investigations have been made since February 2011, when the National Academy of Sciences released a report challenging some of the FBI's conclusions that Ivins was responsible. Part of the problem lies in the fact that there are not really any alternate suspects- while there are plenty of people willing to say that Ivins was not capable of this, either technically or mentally, no-one seems to have any other suspects or theories to put forward. Maybe the false accusations of Steven Hatfill have made everyone more cautious there. And of course, there were just as many people who claimed that Ivins certainly was capable of carrying out the attacks. In the end, some of the only things that we can take away from the 2001 anthrax attacks, other than several still-unanswered questions, was that it was a key point in the rise of businesses switching to email communications, and that it led to an increase in spending and research into bioweapon preparedness.
2001 anthrax attacks (Wikipedia)
"Bio-sleuth or crackpot?" (Salon)
Bruce Edwards Ivins (Wikipedia)