Terror

Listen to this episode

S1: On day six of the smallpox epidemic, three hundred people have died, at least two thousand are infected with smallpox, smallpox.

S2: This is not a real news report. It’s from a video that was commissioned for a war game in June 2001.

S1: The US smallpox vaccine supply continues to shrink as officials try to stretch limited stocks to cover the entire nation.

S2: And the guy who came up with this phony news videos was a former fighter pilot.

Advertisement

S3: I am Randy Larsen, colonel, U.S. Air Force retired.

S2: Larson taught at the National War College, a school run by the U.S. Department of Defense in the early aughts. He had a reputation for creating really good war games. Larson had specialized in classic scenarios where one country attacked another, but the nature of war was changing. A group of influential think tanks and academics brought on Larsen to design a new kind of game, one that would show the government what it might be like if terrorists attacked the US with biological weapons. The smallpox war game was called Dark Winter.

S3: We had, I think, a dozen participants, you’re seated around a table and we would provide them briefings like they would get in a meeting in the White House during a crisis, we would provide those phony newscasts that we made to give them kind of situational awareness. Here’s what’s going on.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: The dark winter simulation took place at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. Former Senator Sam Nunn played the president. Long time presidential staffer David Gergen played the national security adviser and journalists were there to playing themselves.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: We had a producer from CBS News. We had Judy Miller from New York Times. We had a reporter from NPR

S2: and the scenario that and imagined Saddam Hussein had mobilized Iraqi troops for a possible invasion of Kuwait, the United States was deploying battleships to the Gulf in response, and then someone released smallpox at three locations across the US.

S3: So one of the first things is in that scenario, well, who would get the vaccine and how could we get it to them quickly enough? And that was one of the big debates that we wanted to have around the table.

Advertisement

S2: The participants in Dark Winter realized that it would be hard for federal and local governments to work together in an epidemic. Shutting down schools and large gatherings with complicated contact tracing was almost impossible.

S3: There’s no way you can convince 300 million Americans to do something they don’t want to do that they don’t think is in their own best interests.

S2: The media spread dangerous misinformation in the dark winter scenario, like the notion that elites were getting a better version of the vaccine than ordinary people. The government closed the borders, the economy tanked, and there were outbreaks of mob violence. The resulting epidemic left a million people dead. The war game was designed with the idea that al-Qaida was responsible for the smallpox outbreak. They’ve gotten the virus from the Iraqi government. Most Americans hadn’t heard of al-Qaida at this point. Even the president wasn’t paying much attention to them before 9/11

Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: when George W. Bush came in office in 2001. It’s my opinion that they were primarily focused on more Cold War sorts of threats, not so much nonstate actors and not so much things like biological weapons.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: The Bush administration knew that terrorism was a threat. A few weeks before the 2000 election and Al Qaida suicide bomber had attacked a U.S. Navy destroyer off the coast of Yemen, killing 17 sailors. But almost no one thought the terrorism and fear of terrorism would determine U.S. foreign policy for the next decade. The early days, Bush thought his presidency would focus on domestic issues.

S4: Both parties have been talking about education reform for quite a while. It’s time to come together to get it done so that we can truthfully say in America, no child will be left behind.

Advertisement

S2: So in the summer of 2001, Randy Larsen had a tough job. He was trying to sell half interested politicians on the dangers of al-Qaida and biological warfare. One of the people he briefed on Operation Dark Winter was John Warner, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

S3: Senator Warner comes in. He’s taken off his jacket. He’s taken off his tie. They’re just on their last session. They’re going on summer break. And he said, I’ll give you 10 minutes. I’m going on vacation. So I. I set my laptop computer. And when I played that first phony news clip,

S1: smallpox symptoms are being seen in 15 states. Also in Canada,

Advertisement

S3: Senator Warner kind of leaned forward, looked at the screen 90 minutes later, Senator Warner still asking questions. When we were finished, John Warner said that’s the most frightening presentation I’ve ever seen.

S2: A little more than a month after that briefing, terrorists affiliated with al-Qaida did attack the U.S. That was smallpox. Both hijacked planes a few hours. The Bush administration’s focus changed.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S4: The search is underway for those who are behind these evil acts. We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts. And those who harbor them.

S2: After 9/11, Randy Larsen was invited to the White House. This time he spoke to a larger audience.

Advertisement

S3: Cheney and Scooter Libby and seven or eight other people from the White House staff there. And about 15 minutes into the presentation, Vice President Cheney asked, what does a biological weapon look like? Which I thought was a fascinating question, because by this time I’d been doing presentations to general officers for seven years and not one had ever asked that question. And I know not one of them had ever seen a biological weapon. But I reached into my briefcase and I pulled out a test tube and I said, well, sir, it looks like this and handed it to him and it was weaponized bacillus BGI. And I said, by the way, I did just sneak this into your office.

Advertisement

S2: Public officials issued warnings about possible further attacks maybe Randy Larsen had gotten through to them because they put the danger of biological weapons front and center. Here’s Attorney General John Ashcroft.

S4: Yesterday, the FBI issued a nationwide alert based on information they received indicating the possibility of attacks using crop dusting aircraft to distribute chemical or biological weapons of mass destruction as potential threats to Americans. We have no clear indication

S2: of a lot of Americans got the message. On September 27th, The New York Times reported that people were stocking up on Cipro, an antibiotic used to treat anthrax poisoning. The paper quoted an expert saying that an anthrax attack was considered unlikely but unlikely, didn’t mean impossible.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S4: We do not yet know who sent the anthrax, whether it was the same terrorists who committed the attacks on September the 11th or whether it was the other international or domestic terrorists. We do know that anyone who would try to infect other people with anthrax is guilty of an act of terror. We will solve these crimes and we will punish those responsible.

S2: This is a burn, I’m your host, Noreen Malone. It’s impossible to talk about the US invasion of Iraq without remembering the fear that overwhelm the United States after 9/11, Americans learned new phrases like ground zero, weapons grade and homeland security. We didn’t want to fly on airplanes or go to shopping malls for fear we’d be targeted in the next attack. The nightly news was full of reports about bombs and disease and poison. It wasn’t just ordinary citizens who were afraid the people in charge of the country were afraid to. They feared for their personal safety, just like everyone else. But also they felt like they’d screwed up, like they’d missed the warning signs before 9/11. And they had they were afraid of screwing up again. Every decision they made in the fall of 2001 was inflected with that fear. A month after the towers fell, there was a new kind of terror. How did the anthrax attacks affect a nation still reeling from 9/11? How did the Bush administration respond to a nationwide panic? And what did all that have to do with Iraq? This is episode two, Terror.

Advertisement

S3: Threats were coming in by the hour, by the day, a truck bomb was barreling down the Baltimore Washington Parkway and headed toward where Bush was going to be giving a speech. The water supply, the food supply, the White House was contaminated.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: That’s Robert Draper. He’s the author of a book about the lead up to the Iraq invasion called To Start a War.

S3: And Bush was now receiving all this information in a way overcompensating for not having been curious enough about the threats to the homeland. Now, he was curious, perhaps to a major fault.

S2: Bush understood the whole country was afraid and that he needed to do something to reassure people. But in private, he was angry.

S3: Bush said as much one afternoon to some faith leaders who came to the White House on September the 20th. He said to them, I’m having trouble controlling my blood lust.

S2: How would that rage and fear get transformed into foreign policy?

S5: When working in my office, I felt the impact and the explosion of American Airlines Flight 77.

S2: Gary Grecco was a senior officer for the Defense Intelligence Agency. Grecco was working the Pentagon on 9/11.

S5: I stayed there in the Pentagon for the next three days and worked in the command center.

S2: Intelligence officials identified the group behind the 9/11 attacks right away. It was al-Qaida, the terrorist organization based in Afghanistan and Pakistan. On the morning of September 12th, Greco got a request from Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense. Wolfowitz wanted to know about connections between Saddam Hussein and terrorist groups.

S5: The note simply ordered provide information in paper format, the history and assessment of Iraq, involvement in terrorism since the Gulf War. By this time, we had received reporting from the FAA on the identity of the hijackers, and we knew none of them to be Iraqis or nor that we possess any evidence of their involvement.

S2: Iraq did have some links to terrorist groups, especially Palestinian ones, but not really al-Qaida. Gary Grecco already knew that. So this was a weird request to get. Just hours after the planes had hit. Why was Wolfowitz scrounging around for this very specific kind of information about a country that seemed basically unrelated to the crisis?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S5: I quickly surmised that a case would be built against Iraq and we would be going to war with them. Wow. You know, I just knew this was going to be the turning point.

S2: Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi exile you heard from an episode one was in California on 9/11. He was giving a talk there as flight home was canceled. All the flights were canceled immediately after the attacks and he found himself stranded in Santa Monica while he was there. Chalabi and his top lieutenant got a call from someone in the administration, Robert Draper.

S3: Again, what they were asked was, hey, we’re looking for anything we can on Saddam’s ties to Islamic extremists and in particular, al Qaeda. Do you have anything?

S2: Chalabi didn’t have anything. After all, he was mostly focused on Saddam’s atrocities against the people of Iraq. But if some powerful Americans wanted to connect Saddam to al-Qaida, Chalabi was willing to get on board.

S3: And very, very soon, the Iraqi National Congress Chalabi group was promoting the view that Saddam, in fact, was a major actor in the 9/11 attacks.

S2: So Paul Wolfowitz and other officials were looking for evidence that Iraq was involved in the attacks. But what about President Bush?

S3: It would appear that the idea that Saddam might have something to do with this was articulated by Bush for the first time, the day after the attack on September the 12th, when he turned to his national security counterterrorism adviser, Richard Clarke, and said, could you look into this? Could you see if Saddam had any involvement? And Clarke did so and said, in essence, no, he didn’t have anything to do with it.

S2: That should have been the end of the search for a connection between 9/11 and Iraq. The question had been asked by people at the highest levels of government and answered by the people who are best positioned to know. But that was in the end. Three days later, Bush and his national security team were gathered at Camp David. They were talking about Afghanistan. That’s where U.S. officials believed al-Qaida’s leaders were holed up. Iraq was not on the agenda, but Paul Wolfowitz thought it should be. Wolfowitz had been obsessed with Iraq for a long time. Here’s the pitch he made at Camp David, according to Robert Draper.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: We need to go after Iraq. We need to go after Saddam. Saddam is, in fact, the terrorist in chief as a war. He is the head of the snake, and we need to cut that head off.

S2: Wolfowitz said there was good reason to believe that Saddam had been involved in the attacks. The CIA knew that Iraqi agents have met with Osama bin Laden in 1995, and Wolfowitz felt certain that al-Qaida couldn’t have pulled off something as complicated as 9/11 on its own. None of this went over well in the room. Someone pointed out that bin Laden had actually rejected Saddam’s overtures back in the 90s.

S3: And Bush at that point basically said, OK. In fact, he explicitly said we’ll save Iraq for later. Those around the table thought it notable that Bush didn’t simply say forget about Iraq, but they also believed that that was basically the end of the subject.

S2: Still, Wolfowitz wouldn’t let it go. Later, the same day, he approached Bush and expanded on his pitch. He told the president that the U.S. could oust Saddam with little effort. All you needed was a no fly zone and bombings that would cut Saddam off from Iraq’s oil. He said the US wouldn’t need to send that many troops, that Iraqi dissidents could be trained to do the job themselves.

S3: Bush was very intrigued by this and in fact, said to his secretary of defense the next day after the meeting started looking into creative options for Iraq and nothing was decided, then a dialogue had begun.

S2: The United States invaded Afghanistan on October 7th. It was a strike at the headquarters of al-Qaida and the Taliban government that supported them. Meanwhile, in the United States, another terror attack had begun.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S4: A case of anthrax was confirmed today in Florida. The patient is a sixty three year old man from Lantana, Florida. He’s now hospitalized.

S2: On October 4th, 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.

S1: The flu like symptoms of anthrax can show up within 12 hours

S2: to five days after exposure. But untreated, it infects the lungs and is often fatal within days. 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.

S3: Good evening. Tonight, we find ourselves in the unusual and unhappy position of reporting on one of our beloved colleagues, a member of my personal staff who has contracted cutaneous anthrax infection.

S2: One of the anthrax letters were sent to NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw to 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. Here’s Tom Daschle in 2001, he was the Senate majority leader

S5: just that weekend. I had been in New York and Tom Brokaw was a friend of a fellow South Dakotan. His office had opened up one. And lo and behold, just a couple of days later, it happened to me.

S2: Grant Leslie was an intern in Senator Daschle’s office after 9/11 was a strange time to be interning on Capitol Hill one day. It was especially strange.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: I absolutely remember what I was wearing because it was a new outfit that I was very excited about. And it was the first time I’d worn and it was a gray wool skirt and a burgundy silk blouse

S2: on the day she wore the new wool skirt. Here’s 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.

S1: And I remember thinking, oh, this is going to be a fun one to open, because when kids when little kids send letters, they’re always really cute. So I was actually excited that I had gotten a good one. 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, I sort of think of baby powder, like if you squeeze the baby powder bottle and it would come up in your face in a puff and sort of land on your clothes. And basically that’s what happened.

S2: She remembers the white powder showing up brightly on her new dark skirt.

S1: I thought immediately that it could be anthrax because we had certainly been briefed on it and of the news. I remember thinking immediately that I didn’t want 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.

S2: 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 co-worker called Capitol Police,

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: they had also opened the envelope the rest of the way and read the letter out loud. So I remember hearing them read the letter because I hadn’t read what was in the envelope.

S2: Oh, my God. And what did it say?

S1: Death to America. Death to Israel. Allah is great.

S2: The powder was anthrax. Twenty eight people had been exposed, Leslie took Cipro to treat her exposure and she was given the option of going to the hospital or going home. She chose home a week after Leslie’s exposure to D.C. postal workers died from anthrax poisoning. No one realized until it was too late that they had been exposed.

S1: We were and probably the best place for it to happen to and we got treatment right away. It’s so unfair that the postal workers and others who died were not in that position. So I think about that a lot.

S2: Tom Daschle wasn’t in the office when Grant he was exposed to the anthrax and at first he wasn’t allowed to come back to work.

S5: Ultimately, they did allow me to come over and I hugged people and and I began calling their families to tell them what the circumstances were. 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.

S2: 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. Were you scared?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S5: Yes. This created a new appreciation of how technology and circumstances have erased whatever sense of invulnerability we had. There are so many ways to deliver anthrax. You know, anthrax released in a subway system. Anthrax released in a football field, the stadium. There were just so many different scenarios. And we we understood that all those were possible. And frankly, there’s still possible today.

S2: 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.

S1: For the first time in 100 years, American streets have become the front lines of battle with civilians facing an enemy both visible and invisible. Oh, yeah. Checking your mail just took on a new meaning.

S2: Today’s more and more people were stockpiling Cipro. Officials worried that there wouldn’t be enough doses for those who were actually exposed to anthrax.

S1: People are coveting prescriptions. Politicians exposed in the latest attack are exalting it by name.

S4: I’ve already taken one Cipro

S1: pill and doctors like L.A. internist Samuel Fink report being harassed by patients for refusing to dole it out like candy.

S3: I’ve been met with hostility. They want to protect themselves, their family, their dog, their other pets.

S2: The demand politicians like New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani had to contend with both the lethal attacks and the panic. Those attacks inspired

S4: people should just not overreact to this. They should just. I know it’s hard to say this, and you’ve got to keep saying it. That is to relax and deal and deal with it. Work with it.

S2: 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
Advertisement
Advertisement

S4: There’s 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, although I’m not prepared to rule that out as an option.

S2: 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. White House censors 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 when he got the news. The vice president was on Air Force Two, headed to New York. He was freaked out, but there’s 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

S4: at the White House. Karl Rove was overheard to say, we’re sending Cheney to the Al Smith dinner and he’s going to bomb.

S2: 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. Here he is on October 12th, just five days after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan.

S4: We know a number of things. We know that Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda organization clearly have already launched an attack that killed thousands of Americans. We know that he has over the years tried to acquire weapons of mass destruction, both biological and chemical weapons. So you start to piece it all together again. We have not completed the investigation and maybe it’s coincidence. But I must say, I’m I think the only responsible thing for us to do is to proceed on the basis that they could be late

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: coming so soon after 9/11. A lot of people guess that the anthrax was al-Qaida’s next strike. And several of the letters, like the one Senator Daschle’s office contain, would seem to be radical Islamist threats. George W. Bush echoed his vice president. He said that there wasn’t yet hard evidence that Al Qaida had sent the anthrax letters, but they probably did.

S4: There’s no question that anybody who would mail anthrax with the attempt to harm American citizens is a terrorist. And there’s no question that al-Qaida is a terrorist organization. So I wouldn’t put it past me that there are that they’re involved with it. But I have no direct evidence that

S2: that’s what the Bush administration was saying in public. Privately, they were making one more leap. al-Qaida had money and manpower, but it didn’t have the kind of high tech labs you’d need to engineer bio weapons. Iraq might have those labs. It did have them. As recently as the early 90s, a lot of people thought Iraq might still have bio weapons capabilities. Remember, in the scenario Randy Larsen laid out for the dark winter exercise, it was Iraq that supplied the smallpox to al-Qaida. George W. Bush believed that Saddam Hussein had probably provided the anthrax to al-Qaida. He said as much to British Prime Minister Tony Blair. It’s not clear how he came to that conclusion. There was an appetite for that kind of speculation. People were scared. They didn’t want uncertainty or doubt. A lot of people thought 9/11 could have been prevented if the Bush administration had connected the dots. Now they were connecting the dots. They couldn’t stop the anthrax attacks, but they could point fingers, paint a picture, give people a concrete idea of the enemy. If we knew who was behind the terror, maybe we could end it here. Senator John McCain on The Late Show with David Letterman.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S4: How are things going in Afghanistan now? I think we’re doing fine. I think will be fine. The second phase, if I could just very quickly, the second phase is Iraq. There is some indication and I don’t have the conclusions, but some of this anthrax may and I emphasize may have come in from come from Iraq, if that may be the case. And that’s when some tough decisions are going to have to be made.

S2: Investigators had one main piece of evidence to help them figure out who was behind the anthrax attacks, the anthrax spores themselves, so they turned to scientists, people like Paul Keim. How did you first learn that there was a positive case of anthrax in the United States?

S3: Yeah, I get it. I get a call from the FBI.

S2: Kim is a professor at Northern Arizona University. And back in 2001, he was running a DNA lab there. His research focused on anthrax.

S3: I got the call in the afternoon, maybe mid-afternoon on a Thursday. And we we worked all night. And by, you know, early in the morning, 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning, we were actually scanning our databases to try to see which strain in our database would match up with the pattern that we saw from the Robert Stevens sample.

S2: Robert Stevens, the photo editor and first anthrax victim, was still alive when he started working, but he died in the hour after the lab identified the anthrax. The Robert Stevens sample matched a strain of anthrax called the Ames strain. It was a kind of anthrax that had been developed in a lab rather than the kind that occurs in nature.

S4: Well, Dr. Fauci, a lot of attention is being paid to the form that these spores took and virulence of strain or the different genetic line sums that would make you more sick more readily.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S5: And others that I think. Well, yes, there are certainly that. But what people are talking about, the capability of the microbe, it’s the grade of the spore and how they were refined and put in a way that’s much more likely to disseminate in an aerosolized or airborne way versus one that’s crudely made and just might clump to the ground and be much less dangerous.

S2: Identifying the Ames strain was helpful, but it didn’t solve the mystery. There were labs all over the world that could have made the anthrax, including more than a dozen in the U.S. alone. But it didn’t seem likely al Qaeda had direct access to one of those labs. If al-Qaida did have something to do with the attacks, it would have needed help. The next possible break in the case came from a different research laboratory. Those tests showed something Paul Chim’s DNA lab wouldn’t have seen

S4: from three well-placed but separate sources. Tonight, ABC News has been told that initial tests on the anthrax sent to Senator Daschle have found a telltale chemical additive whose name means a lot to weapons experts. It is called bentonite.

S2: ABC News’s Brian Ross said that telltale additive was a huge clue. It meant that the spores were engineered so that they were just the right size to spread through the air and to lodge in the lungs, according to Ross. This meant the anthrax likely came from one particular enemy of the United States.

S4: It’s possible other countries may be using it, too, but it is a trademark of Saddam Hussein’s biological weapons program. It does mean for me that Iraq becomes the prime

S3: suspect as the source for the anthrax used in these letters.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: A White House spokesman told ABC that no bentonite had been found in the anthrax. But in the days that followed, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said, quote, Serious people were still looking into the bentonite question seriously. Meanwhile, the Iraqi government denied having anything to do with the anthrax full stop, but they also refused to allow weapons inspectors into the country to confirm it. Here’s Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz on October 23, 2001.

S4: Anthrax is existing in many, many countries in the world, including the United States. The United States is the major producer of anthrax. Singling out Iraq only is biased. And it’s not just.

S2: Iraq’s refusal to play along with weapons inspectors seemed extremely suspicious. Iraq had lied about its weapons capabilities before and Saddam had praised the 9/11 attacks. It looked like he had something to hide. In November 2001, the FBI sent the anthrax expert, Paul Chyme, a sample of spores that they’d collected from an Iraqi lab in the 1990s. If this was the same kind of anthrax used in the 2001 attacks, that would mean Iraq was probably involved.

S3: And we tested it and it was not the same as the anthrax letters. And so that was a really important negative result.

S2: Time told the FBI that the Iraqis used the volume strain of anthrax, not the Ames strain, which was the one that had showed up in all the letters. So how how did government officials react when you told them, no, the Iraqis don’t have the Ames strain?

S3: Well, I was, of course, talking to scientists and the scientists were surprised. They said, oh, yeah, that makes sense, that they were using the volume strain. One of them even told me, and I’ve confirmed this, that the Iraqis purchased that strain from a US company back in nineteen eighty five. The American type culture collection, which is in in Northern Virginia, sold in that strain. And I heard heard it was for twenty five dollars for handling fee. Wow.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: So who was right. And one side there were the people talking about bentonite, the telltale additive that meant Iraq had to be involved in the anthrax attacks. And then there was Paul Chyme, whose tests showed Iraq couldn’t be involved. King was right, the bentonite people were wrong, the other lab had misinterpreted what it found in the sample, there was no bentonite in the anthrax. That story wasn’t public at the time, though, in 2001, and the scientist who had made the error had gone to the White House to brief officials on October 24th, Paul Chim’s discovery was made public. It was a front page story in The New York Times. But even so, it didn’t get much other media attention. The Times published that story three days before Christmas on one of the biggest travel days of the year. That same day, a man was arrested for trying to set off a bomb on a flight from Paris to Miami.

S3: Robin, that suspect has just been identified by the name of Richard Reid he was carrying. It appeared that he was trying to set his shoes or wires attached to his shoes on fire. And at that point, the

S2: flight, the anthrax letters had stopped and there was something new to fear. In November 2001, the FBI announced it had a suspect profile for the person sending the anthrax, a man, someone with a scientific background and access to technical equipment who had some connection to Trenton, New Jersey. The FBI did not publicly speculate about his motives or nationality for years. No more information was revealed about this man. No arrest was made in the case was never officially solved. Seven years later, in 2008, the FBI met with Paul Khim outside Washington. They had questions for him about an anthrax researcher. He knew one of the scientists who first worked with the Ames strain, the same type of anthrax that had been sent through the mail. Can you tell me a little bit more about Bruce Ivins, what he was like, what you remember of him?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: Yeah, you know, you’re asking kind of a nerdy scientist to describe another nerdy scientist. So for me, he was pretty normal, you know, um, but my wife would probably say no. He was a little nerdy.

S2: Nothing seemed off or no, like. Yeah, interesting. So in 2008, kind was stunned when the FBI told him that Ivins was their main suspect.

S3: They just sat there and thought, really, Bruce, you know,

S2: does their case make sense to you? Does it add up for you?

S3: Well, so since then, of course, I was the chair of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity. So I’ve seen all the evidence and their case was based upon a lot of circumstantial evidence. Uh, you know, where were you? Where weren’t you? Where you within driving distance of the mailboxes, did you have access to the Ames strain that Bruce did? But on the other hand, there is no confession. You know, there is no fingerprints on the letters. There was many, many things that would have been definitive evidence in court that didn’t exist.

S2: Here’s some of that circumstantial evidence Chyme was talking about. It wasn’t just that Ivins was one of the first scientists to work with the Ames strain. The FBI identified genetic markers in the anthrax used in the letters that matched the anthrax from Ivins, his own lab. And the FBI thought that Ivins had a motive to one that had nothing to do with jihad. Investigators believe that Ivins might have been worried that no one would care about biological weapons anymore, that the funding for studying anthrax, his life’s work might dry up. It wasn’t a crazy thing for him to think. Paul Chim’s says he had the same thought in the days after 9/11. So the FBI story went. Ivins mailed the anthrax spores and wrote letters saying Allah is great to make sure everyone was scared of anthrax. And that was his plan. It worked. Everyone was scared, and that fear had far reaching consequences. Not long after the FBI called came in, Bruce Ivins died by suicide. Still isn’t quite sure what to make of the whole thing.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: Bruce’s suicide was not an admission of guilt or it shouldn’t be interpreted that way. Now, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t guilty either. But I’m just saying that you can’t use his suicide as an admission of guilt.

S2: Some experts still don’t think Ivins was responsible for the attacks. It makes sense to them that the anthrax would have come from someone working in an American lab, but there are some technical details about the anthrax and Ivins work specifically that just don’t add up for them. Still, a year and a half after Ivins died, the FBI closed the anthrax case.

S3: You know, one of the things I regret about the whole thing is that we weren’t allowed to continue the analysis so that evidence could be investigated and much more sophisticated ways. But when they closed the case, they destroyed the evidence. That’s not even possible today.

S2: If the 9/11 attacks transformed the world overnight, the anthrax episode revealed what it was going to be like to live in that world. The authorities told the public another attack could come at any moment, anywhere, but also not to panic or the terrorists would win. In the months after 9/11, the people in charge were willing to believe almost anything. Robert Draper,

S3: particularly in the context of what had happened on September 11th, everybody was reluctant to rule anything out. The the unimaginable had occurred and now it was time to start imagining, like, crazy. To me, that’s the real lesson of the Iraq saga, that if if 9/11 was a failure of the imagination, as has been often said, then then what happened in the run up to war was a an overreliance on the imagination.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: The White House knew there was no solid evidence connecting Iraq to the anthrax attacks, but Iraq could make anthrax or other bio weapons, it might want to use them against the United States someday soon for the Bush administration. It wasn’t enough anymore just to be prepared. They wanted to go on the offensive. By Christmas 2001, George W. Bush was talking to the military’s top brass about what an invasion of Iraq might look like after the holiday in the State of the Union address. Bush and his speechwriters helped Americans focus on the next enemy.

S4: The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax and nerve gas and nuclear weapons for over a decade. This is a regime that has already used poison gas to murder thousands of its own citizens, leaving the bodies of mothers huddled over their dead children. States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world by seeking weapons of mass destruction. These regimes, those.

S2: Next time on Slow Burn, the Bush administration goes all in on weapons of mass destruction.

S4: As soon as you got there, we had chemical detectors and chemical alarms went off. So there was poisonous gas in the air.

S3: The thing about intelligence is you can find almost anything you want on a spectrum.

S1: I was told, come on, Jane, it’s Iraq in all of this. What if we didn’t do this and he did something else? So why not? We just say this.

S2: Slow burn is a production of SLEEPLESSLY its membership program, Slate plus members get bonus episodes of Slow Burn every week, where we’ll go behind the scenes into making the show and air clips and interviews that we couldn’t fit in here. And this week’s bonus episode, you’ll be hearing from Ann Curry, who covered the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq war for NBC. Head over to Slocum’s slow burn to sign up and listen. Now it’s only a dollar for your first month. We couldn’t make slow burn without the support of Slate plus. So please sign up if you can head over to Slate Dotcom slow burn. And one more note of business. Gary Grecco, who you heard from earlier in this episode, wanted to be clear that he was speaking to us in his personal capacity, not on behalf of the DIA slogan is produced by me, Jason de Leon. And so if you some agreed with Editorial Direction by Josh Levine and Gabriel Roth, our mix engineer is Mayor Jacob Brandon Angelides composed our theme song, The Artwork for Soberness by Jim Cook. Special thanks to Jared Holt, Allison Benedikt, June Thomas, Derek John, Laura Bennett, Joel Anderson, Megan Karlstrom, Rachel Strahm, Seth Brown, Chao to Usher Solutia, Katie Raeford and Avi’s gentlemen. Thanks for listening.