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Anthrax hoaxes: Hot new hobby?







By Leonard A. Cole

July/August 1999 pp. 7-9 (vol. 55, no. 04) 1999 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists







In April 24, 1997, a petri dish labeled "anthrachs" arrived in a package mailed to the offices of B'nai B'rith in Washington, D.C. The dish contained a red, gelatinous material which, nine hours later, was determined to be harmless. Meanwhile, police cordoned off the area around the building, rerouted traffic, and quarantined more than a hundred B'nai B'rith employees and residents of a nearby hotel.



Some of the police who walked into the "hot zone" without protective gear balked at the emergency medical team's orders to take their clothes off and shower. In one instance a policeman struck an emergency service worker before high-ranking officers prevailed on him to obey.



It was the nation's first major anthrax hoax. But not the last.



In February the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that between October 30 and December 23 of last year, seven major anthrax threats were recorded. Letters claimed to contain bacteria, or phone calls warned that anthrax had been placed in ventilation systems at health clinics and other buildings in Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and California.



As many as 1,800 potential victims were prescribed a variety of protective measures. At some locations they were told to go home, place their clothes in plastic bags, and shower. At others, they were quarantined, made to take their clothes off and shower with soap and diluted bleach, and begin taking antibiotics. In a few cases, presumed victims were hospitalized for observation. In each case, after a day or two--or sometimes longer--lab tests showed no evidence of anthrax contamination.



The surge in incidents had just begun. On Christmas Eve, a day after the period covered by the CDC report, a Palm Desert, California department store received a phoned anthrax threat. Two hundred shoppers and employees were made to strip and shower in a makeshift outdoor facility. A few days later, a similar threat was made to a Pomona nightclub, and 800 people were evacuated and quarantined for four hours.



On February 5, the very day the CDC issued its report, the media reported four more incidents. Letters claiming to contain anthrax arrived at the Washington Post and a federal building in Washington, at a post office in Columbus, Georgia, and at an NBC news office in Atlanta. The Atlanta threat prompted the evacuation of a three-block area; a dozen people underwent decontamination and were taken to a hospital.



In the following weeks, the hoaxes kept on coming. Between February 18 and 22, there were 35 more anthrax alarms. One threat, made during a snowstorm in Kansas City, Missouri, resulted in 20 people being made to leave a Planned Parenthood Clinic. They then endured an outdoor shower and scrub-down (with their clothes on) in freezing temperatures.



By March, Neil Gallagher, assistant director of the FBI's national security division, reflected on the Bureau's frustration: "Not a day goes by without us hearing from somewhere in the United States about an anthrax threat" (Deseret News, March 3, 1999).



By May, sending a letter or making a phone call claiming to have spread anthrax seemed to have surpassed the time-tested phoned-in bomb threat in popularity. Reports of anthrax hoaxes were averaging more than one a day, and had disrupted the lives of more than 10,000 presumed victims.



So how did anthrax hoaxes become so popular? Was it the success of the hoax at B'nai B'rith? Did would-be hoaxers pick up on dire government warnings of apocalyptic events? Were they influenced by imaginative novels like The Cobra Event, or did they get the idea at the movies? Or was it the result of some local TV station's sweeps-week story touting how easily the water supply might be contaminated?



We all remember Defense Secretary William Cohen, a 5-pound bag of Domino sugar in his hand, claiming that an equal amount of anthrax would wipe out half the population of Washington. And did the military's controversial decision to vaccinate U.S. troops against anthrax give the threat a special cachet?



Anthrax was mentioned as a possible Iraqi weapon during the Gulf War in 1991. But interest in it faded quickly after the war. In the mid-1990s, however, U.N. weapons inspectors expressed suspicion that Iraq might still be harboring anthrax weapons. Also in 1995, chemical terrorism captured headlines when the Aum Shinrikyo cult released sarin, a nerve agent, in the Tokyo subway.



Meanwhile, the Pentagon had begun to lump biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons into an inclusive new category as "WMD," or "weapons of mass destruction." These threats, reportedly brandished by an assortment of "rogue states," also helped the Pentagon, not inconveniently, justify its still sizable post-Cold War military budget.



Still, on the domestic front, official Washington remained unconcerned. On February 22, 1996, a spokesman for the Defense Intelligence Agency told the Senate's Select Committee on Intelligence that his agency knew of no terrorist organizations that were actually "developing chemical, biological, or radiological weapons." Similarly, an FBI spokesman said that the Bureau was unaware of any bioweapons threat from any international or domestic groups.



But things change. In May 1997, within days of the anthrax hoax at B'nai B'rith, FBI director Louis Freeh offered a very different view. The acquisition or use of biological or other weapons of mass destruction by individuals or terrorist groups, he said, "constitutes one of the gravest threats to the United States."



Stories about the threat of germ warfare and bioterrorism, often naming anthrax as a likely weapon, began to appear with greater frequency: The New York Times publishes an annual index listing the stories it prints by category. There were 27 stories in the Times's "Biological and Chemical Warfare" category in 1994. By 1998, there were 278.



Then, too, the media often treated stories about hoaxes as if they involved real germs. This was especially true in February 1998, when two men suspected of carrying vials of anthrax were arrested in Las Vegas. The material turned out to be a harmless vaccine, but government officials and the press reacted as if the men were carrying the genuine article.



The result was a spate of stories about how easy it was to develop bioweapons, how devastating they were, and how vulnerable the country was. Anthrax was usually touted as the "bioagent most likely."



Bioterrorism movies like "Outbreak," and novels like The Eleventh Plague (not to be confused with my own nonfiction book of the same name) mixed fact and fiction in ways that obscured the lines between fantasy and legitimate worry. In an April 26, 1998 story, the New York Times's Judith Miller and William J. Broad claimed that a popular bioterrorism novel, The Cobra Event, heightened President Clinton's sense of alarm about germ weapons.



With funding for combating bioterrorism soaring to $1.4 billion this year, even bioscientists who think the threat is exaggerated are reluctant to contradict officials who say it is "only a matter of time" before one of the many anthrax alarms turns out to be real. [For more on fact v. fiction on the bioterrorism front, turn to "An Unlikely Threat," page 46.]



Certainly at some level the threat is real enough and should not be ignored. But before panicking, it might be wise to recall that, during the last 100 years, the sum total of deaths in the United States known to have been caused by bioterrorism is zero.



Leonard A. Cole, the author of The Eleventh Plague: The Politics of Biological and Chemical Warfare (1998), is a political scientist at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey.



July/August 1999 pp. 7-9 (vol. 55, no. 04) 1999 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists



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THE ANTHRAX LETTERS: A MEDICAL DETECTIVE STORY BY LEONARD A. COLE

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