A biosecurity expert revisits the insidious 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five and traumatized the nation.
In the immediate wake of 9/11, national-security officials anxiously awaited a follow-up strike. The next blow, it appeared, took the form of deadly letters laced with anthrax, addressed to major media outlets and members of Congress. But the lethal letters and the panic they induced were not the work of al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein or other foreign enemies. It took the FBI years and hundreds of thousands of agent hours investigating and working with military, intelligence, health and science experts, to trace the outbreak to Bruce Ivins, a microbiologist employed by the U.S. Army to develop vaccines against germ warfare. His 2008 suicide precluded any prosecution, but it also spared the Army’s Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases an embarrassing trial that might have widely exposed its appalling culpability for a major security breach. The impressively experienced and credentialed Guillemin (International Studies/MIT; Biological Weapons: From the Invention of State-Sponsored Programs to Contemporary Bioterrorism, 2005, etc.) takes all the strands of this complex story firmly in hand: the way the attacks unfolded in the offices of high-profile targets like broadcaster Tom Brokaw and Senator Tom Daschle; the postal workers randomly killed and infected; the efforts to decontaminate various premises and to inoculate those exposed; the disturbing findings of the Ivins investigation; the many wrong turns and false leads pursued by law enforcement; the difficulties of tracing this so-called Ames strain of anthrax to its source. Guillemin smoothly translates the science for lay readers, and she efficiently tracks the many lawsuits prompted by the attacks. Finally, she raises important questions about the current state of biosecurity in the United States. We’re too focused, she insists, on technological defenses against attack, still susceptible to insider terrorism and too lax about safety violations and the hideous consequences of sheer accident.
A well-rendered account. Pair with David Willman’s The Mirage Man (2011) for all the details on one of the more curious and frightening episodes in American history.