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Anthrax Antics from Uncle Sam

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SINCE THE TERRORIST ATTACKS last September 11, public opinion polls show a sharp decrease in cynicism about government and politicians. Yet, if one has been paying attention since then, it is difficult not to conclude that there is still, occasionally at least, a sliver of evidence that could foment cynical tendencies.

In his state of the Union address on January 29, President George W. Bush denounced Iraq, complaining that “the Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax … for over a decade.” Bush’s statement sounded like an effort to encourage listeners to link Iraq and the anthrax-laced letters sent last fall. However, there is no evidence to link Iraq to the attacks — and plenty of evidence pointing towards U.S. government research labs as the source of the deadly anthrax.

Bush’s attempt to smear Iraq with anthrax was simply another blip in a farce that has occurred since the first person died of anthrax-tainted mail at the National Enquirer in Florida. Since then, five people have been killed. Many, if not most, of the deaths could have been avoided if the federal government had been more honest, competent, and consistent. Instead, the Great Anthrax Panic provided lesson after lesson of why people should not trust Washington for their safety.

The federal government was understandably taken by surprise when the first person became sick after handling a contaminated letter. However, the speed of the government’s learning curve should have been sufficient to remind everyone why it is the private sector that creates almost all of the medical innovations in this country.

For instance, on September 25, NBC headquarters in New York City notified the FBI that it had received suspicious letters with a white powder residue. FBI agents came and collected the evidence — but never bothered to test the letters or the powder. And the “F.B.I. laboratory neither performed nor sought any tests on the powder or the skin samples taken from the employee” who had been exposed to the substance in the letters, as the New York Times reported.

FBI agents never even bothered interviewing the woman who had opened the letter. An FBI spokesman explained that the agency had begun “to prepare a cover letter for its own laboratory indicating that the substances needed to be tested, but the letter was never completed and the evidence was never sent from the FBI’s office in New York to its laboratory.”

The anthrax exposure was discovered by the private physician of the NBC employee, who recognized her skin infection as caused by anthrax. The FBI also failed to notify the New York Police Department or city government of the possibility of an anthrax attack on their turf.

The anthrax scandal went supersonic when the first anthrax-tainted letter was discovered in the office of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Since September 11, congressmen had been lecturing the American public about their duty to show courage in the face of foreign threats. However, when powder traces showed up on Capitol Hill, the stampede to leave town achieved comical proportions. As Wesley Pruden, editor-in-chief of the Washington Times, observed, it was

the most humiliating display of congressional courage since Union congressmen fled the battlefield at First Manassas, racing back to Washington with their ladies and their picnic hampers flying off in all directions at once.

Congressional panic

Shortly after the anthrax was confirmed in the letters, House and Senate leaders met and agreed to shut down Congress, at least temporarily. House Speaker Dennis Hastert announced: “There are people who would like us to fear, there are people in this world that would like us to be afraid.” He then asserted that he and his colleagues were not afraid but that they were leaving town anyhow. Rep. Ben Cardin declared, “We’re taking the normal precautions that people would want us to take.” But few Americans have the option of taking unlimited paid leave from their job when a threat is discovered within a mile radius.

However, senators refused to adjourn. In a closed meeting, Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) warned, “Whatever precedent we set here will be the standard used throughout the country for every outfit hit by anthrax.” Instead, the Senate stayed in session, on a minimal level, with minimal appearances required by senators, but at least the lights were kept on.

The Senate decision sparked outrage and a sense of betrayal on the House side. One high-ranking official in the House of Representatives complained to Fox News: “It is regrettable and it’s embarrassing for the institution as a whole. There is not as much hysteria as there is confusion in the Senate as to what they agreed to this morning.” Another House staffer complained to a congressional newspaper,

The Senate has stooped to new lows. To me, it’s extraordinarily bad form and somewhat embarrassing for Senators to be acting in such a way. It might be more appropriate to respect the Speaker of the House’s decision to protect the employees and the Members.

Hastert spokesman John Feehery complained that “there was some sort of revolt in the Senate.”

The feds went into full panic reaction on Capitol Hill. Everything was tested for anthrax exposure, even the canine corps of the Capitol Police.

The postal workers

But one area was neglected: the postal workers who sorted and delivered the anthrax-tainted letters. While all the attention and concern was focusing on potentially endangered congressmen, the federal government completely ignored postal workers. Partly as a result, at least two postal workers died in the following weeks.

Officials from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continually assured postal officials that they had no reason to be concerned about exposure to their employees. The CDC experts were completely unfamiliar with modern mail-sorting equipment and did not understand the type of pressure a letter comes under or how the cleaning process for machines can distribute particles through a large room.

Two postal workers from the Brentwood mail-handling facility in Washington, D.C., died, in part because no one was paying attention to the possibility of an anthrax infection. Bizarrely, the CDC still prided itself on its performance. Dr. Rima Khabbaz, head of the CDC investigation in Washington, bragged to the Wall Street Journal,

The fact that we were able to put people on antibiotics within six hours of confirmation, we had mobilized the [pharmaceutical] stockpile, and to make sure that we were able to do that, is pretty amazing.

With a typical government mindset, the CDC official seemed more concerned about how long it took to make a pile of drugs than anything else. But the CDC’s speed in “mobilizing a stockpile” did not bring dead postal workers back to life.

After a few postal workers died, the feds urged all postal workers to go to assigned hospitals to be tested for anthrax exposure. The condescension towards the postal workers in the Washington area was boundless. One postal worker I talked to mentioned that when he visited the hospital to be checked for anthrax, he was told that hospital personnel were prohibited from disclosing the warning signs of anthrax exposure to postal workers. He had a friend at the hospital who showed him the list of symptoms but refused to let him keep the list.

Anthrax and political power

Top Bush administration officials invoked the anthrax attack as a justification for vesting far more power in the federal government. Attorney General John Ashcroft, in a speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors on the day Congress passed the final USA PATRIOT Act, invoked the anthrax attacks to whip up support:

They have crossed the Rubicon of terror with the use of biological agents. We cannot explicitly link the recent terrorist attacks to the September 11 hijackers. Yet, terrorists — people who were either involved with, associated with or are seeking to take advantage of the September 11 attacks — are now poisoning our communities with anthrax.

The anthrax attacks gave the administration a chance to keep the war fever fired up. Two weeks later, Bush announced,

The people of my nation are now fighting this war at home. We face a second wave of terrorist attacks in the form of deadly anthrax that has been sent through the U.S. mail. Our people are responding to this new threat with alertness and calm.

Apparently, Bush was not counting members of Congress as part of the American people. But he did seize on the anthrax letters practically to portray all Americans as victims of a sinister plot.

Some warhawks in the media immediately blamed Iraq for the anthrax letters and redoubled their demands that Bush immediately attack Saddam Hussein. The FBI let it leak out that it suspected right-wing extremists as the source of the attacks. National Public Radio did a segment which insinuated that the Traditional Values Coalition might be the culprit.

Shortly after the anthrax-tainted letters were discovered on Capitol Hill, the FBI offered a reward of $1 million for information leading to the apprehension of the anthrax mailer. In early November, FBI director Robert Mueller announced that he was disappointed that the public had not provided his agency with more information on the anthrax letters, despite the offer of a $1 million reward. The reward was raised to $2.5 million.

Federal terrorists?

Unfortunately, the effort to use anthrax to rally the American people against foreign enemies and domestic subversives took a dive after all the evidence began pointing to U.S. military or CIA laboratories as the source for the deadly anthrax. There are many different strains of anthrax and the type used in all the letter attacks matched most closely the anthrax in U.S. laboratories.

Controls at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland — the most likely source of anthrax — had been a joke. Former Army scientist Richard Crosland told the Washington Post, “No one asked questions. You could literally walk out with anything…. 7-Eleven keeps better inventory than they did.” Investigators into the lab were also concerned about the routine hiring of scientists from China, the former Soviet bloc, and other countries with a legacy of hostility towards the United States.

Other press reports noted that many U.S. laboratories had received anthrax for research purposes and that hundreds of scientists may have had access to the material. The slipshod accounting meant that the U.S. government’s official reporting of its chemical and biological weapons programs under a 1972 biological weapons convention was severely flawed, as the Financial Times pointed out. However, such a fiasco has not inhibited President Bush from redoubling his denunciations of foreign governments allegedly conducting biological warfare research.

Steven Milloy, the publisher of JunkScience.com, noted last October, “The anthrax used in the current round of attacks is more of a short-lived fright and temporary inconvenience than a reason for public panic and government shutdown.” But politicians overreacted — federal agencies underreacted — and error after error by the feds resulted in the letters’ doing far more collateral damage than should have been possible.

The final chapter in the anthrax letters remains to be written. However, there is nothing in what has happened so far to encourage blind trust in government or political leaders.

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    James Bovard serves as policy advisor to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.