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Analysis: Lessons from the Deadly 2001 Anthrax Attacks

Editor’s note: A new episode of the CNN Original Series ‘How It Really Happened’ highlights the terrifying anthrax attacks that followed September 11, 2001 and takes viewers inside one of the largest investigations in FBI history. It premieres on Sunday, May 5 at 9pm ET/PT.


I had spent much of the week in a space suit.

It was March 2001, and I was training at the Center for Domestic Preparedness in Anniston, a little-known facility on a former Army base in Alabama.

I had just left the New York Police Department to join ABC News as their expert on al-Qaeda, bin Laden and terrorism. I ended up in a class with twenty police officers and firefighters to become certified as a weapons of mass destruction technician. The ‘space suits’ were Level A hazmat suits, with hoods and self-contained breathing apparatus. We practiced how to operate in environments with nerve agents like sarin gas, or biological agents like anthrax.

When I completed my training, they gave me a small lapel pin in the shape of a cobra to signify that I had trained in airtight vaults with “live” lethal chemicals and that I was certified.

Seven months later I woke up to a beautiful day. It was sunny, warm and there wasn’t a cloud in the blue sky. It was the morning of September 11, 2001.

In the days that followed, America tried to recover from the events that had shaken us to our core. There were almost 3,000 dead and there was fear of another attack.

Anthrax. The ABC news desk asked me to investigate a Florida man who died of anthrax poisoning. Was this terrorism? I tried what I could, but it looked like Robert Stevens, a photo editor at American Media near Boca Raton, Florida, had been on vacation. He could have picked it up in a cave or from a dead animal. He didn’t seem like a natural target for terrorists.

And then came the flood. A week later, the letters arrived at the New York Post and ABC News. Senate Majority Leader Tom Dachle’s office received one. More than two dozen employees tested positive for anthrax exposure. NBC News received one addressed to Tom Brokaw. His assistant was exposed and became very ill, but recovered.

On October 12, NYPD Detective Patrick Pogan spent a long night at the Staten Island landfill, sifting through the debris coming in from Ground Zero, looking for evidence or human remains linked to the hijackers or any of Pat’s many friends and partners who were lost. at the Twin Towers. He later joined the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces squad I-41, the Weapons of Mass Destruction Unit.

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I recently caught up with him. “Back then, after working all night at the dump, I would sleep under my desk on the floor,” he recalls. “After 9/11, real sleep was no longer an option. I was sleeping for a while and the phone rang. The supervisor asked if I could take over a direction.”

Anthrax. Another letter containing white powder was received by Judith Miller, the New York Times’ chief reporter on weapons of mass destruction. Pogan says Miller told him it probably wasn’t real. “It smells like talcum powder,” he remembers her saying.

He was in two minds; First of all, I hope she doesn’t know that because she sniffed it, and second, she was probably right. He and his colleagues at the FBI and NYPD had responded to dozens of hoax calls that they simply called “white powder jobs.” Pogan took the letter to the New York City Health Department laboratory for examination.

The next time Pogan went back to the lab, one of the biologists looked up from the microscope and said, “Hey, glad you’re here. We were just about to call you. This stuff is real, it’s anthrax.”

“The biologist let me look through the microscope. There they were. I could see them, these little tubes on the microscope image. This was anthrax,” Pogan said, informing his superiors.

“I got back in the car and turned to John Scarbeck, the officer I worked with, and said, what do you want? I have cipro (ciprofloxacin) or doxycycline in the glove compartment, choose one. Both antibiotics are considered anthrax antidotes. “With the weapons of mass destruction team you always knew exposure was a risk, so I kept these in the car,” he added.

Pogan and his team were still overwhelmed by the clues of September 11 and a smoking wreck at Ground Zero, but they knew New York City was under attack again. This was not fiery, immediate and deadly on a large scale. This one was dark, slow, treacherous and like nothing we had seen before.

It was also consistent with what Pogan and I had learned during our COBRA training at Anniston. This weapons-grade anthrax was ground into tiny particles that could not be contained simply by a sealed envelope. It escaped into postal facilities where the mail was processed. It floated through the air like a deadly lottery ticket passed by the unlucky person who chose to breathe. It killed people, one by one, day after day. Between October 5 and November 22, 2001, five exposed people died from anthrax poisoning.

Anthrax. Saddam Hussein? Bin Laden? A lone wolf in his basement? The FBI codenamed the case “Amerithrax.” In November, the FBI published a profile developed by the Bureau’s Behavioral Science Unit that said the anthrax killer was likely male, a loner, and possibly working in a laboratory. Hundreds of agents, analysts and scientists worked around the clock. For help, they turned to the U.S. Department of Defense laboratory at Fort Detrick, Maryland, where anthrax expert Dr. Bruce Ivins worked.

In the summer of 2002, the investigation focused on a main suspect. Search warrants were executed at the Maryland apartment of Dr. Steven Hatfill, a bioweapons expert who had worked for the Department of Defense as well as for governments in places like Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe.

The FBI searched Hatfil’s Florida home and safe deposit boxes for traces of anthrax. Then they discovered he had been taking cipro. Investigators discovered that Hatfill’s Easy Pass had recorded road trips on the highways near the places in Maryland and New Jersey where the anthrax letters originated. Despite efforts to keep the investigation secret, Hatfill’s name emerged and he was described by Attorney General John Ashcroft as “a person of interest” in the case.

Investigators in hazmat suits prepare to enter the New York Times building in New York on October 12, 2001.

By September 2002, I had left the news industry to become head of the LAPD’s Counterterrorism Division. “White powder jobs” kept coming in, all hoaxes or some accidentally spilled Sweet’N Low on a table in the conference room. The LAPD hazmat team had reduced its response from building evacuations, blocked streets and decontamination showers to a discreet arrival by three hazmat team members and a rapid test using specialized equipment to determine the properties of the powder. Usually within half an hour we could say that it was not dangerous and leave quietly. But every time I did one of those jobs, I knew the anthrax killer was still out there and wondered if they would strike again.

In August 2002, the ‘person of interest’, Dr. Steven Hatfill, a press conference in which he declared his innocence and filed a civil lawsuit against the Attorney General, the Department of Justice and the FBI. When I left the LAPD to join the FBI as Assistant Director in 2005, my job was to direct the FBI’s operations to communities across the country and serve as the Bureau’s national spokesperson.

My boss, then FBI Director Bob Mueller, met regularly at the FBI command center with the families of the anthrax victims to keep them as informed as possible about the case. Mueller took the Bureau’s relationship with the families very seriously. He felt we owed it to them to keep them informed. The families were told a lot that was not public. I don’t believe they have ever been the source of a leak on the matter.

Ultimately, Director Mueller changed leadership of the Amerihrax probe. He was concerned that the focus on Dr. Hatfill had closed the investigation to other suspects. Hatfill was acquitted and paid more than $2.8 million in a settlement that also included $3 million, payable at $150,000 per year. The case started all over again under a new inspector.

Police cars are parked outside the American Media building in Boca Raton on October 8, 2001, where environmental testing revealed anthrax bacteria.

In 2008, the investigation was limited to Dr. Bruce Ivins, one of the bioscientists the researchers first interviewed seeking expertise on anthrax.

Ivins essentially felt his work was underfunded and underappreciated. The Ameritrhax team believed that Ivins thought an anthrax attack immediately after September 11 would result in a flood of resources for his military’s bioweapons research laboratory.

Ivins likely knew from the FBI interviews and conversations with his attorney that he was about to be indicted as the anthrax killer, so he overdosed and died in an apparent suicide. He was right. We had a mountain of evidence and would arrest him within 48 hours.

The anthrax case is full of lessons, successes and failures. I’ve learned that you can train for something the way the experts think it will unfold, but when it actually happens, you’ll find that even the best training hasn’t told you everything about what’s happening in the real world.

I also realized how important it is to think of the victims and their families. FBI Director Mueller made it a point to build a relationship of trust and accessibility with them. I believe that is why they never publicly criticized the agency, which would have only made the job more difficult.

The final takeaway is about tunnel vision. Every researcher must follow his feelings, but only to a certain extent. You may have the best suspect in the world, but the real suspect may be right next to you.

John J Miller is the lead law enforcement and intelligence analyst for CNN. He is an experienced, award-winning journalist and experienced law enforcement and intelligence officer. Before joining CNN, Miller served as Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence and Counterterrorism at the New York Police Department (NYPD). He also held positions with the Los Angeles Police Department and the FBI.