Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Amerithrax 2001

The Nightmare Scenario

When the anthrax attack occurred in 2001, I thought to myself that this might just be a test to see what would happen if a few letters with weapons-grade anthrax were mailed. As I watched the results unfold -- a virtual shutdown of a number of postal sites, panic on the part of average citizens who began opening their mail outdoors with surgical gloves so they wouldn't suffer the same fate as Kathy Nguyen and Ottilie Lundgren, and the expenditure of tens of millions to make the Hart Senate Office Building habitable once again -- a horrible thought occurred.

What if a terrorist group decided to purchase several mailing lists of average citizens in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia, Russia, Japan, South Korea and Singapore and simultaneously sent out a few thousand letters with weapons-grade anthrax to the people on these lists? Talk about creating widespread terror and death. Talk about shutting down the postal systems in major developed countries. Talk about expense and serious economic damage.

One of the anthrax letters
One of the anthrax letters
Regardless of whether the 2001 attack was a one-off adventure by some misguided American scientist or was the second wave of the attacks on 9-11, every Islamic terrorist group in the world and every terrorist wannabe saw how pervasive the damage was from just a few anthrax letters. Terrorists also saw how limited in imagination the FBI was in its Amerithrax investigation, blindly following its criminal profile, excluding evidence that did not support that profile, and generally creating an embarrassing "Keystone Cops" fiasco for itself.

Let's pretend for one moment that bin Laden is annoyed that George Bush kicked him out of haven in Afghanistan and wants to punish him by damaging his chances of being re-elected. One way to do that would be to point out to the American voting public that after three years of enormous government expenditures and effort, another anthrax attack is still very possible and, if it consisted of thousands of letters rather than just the few that appeared in 2001, and capable of producing widespread chaos and damage.

If that were to happen, people might ask President Bush some very penetrating questions:

  • Why the hell hasn't the FBI, the premiere police investigative force in the world, solved the crime?
  • Why did it take until 2003 to unveil Project BioShield, a program to stockpile bioterror drugs and provide grants for vaccine development?
  • Why did it take 18 months to get the BioShield legislations through the Senate and onto the president's desk for signing in late July, 2004?
  • Why it has taken three years to even schedule the first installation of postal service anthrax detectors?

While the Bush administration can't be blamed directly for all of the failures and delays, one cannot get excited about the speed and competence with which any part of the U.S. government has acted to make its citizens safe from another anthrax attack. What is clear is that if a widespread anthrax attack occurred in early October, allowing enough time to create havoc before the November elections, it would be pretty tough going for the president's re-election campaign.


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