29 Senate Staffers Test Positive for Anthrax
October 17, 2001 8:05 AM   Subscribe

29 Senate Staffers Test Positive for Anthrax Looks like this one is a particularly virulent form that was sent to Sen. Daschle
posted by Lanternjmk (37 comments total)
They tested positive for anthrax exposure. There's a huge difference. The don't (necessarily) have the disease.
posted by jpoulos at 8:10 AM on October 17, 2001

Here's a fairly good piece from the NY Times (sorry, registration required) about what it takes to manufacture a more virulent form of anthrax.

"Producing germs that could be spread as a mist had been the main technical challenge facing germ warriors throughout the 20th century...The trick was turning it into an aerosol that lingers."
posted by tpl1212 at 8:15 AM on October 17, 2001

Thanks for the correction. They have been exposed but not come down with the disease
posted by Lanternjmk at 8:25 AM on October 17, 2001

This is potentially very bad. Your run-of-the-mill looney tune can't whip up this stuff in his basement; its very existence indicates the involvement of a state, most likely Iraq, though it's too early to say.
posted by aaron at 8:43 AM on October 17, 2001

From the video linked in the article: Investigators immediadately noticed striking similarities between the letter sent to NBC's Tom Brokaw and the one sent to Tom Daschle. In addition to sharing a Trenton, NJ, postmark, the two letters have nearly identical handwriting.

And they were both addressed to someone named "Tom"! Clearly this is a campaign against prominent American Toms. Somebody warn Tom Arnold and Tom Hanks.

Also, all this news about getting spores in the mail makes me wish for a better world where we'd get S'mores in the mail. Mmmmm...S'mores.
posted by kirkaracha at 8:45 AM on October 17, 2001

Emily Litella voice: What's all this talk that I keep hearing about Anthrax S'mores?
posted by MrBaliHai at 8:51 AM on October 17, 2001

microwaved smores kirkaracha? you blaspheme. if there's no campfire chars in the mallow it's unholy.

oh yeah...and this antrax stuff has got me shi-ittin my pants.
posted by danOstuporStar at 8:59 AM on October 17, 2001

...and now Gov. Pataki's office has tested positive for spores. Great news blurb on FNC: "Spore War"
posted by davidmsc at 9:05 AM on October 17, 2001

doesn't it have to be a virus to be virulent? Anthrax is a bacteria, hence the use of antibiotics to treat it.
posted by machaus at 9:24 AM on October 17, 2001

posted by machaus at 9:29 AM on October 17, 2001

This could potentially be very bad. Bad in a way that even the WTC attack wasn't.

1. This attack appears less and less the work of loonybirds. A disgruntled citizen or foreigner might be able to brew up some Anthrax in a fermentation tank, but it takes sophisticated machinery to "weaponize" it; the anthrax released on Sen. Daschle's office was of a highly "weaponized" sort.

2. At present only three entities are known to have the ability to create, and store, this kind of anthrax: Russia, the US, and Iraq.

3. If the anthrax was obtained from a foreign power, this amounts to an attack on us with weapons of mass destruction (WMD). It has long been the US's stance than an attack on us by WMD would be met in a like manner.

It seems unlikely in the extreme that Russia would (knowingly) provide anthrax. Iraq seems to be the logical source, and this means that the issue of an attack on them is not a question if if, but rather when. And I would not rule out the use of tactical nuclear weapons in taking out their biowarefare facilities; the anthrax attack on us means that all gloves are off.

Another frightening aspect of this is that Bruce Schnier, the noted computer security analyst, thinks that this anthrax scare is a "field test". Americans are notorious for being hypochondriacs; what better way to distract us than by scaring us with anthrax, which is a pretty lousy biowarfare weapon? The real attack may be in the planning stages right now -- botulism toxin, legionnaire's disease, designer viruses.

The fact that the WTC hijackers investigated using crop-dusters for some kind of mischief is another link in a very scary chain. I'm not alarmist by nature, but this whole situation could easily spiral out of control.
posted by mrmanley at 9:34 AM on October 17, 2001

This is just another scary story. The fact that the NYT posts two front pagers on this makes me especially worried.
posted by flip at 9:40 AM on October 17, 2001

mrmanly -

this would be especially effective if the US supply of ciprofloxin were contaminated with a poison or other biological agent . . .
posted by yesster at 9:44 AM on October 17, 2001

the worst possible virus they could pick is smallpox, which is extremely infectious, person-to-person, can kill alot of people, and is horrible to go through even if you do survive.

the anthrax itself doesn't worry me, but the fact that someone who has weapon-grade anthrax is sending it out makes it likely they might have a store of smallpox somewhere.

the problem with smallpox, as opposed to anthrax, is that it's difficult to "aim", as pretty much everybody will contract it who comes in contact; almost noone has had the vaccine or booster since 1972. so pretty much one has to decide on a worldwide spread of the disease, as opposed to just hitting America. wouldn't that be lovely?
posted by meep at 9:46 AM on October 17, 2001

dammit, machaus, close your tag.
posted by meep at 9:47 AM on October 17, 2001

At present only three entities are known to have the ability to create, and store, this kind of anthrax: Russia, the US, and Iraq.

mrmanley, that list above seems very suspect. I'm willing to bet that the majority of countries in the world have this capability, plus quite a few universities, labs, and microbiologists. I mean do you seriously believe that Iraq is way ahead of, say, France, the UK, India, Israel, Pakistan etc.? I really doubt it...
posted by talos at 9:54 AM on October 17, 2001

I wouldn't be quite so hasty to point the finger at Iraq. Russia has been coming apart at the seams for 10 years now, and the nature of biological agents is that you can grow a small stock into a big one.

I'm impressed and somewhat suprised that the US has managed to prevent Osama bin Laden from starting WW III to this point; with the Anthrax and the assasination of that Israeli legislator I don't know how much longer it'll last.

talos - biological warfare research is expensive and dangerous. Both the US and Russia had rather dramatic accidents during their programs. I certainly believe that countries other than the three mentioned could develop effective biological weapons, in much the same way that they could develop nukes. I don't think that they have developed said weapons.
posted by jaek at 10:34 AM on October 17, 2001


Lots of nations have the capability to produce weaponized anthrax; not many countries actually do because the drawbacks of bioweapons often outweigh their battlefield usefulness. Anthrax is a popular weapon because it is relatively easy to create and store, but it is also not very virulent (as we have seen -- out of all the people exposed, there has only been one confirmed death).

Smallpox and other viruses present a different problem -- they are very effective weapons, but are incredibly difficult to develop and store safely. Few countries have the capability (Level-4 biocontainment) to create weaponized viruses.

Bacterial weapons are somewhat easier and safer to produce, but it's still an industrial-sized operation, and one that would come to the attention of US intelligence agencies pretty quickly. Weaponizing bacteria requires a combination of scientific knowhow, technology, and storage capbility that is simply beyond the means of most nations.

Only Iraq (and possibly rogue elements of Russia) has the means, motive, and opportunity to deliver weaponized anthrax. It could be someone else, but what would the motive be? I'm open to the possibility that the anthrax was stolen from the host country; it could even in fact be US anthrax that was stolen from a research lab.

But it really looks to me like Iraq is the probable culprit here. We have an Iraqi intelligence agent meeting with one of the WTC hijackers a month before the attacks; Iraq is known to have a major investment in biowarfare facilities; Iraq has a special bone to pick with the US over the Gulf War and the continuing sanctions.

It may be that the anthrax has certain characteristics -- "fingerprints" -- that point to its origin. This could include the strain (like the "Ames" strain that was gathered from a dead cow in Ames, Iowa in the 1950's), the "packaging", and the dispersal mechanism (why use a letter rather than, say, putting it into the ventilation system?).

If I lived in Iraq right now, I'd be digging a deep hole in my backyard....
posted by mrmanley at 10:36 AM on October 17, 2001

this seems like an appropriate link here:

the Center for Nonproliferation Studies' Chemical and Biological Weapons: Possession and Programs Past and Present.

i'm thinking it's the Canadians myself, mainly because all Canadians are evil and because Canada has extensive ties to the Girl Scouts.
posted by tolkhan at 10:44 AM on October 17, 2001

Former U.N. Chief Weapons Inspector to CNN regardin motive/suspects:

The two candidates for immediate investigation, I think would be Iraq and Russia - why? The size of their program, in both cases, quite considerable anthrax programs, the sophistication of their equipment. You go back to what I said a moment ago, the equipment that can make the particle size small and make the anthrax more potent, both Iraq and Russia had and have - well Russia had - Iraq I think still has big programs with that degree of sophistication.

I'm not accusing ... Russia the government of doing this, but you know, there are some very disaffected scientists ... who worked in that program, who might have these materials and be prepared to sell them, you know, on the black market. So they were be the two most fruitful lines of inquiry when you look at that map.

posted by danOstuporStar at 10:53 AM on October 17, 2001

tolkhan: actually, it's Girl Guides in Canada... a much more sinister organization (heh heh)
posted by nprigoda at 11:18 AM on October 17, 2001

mrmanley: who's to say the bacteria didn't come from the US? there has been speculation that it was stolen from US research facilities. I think you're getting a little ahead of things here.

Besides, the method of delivery in these cases is very unsophisticated. It seems, at least to me, to be more of a minor-league bad guy(s) at work.
posted by jpoulos at 11:20 AM on October 17, 2001


There are lots of reasons the stuff probably didn't come from the US, but the first is that you don't just lose weapons-grade anthrax. Okay? If some of the US stockpile turned up missing, we'd know about it most ricky-tick. I guarantee it. You lose your comb or your keys; you don't lose weapons-grade anthrax.

As to the delivery mechanism: it's more sophisticated than it looks. For example: how do you "treat" the envelopes in such a way that the bateria is in deliverable form without infecting yourself in the process? How do you store and move the weaponized anthrax prior to use?

Weapons-grade anthrax cannot be created by some lone nutcase working in a shed someplace. Anthrax spores are not naturally all that dangerous to humans; in order to be effective, they must be of a certain size (between 1 and 5 microns) and consistency ("slippery") in order to be retained in the human lung. Producing anthrax of this kind is a highly technical and difficult process, and it requires industrial-scale facilities. This is in addition to the scientific knowhow required to culture and prepare the anthrax.

Minor-leage bad guys or (gals) may have delivered the anthrax, but they sure as hell didn't make it. Some other bad guys -- probably belonging to a foreign governemnt -- gave it to them with the knowledge that they'd use it on us.
posted by mrmanley at 11:31 AM on October 17, 2001

you don't just lose weapons-grade anthrax. Okay? If some of the US stockpile turned up missing, we'd know about it most ricky-tick. I guarantee it. You lose your comb or your keys; you don't lose weapons-grade anthrax.

Similarly, it is inconceivable that the US could possibly misplace plutonium.
posted by Skot at 11:53 AM on October 17, 2001

Or guns.
posted by jpoulos at 12:12 PM on October 17, 2001

I think the USPS would beg to differ as to its lack of sophistication!

Seriously, this is an effective terror campaign. Don't most adults in the US have a postal address? Don't most of them handle personal mail on a regular basis? Isn't this story dominating the news? A low level attack like this with a small supply of anthrax can be carried out for weeks. Perhaps it lacks technological sophistication, but it certainly exploits weaknesses in another one of America's "networks". How many other ways can you think of potentially threatening every houshold in America? The loss of life may be small, but the cost to guard against this threat in the future will be enormous.
posted by xiffix at 12:28 PM on October 17, 2001

If some of the US stockpile turned up missing, we'd know about it most ricky-tick. I guarantee it.

June 3, 2000 (AP) Dr. Marvin Monroe, director of the federal biological research lab in Ames, Iowa, held a press conference today: "We'd just like to announce that three tons of anthrax has vanished from this lab over the last 2 years. It's quite possibly in the hands of terrorists, who are at this moment preparing to scare the bejeezus out of the entire nation. Thank you."

Not likely.
posted by jpoulos at 12:39 PM on October 17, 2001


It says right in the article you linked --

Conclusion: Regarding the unaccounted for Rocky Flats Pu, Paukert/Giacomini say repeatedly that "there is no evidence to indicate that material is missing."


Why are you so anxious to think it's of American origin as opposed to Iraqi or Russian? Just curious.
posted by mrmanley at 12:42 PM on October 17, 2001

Of course it's become a very effective attack, xiffix. I don't dispute that. But I simply don't see a lick of actual evidence that this scare has come from outside the US. I did turn on the TV on September 11, and I'm aware that the bad guys are out to get us, but I think it's premature to blame it on anyone in particular.
posted by jpoulos at 12:43 PM on October 17, 2001

Why are you so anxious to think it's of American origin as opposed to Iraqi or Russian? Just curious.

I'm not at all anxious to think it's American. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised at all to find out otherwise. But I think it's unwise to jump to conclusions--especially those involving countries heretofore uninvolved. If we were to assume, for example, that Iraq is behind it, as many would like to do, this coalition we've painstakingly constructed with Arab nations would fall apart in an instant. And, like it or not, we need that coalition to get the job done.

Not to mention that, if we assume (in our patriotic zeal) that the threat has come from outside, and we're wrong, we're liable to miss the threat right under our nose. After all, the last major terrorist act to take place on US soil, before 9/11, was perpetrated by Americans.
posted by jpoulos at 12:53 PM on October 17, 2001


We must keep our minds open, but not so open that our brains fall out. "Patriotic zeal" and simple prudence are not the same thing, although you seem to conflate the two. This anthrax attack might be local, but probably isn't -- prudence demands that we find out who has the capability to attack us in this way and prepare accordingly.

I am astonished at the inability of many people here to understand that we are at war, and have been since 9.11. We face an enemy who has vowed to kill as many of us as he can, in whatever way he can. We cannot continue to act as if nothing has changed.
posted by mrmanley at 1:32 PM on October 17, 2001

June 3, 2000 (AP) - Rep. Dennis Hastert asserted that Bill Clinton was letting the US biological warfare capacity wither on the vine. He claimed that over 3 tons of anthrax had been stolen from US laboratories over the past 7 years, and that the administration had ignored repeated warnings about this threat. When it was pointed out that Hastert had himself voted against amendments to divert funding from National Missile Defense to anti-bioterrorism programs he said, "Well, uh, that was different."

Maybe not likely, but certainly more plausible and also more in line with how these things usually come to light.
posted by jaek at 1:38 PM on October 17, 2001

It says right in the article you linked --

Conclusion: Regarding the unaccounted for Rocky Flats Pu, Paukert/Giacomini say repeatedly that "there is no evidence to indicate that material is missing."

Yeah. And then the next sentence reads:

"Comment: Evidence of missing material appears in the large difference between what once was measured and what later can't be found. DOE has yet to provide a verifiable explanation for what happened to this large quantity of Pu. Paukert/Giacomini admit that without remeasuring all the Rocky Flats waste buried at INEL, efforts to rectify the inventory difference are speculative at best. "
posted by Skot at 1:42 PM on October 17, 2001

I don't think that the point of these mailings is to kill many people. It is to show us that 'they' have access to weapon-grade anthrax, and make us worry about it and freak out. Maybe they will kill a bunch of us later, but that doesn't seem to be what they are going for here. Terrorism is largely about terror.

This does not of course mean that we should not prepare for the attacks. It seems to me that the difference in sophistication between the delivery method and the development method of the anthrax indicate that the people who delivered the anthrax are not the people who created it in the first place. But you can't really assume that with any certainty. They could be just testing their delivery method before they play their trump card and mail out all the Publishers Clearing House envelopes.

<gratuitous joke>
By the way, I can't think of a better place to hide anthrax than New Jersey.
</gratuitous joke>
posted by donkeymon at 1:57 PM on October 17, 2001

Looks like I get a nice 5-day vacation. The Library of Congress is closed until at least Tuesday.
posted by MrMoonPie at 5:46 PM on October 17, 2001

I am astonished at the inability of many people here to understand that we are at war, and have been since 9.11.

Well, actually, we have been at war since at least 1953.

Except for a short while after this guy, with lots of help, overthrew this guy, in 1978-79, "we" just didn't care until 9/11...
posted by fooljay at 7:59 PM on October 17, 2001

OK, mrmanley, let me tell you why I think it is NOT Iraq:
- If OBL is implicated, it is unlikely, very unlikely, that he actually cooperated with Saddam. He considers Saddam to be a secularist, at war with his fellow fundamentalists in the South of Iraq. So IMHO either one, or the other is involved but not both. If I had to choose between two possible suspects I'd go for Bin Laden.
- The origin of anthrax can, and will be, eventually traced. If it is found to originate in Iraq, Hussein's day's are numbered. Not the Iraqis this time, but him specifically. Now he is a lot of things, but he isn't suicidal.
- Your assessment ties whoever made the anthrax to whoever used it. Since Ex-Soviet scientists according to Butler, whom you quoted above, are working freelance now, it is exceedingly likely that whoever needs biological weapons can find these people (through Russian organised crime f.e.) and hire them.
- Butler is viewing this from a political as well as a technical perspective. He is looking for possible "enemies" and identifies two. He is not responding to a question of who can make biological weapons, but rather to "who is likely to be using them now?" There cannot be any questions in my mind that both India and Pakistan are planning for Biowarfare and that Israel is a world leader in the field. Not to mention China of course.
My point is not that these countries are responsible for the Anthrax letters, but that there are plenty of possible leaks to ponder about. See also the link to the University of Wisconsin- Madison from the MeFi sideblog where it states that: "Iraq, Russia and as many as ten nations nations have the capability to load spores of B. anthracis into weapons. Domestic terrorists may develop means to distribute spores via mass attacks or small-scale attacks at a local level."
- Besides the above, you only need the lab, the know-how and a sick cow to prepare the spores anyway (if I understood this Anthrax thing correctly).
posted by talos at 6:29 AM on October 18, 2001

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