Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Amerithrax 2001

The Investigation Begins

Before September 11, the FBI had been primarily focused on solving and prosecuting crimes. While some agents had been assigned to anti-terrorism, they were comparatively few in number. After September 11, that all changed and the FBI was turned upside down as the focus quickly turned to terrorism. The FBI, like the rest of the government, was not very well prepared for the new job description. When it became clear that a bioterrorist was at work, the FBI was still trying to sort out how to handle the huge workload created by 9-11. This new threat stretched the agency almost to the point of paralysis.

A huge, rules-oriented bureaucracy, the FBI could simply not turn on a dime. Yet, the threats required immediate reaction. Meanwhile the long-in-the-tooth former bioweapons warriors from the 1950s waited impatiently to be consulted. When the U.S. abandoned its bioweapons programs in 1969, some highly talented scientists had to give up work that they believed was vital to the country. A number of them contacted the FBI to volunteer what they knew, but the FBI was astonishingly slow to follow up.

To those Americans who hung on every word of the FBI's Amerithrax progress reports, information seemed very slow in coming. Sometimes the information was contradictory, leaving the impression that the expertise, biological material and equipment necessary to produce weapons-grade anthrax was easy to acquire. Something a garden-variety troublemaker could produce without arousing much suspicion. As time went on, the FBI reports suggested that the weapon's quality of the Amerithrax anthrax was so high that only a handful of scientists could manufacture it.

FBI facility, barrels holding mail
FBI facility, barrels holding mail

The samples all belonged to the Ames-strain of anthrax, a type of that is commonly used in universities around the world and was the focus of studies by the U.S. military." Because numerous research labs around the world utilized the substance, it would make it extremely difficult to track the strain. Nevertheless, the clue was a vital one, which narrowed down the search for the poisoner. Many of the hundreds of labs that had the Ames strain had developed mutations of it. Those mutations would be like fingerprints to potentially narrow down the lab from which the anthrax has been made.

Three letters had been sent from a Trenton, New Jersey post office, located near Hamilton Township. The "Daschle letter" anthrax spores had spread to other government buildings including, the mailrooms of the Supreme Court, State Department and an Agriculture Department agency, posing an even greater risk.


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