BOOKSHELF: The Anthrax attackInvisible Scourge: The Investigation, Legacy, and Lessons of the 2001 Anthrax Attacks

By Al Mauroni

Published 11 June 2021

The anthrax incidents of 2001 represented a major milestone for the national security community, in that they highlighted the vulnerabilities of the United States to a very unique domestic threat. While the number of initial casualties were few, the anthrax-filled letters created a nation-wide panic because they were unattributed, and the biological agent was perhaps the most dangerous organism that had been weaponized. This “invisible scourge” also shook the public health community, which was not prepared to respond to deliberate biological threats.

Review of R. Scott Decker, Recounting the Anthrax Attacks: Terror, the Amerithrax Task Force, and the Evolution of Forensics in the FBI (2018)

The anthrax incidents of 2001 represented a major milestone for the national security community, in that they highlighted the vulnerabilities of the United States to a very unique domestic threat. While the number of initial casualties were few, the anthrax-filled letters created a nation-wide panic because they were unattributed, and the biological agent was perhaps the most dangerous organism that had been weaponized. This “invisible scourge” also shook the public health community, which was not prepared to respond to deliberate biological threats. US leadership demanded a prompt response to prevent future incidents from occurring.

Enter the Federal Bureau of Investigation — tasked with attributing the attacks to a specific source. This mission was not new. Following the Aum Shinrikyo use of nerve agents in Tokyo in 1995, the FBI had been charged with investigating terrorism cases involving weapons of mass destruction as a federal crime. The Bureau had a Hazardous Materials Response Unit; its personnel were connected to military and civilian biological defense experts; and yet, the FBI was unprepared as an institution to investigate multiple anthrax incidents in the United States, and to quickly identify a perpetrator. In particular, its unit had to determine if the anthrax came from a research laboratory, a weapons program, or a natural source. While the FBI had investigated numerous “white powder” hoaxes, this was its first real event.

It took the FBI nearly six years to conclude that Bruce Ivins, a research scientist working at the Army’s Fort Detrick laboratories, was responsible for the attacks. This view was not without some controversy, with some of Ivins’ colleagues calling out the FBI for allegedly using inadequate scientific protocols and harassing the scientist into committing suicide. To a large extent, while Decker does not state this, his book reads like a detailed counterargument to those statements. It may be that the author was restrained from addressing the Bureau’s critics until he had retired and could marshal the argument that his team did in fact get the right person in Ivins. I say this for two reasons: first of all, the author describes dialogues in a very detailed way, to a degree that one usually sees only in fictional narratives and not in non-fiction books.

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