History

The Forgotten Panic of the Anthrax Attacks

Weeks after 9/11, deadly poison was sent to famous politicians and journalists. The public—and the Bush administration—freaked out.

Hazardous materials experts in hazmat suits and gas masks stand in kiddie pools and spray each other, to decontaminate each other, outside the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington in Nov. 2001.
Hazardous materials experts decontaminate each other after leaving the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 1, 2001. Stephen Jaffe/AFP via Getty Images

This article is adapted from “Terror,” the second episode of Slow Burn’s new season.

On Oct. 4, 2001, a photo editor at the parent company of the National Enquirer was diagnosed with anthrax poisoning. That man, Robert Stevens, died a day later.

The spores that killed him had come through the mail.

As the news got out, authorities in Florida were inundated with calls about suspicious powder. The city of Miami ran out of hazmat suits. 

At first, it wasn’t clear if the case in Florida was an isolated incident. But then, more letters laced with anthrax appeared in the mail, addressed to the offices of U.S. senators and news outlets.

Advertisement

One of the anthrax letters was sent to NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw. Two NBC employees contracted anthrax poisoning: Brokaw’s personal assistant, and the staffer who opened the mail. Brokaw himself was never exposed to anthrax. But he was now at the center of a big story.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

In 2001, Tom Daschle was the Senate majority leader. “Just that weekend, I had been in New York and Tom Brokaw, who’s a friend, a fellow South Dakotan […] his office had opened up one,” Daschle recalls. “And lo and behold, just a couple of days later that it happened to me.”

Grant Leslie was an intern in Sen. Daschle’s office. After 9/11 was a strange time to be interning on Capitol Hill. One day was especially strange.

Advertisement

”I absolutely remember what I was wearing. Because it was a new outfit that I was very excited about,” Leslie says. “And it was the first time I’d worn it. It was a gray wool skirt and a burgundy silk blouse.”

On the day she wore the new wool skirt, there was a huge pile of mail. It was part of her job to open it. One letter in particular stood out because of the childish handwriting on the envelope.

“And I remember thinking, ‘oh, this is gonna be a fun one to open,’ because when kids send letters, they’re always really cute,” she says. “I cut a little bit into the top of the envelope. I didn’t even open it the whole way. But immediately when I cut, a puff of white powder came out. Sort of think of baby powder, like if you squeezed a baby powder bottle and it would, you know, come up in your face in a puff and sort of land on your clothes. And basically that’s what happened.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

She remembers the white powder showing up brightly on her new dark skirt.

“Well, I thought immediately that it could be anthrax because we had certainly been briefed on it […] I remember thinking immediately that I didn’t want it to get on anyone else. So just reflexively, I held the letter down towards the floor, because I didn’t want to spill any more out than what had already gone all over me.”

Advertisement

Leslie thought it might be a hoax—that it could actually be baby powder. But she stood very still, so it wouldn’t spread, and a coworker called Capitol Police. It turned out that the powder was anthrax. Twenty-eight people had been exposed.

Leslie took Cipro, an antibiotic used specifically for anthrax poisoning, to treat her exposure. And she was given the option of going to the hospital, or going home. She chose home.

Advertisement

A week after her exposure, two D.C. postal workers died from anthrax poisoning. No one realized until it was too late that they had been exposed.

“We were in probably the best place for it to happen to. And we got treatment right away,” Leslie says. “It’s so unfair that the postal workers and others who died were not in that position. So I think about that a lot.” 

Advertisement

Tom Daschle wasn’t in the office when Leslie was exposed to the anthrax. And at first, he wasn’t allowed to come back to work.

“Ultimately they did allow me to come over, and I hugged people and I began calling their families to tell them what the circumstances were,” Daschle says. “We were told the next day to bring the clothes that we were wearing. And because I had hugged everybody, the fear was that I had anthrax on my clothes to bring those clothes into the Capitol building in a garbage bag so they could be disposed. Incredibly naive and ill-informed, but that was what we were told. So I remember meeting with staff and giving them a pep talk with all these bags of clothes in one corner.”

Advertisement

For Daschle, the anthrax letter in his office was a turning point. It changed the way he thought about risk, and about America’s place in the world. He was scared.

Advertisement

“This created a new sense of appreciation of how technology and circumstances have erased whatever sense of invulnerability we had,” he says. “You know, there are so many ways to deliver anthrax—anthrax released in a subway system, anthrax released in a football field, the stadium […] There were just so many different scenarios. And we understood that all those were possible. And frankly they’re still possible today.”

Advertisement

In total, five people died from the anthrax attacks, and 17 got sick. Those numbers might not sound huge, but after 9/11 America was on edge. “For the first time in a hundred years, American streets have become the frontlines of a battle, with civilians facing an enemy both visible and invisible,” the CBS Evening News reported on Oct. 19, 2001. In the broadcast, an unidentified New Yorker says, “checking your mail just took on a new meaning.”

Advertisement

More and more people were stockpiling Cipro. Officials worried that there wouldn’t be enough doses for those who were actually exposed to anthrax. On the same CBS broadcast, reporter Elizabeth Kaledin reported that “people are coveting prescriptions. Politicians exposed in the latest attack are exalting it by name.”

“I’ve already taken one Cipro pill,” Sen. Richard Lugar confirmed on-air.

Others tried to manage the very nervous public’s response. “Doctors like L.A. internist Samuel Fink report being harassed by patients for refusing to dole it out like candy,” Kaledin continued in her story. Fink tells her, “I’ve been met with hostility. They want to protect their themselves, their family, their dog, their other pets.”

Politicians, like New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, had to contend with both the lethal attacks and the panic those attacks inspired.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

“People should just not overreact to this,” Giuliani said at the time. “I know it’s hard to say this and you gotta keep saying it: That is to relax and deal and deal with it. Work with it.”

Advertisement

Government officials knew they were at especially high risk. Dick Cheney in particular became fixated on the threat of bioterrorism. He began to bring a doctor with him when he traveled, and he carried a hazmat suit in a duffel bag. 

In the days after 9/11, there was so much concern about the safety of high-ranking public officials that Cheney spent weeks at an “undisclosed location.”

The undisclosed location became a public obsession. In October, Cheney joked about it in a speech at the Al Smith dinner, an annual event where politicians play comedian.

Advertisement

“There’s been a good deal of speculation about our whereabouts in recent days. I might as well address the rumors right here tonight. We have not actually been living in a cave. And, no, I did not sneak out for cosmetic surgery,” Cheney said to laughter. “Although I’m not prepared to rule that out as an option.”

The audience at the Al Smith dinner didn’t know it, but when Cheney made that joke, he actually thought he might have been exposed to a biological weapons attack.

Advertisement

White House sensors had picked up what seemed to be trace amounts of botulinum toxin, a bacterial protein so lethal that a single gram could kill a million people. If the sensors were right, Cheney would have been exposed.

Advertisement

When he got the news, the vice president was on Air Force Two, headed to New York. He was freaked out. But there was nothing he could do about it if he had been exposed.

So, while scientists tested the substance on lab mice, Cheney went to visit Ground Zero. Then delivered his bad comedy routine.

“At the White House, Karl Rove was overheard to say, ‘we’re sending Cheney to the Al Smith dinner,’ ” he cracked to more laughs, “ ‘and he’s going to bomb.’ ”

After the dinner, Cheney got word: The mice had lived. The sensors were wrong. There hadn’t been any botulinum toxin after all.

But the anthrax that had poisoned other people was real, and Cheney had some strong ideas about who was sending it.

Listen to this full episode of Slow Burn below, and subscribe to Slow Burn on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. Join Slate Plus for your ad-free feed.

Advertisement