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2001 Anthrax Attacks

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Project: 2001 Anthrax Attacks
Open-Content project managed by Paul, KJF, paxvector

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On September 22, 2001, an employee at the New York Post gets a blister on her finger. She will later test positive for cutaneous anthrax. Six others get sick from anthrax on September 26, 27, and 28, and October 1, including an assistant to NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw. But most of these cases their only visible symptoms are minor skin lesions. None of these cases are seen as anthrax infections at the time. On September 30, Robert Stevens, an employee at the tabloid The Sun, starts to feel ill. He will later die of the more serious inhalation anthrax (see October 4, 2001 and Shortly Afterwards and October 3, 2001). Only in the days right after his death will these earlier cases be properly diagnosed and linked to the anthrax letters. [South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 12/8/2001]

Entity Tags: Bob Stevens

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

Category Tags: Anthrax Letters & Hoax Letters, Other Entries

The New York Times publishes an article by Sheryl Gay Stolberg entitled, “Some Experts Say US Is Vulnerable to a Germ Attack.” The article claims that the US “is inadequately prepared to confront bioterrorist attacks, according to a broad range of health experts and officials. The nation must develop new vaccines and treatments, they say, but it must also fortify its fragile public health infrastructure, the first line of defense in detecting and containing biological threats.” It further notes that since 9/11, “much of the discussion about bioterrorism has centered on a shortage of antibiotics and vaccines. But the bigger problem, officials agree, is a lack of basic public health infrastructure and preparedness that could thwart a terror attack or limit its effects. Doctors are poorly trained to recognize symptoms of infection with possible biological weapons, like plague and anthrax, which can resemble the flu.” Asha George, an expert on biological warfare, says, “We are not going to have a bomb fly out of the sky and land on somebody so that we can say, ‘Look, there’s a bomb, and we are all dying of anthrax.’ It is most likely going to be a covert release, and people will get sick and go to their hospitals, and the public health system will have to pick up on this.” Ironically, at the time this article is published, the 2001 anthrax attacks (see October 5-November 21, 2001) have already begun and some people have started to get sick but have not been properly identified as having anthrax infections (see September 22-October 2, 2001). The article notes that since shortly after 9/11, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have alerted state and local health departments to look for signs of illnesses that could be from a chemical or biological attack. The article also notes, “In the wake of the [9/11] attacks, some members of the public have developed intense fears of germ warfare, and are trying to stock up on their own supplies.” [New York Times, 9/30/2001]

Entity Tags: Asha George

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

Category Tags: Other Entries

On October 2, 2001, Robert Stevens, a photo editor at the tabloid The Sun, arrived at a Florida hospital with a 102-degree fever and vomiting. He quickly got worse. The next day, doctors determine he has been infected with anthrax. He is put on a respirator. On October 4, Florida doctors and officials hold a press conference to confirm that a patient has anthrax, but that they believe it is an isolated case. On October 5, Stevens is pronounced dead, becoming the first person in the US to die from anthrax since 1976. One of Stevens’s coworkers, Ernesto Blanco, has been hospitalized with pneumonia since October 1, but it will not be discovered that Blanco also has anthrax until shortly after Stevens’s death. [South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 12/8/2001] Health and Human Services Director Tommy Thompson tells reporters that the Stevens infection is “an isolated case” that is “not contagious.” Thompson reassures the public, “There is no terrorism” involved in Stevens’s infection. He also asserts that Stevens was infected from an environmental source, saying, “We do know that he drank water out of a stream when he was traveling to North Carolina last week.” It is unclear whether Thompson is misinformed or being deliberately deceptive. [Daily Telegraph, 10/5/2001; Rich, 2006, pp. 34]

Entity Tags: US Department of Health and Human Services, Tommy G. Thompson, Bob Stevens, Ernesto Blanco

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

Category Tags: Anthrax Letters & Hoax Letters, Other Entries, Real Anthrax Attacks

Robert Stevens.Robert Stevens. [Source: Associated Press]The first case of anthrax infection, of Robert Stevens in Florida, is reported in the media (see October 3, 2001). Letters containing anthrax will continue to be received until October 19. After many false alarms, it turns out that only a relatively small number of letters contain real anthrax (see October 5-November 21, 2001). [South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 12/8/2001] In 2004, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen will recall how a widespread sense of panic spread across the US over the next few weeks, as millions felt the anthrax could target them next. He will write, “People made anthrax-safe rooms, and one woman I know of had a mask made for her small dog. I still don’t know if that was a touching gesture or just plain madness.” He says, “The [9/11] terrorist attacks coupled with the anthrax scare unhinged us a bit—or maybe more than a bit.” But he will also mention that the panic quickly passed and was largely forgotten by most people. [Washington Post, 7/22/2004] Columnist Glenn Greenwald will later comment in Salon, “After 9/11 itself, the anthrax attacks were probably the most consequential event of the Bush presidency. One could make a persuasive case that they were actually more consequential. The 9/11 attacks were obviously traumatic for the country, but in the absence of the anthrax attacks, 9/11 could easily have been perceived as a single, isolated event. It was really the anthrax letters—with the first one sent on September 18, just one week after 9/11—that severely ratcheted up the fear levels and created the climate that would dominate in this country for the next several years after. It was anthrax… that created the impression that social order itself was genuinely threatened by Islamic radicalism.” [Salon, 8/1/2008]

Entity Tags: Tom Daschle, Patrick J. Leahy, NBC, Glenn Greenwald, New York Post, Richard Cohen

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, Domestic Propaganda, US Domestic Terrorism

Category Tags: Anthrax Letters & Hoax Letters, Other Entries, Real Anthrax Attacks

Despite the fact that two US senators, Tom Daschle (D-SD) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT), had letters laced with anthrax mailed to their offices (see October 6-9, 2001), the Bush administration’s response is, as later characterized by author Frank Rich, lackadaisical. “Bush said little about it,” Rich will write in 2006, instead “delegating the problem to ineffectual Cabinet members like [Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy] Thompson and the attorney general, John Ashcroft. The rank incompetence of these two Cabinet secretaries, at most thinly disguised by a veneer of supercilious officiousness, was farcical. They were Keystone Kops, in the costumes of bureaucrats, ready at any time to slip on a banana peel.” [Rich, 2006, pp. 34-35]

Entity Tags: Tommy G. Thompson, Bush administration (43), Frank Rich, George W. Bush, John Ashcroft

Category Tags: FBI Investigation, Other Entries

The Observer reports that investigators of the anthrax attacks (see October 5-November 21, 2001) believe Iraq is the prime suspect. One CIA source says, “They aren’t making this stuff in caves in Afghanistan. ‘This is prima facie evidence of the involvement of a state intelligence agency. Maybe Iran has the capability. But it doesn’t look likely politically. That leaves Iraq.” [Observer, 10/14/2001] However, this theory only remains the predominant one for a few days. On October 19, the New York Times is dismissive of the Iraq theory and suggests al-Qaeda or a disgruntled American loner could be behind the attacks instead (see October 19, 2001). In November, the American loner theory will become predominant (see November 10, 2001). But in late 2002, with war against Iraq growing increasingly likely, the Iraq theory appears to make a comeback (see October 28, 2002).

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

Category Tags: Iraq, Other Entries

On October 18, 2001, an alarm in the White House situation room allegedly goes off, indicating that sensors have detected dangerous levels of WMD agents. Vice President Cheney and others in the situation room at the time are said to believe that they have been exposed. Due to the recent anthrax attacks, Cheney allegedly is convinced that he has been subjected to a lethal dose of anthrax. This is according to the 2008 book The Dark Side by journalist Jane Mayer. An anonymous former administration officer will tell Mayer, “They thought Cheney was already lethally infected.” However, it is soon discovered that the sensors had malfunctioned and there was no danger. But Mayer will claim that the incident contributed to Cheney’s paranoia and his desire to use hard-line tactics such as torture in combating terrorism. Mayer will say that, after the incident, “a sense of constant danger followed Cheney everywhere.” When he is not in one of his several “undisclosed locations” (usually underground bunkers), he travels with a doctor and a bag containing a gas mask and biochemical survival suit. [ABC News, 7/14/2008]

Entity Tags: Richard (“Dick”) Cheney

Category Tags: Patriot Act, Other Entries

Chase Brandon.Chase Brandon. [Source: Daily Mail]An episode of the CBS drama series, The Agency, about a planned terrorist attack in the United States using anthrax was scheduled to be broadcast on this day, but is postponed in response to the actual anthrax attacks taking place in the US. [Variety, 10/16/2001; Associated Press, 10/17/2001; People, 11/6/2001] The Agency shows the CIA tackling problems of national security, taking on villains such as Arab terrorists and Colombian drug dealers. [Guardian, 9/6/2001; Guardian, 10/5/2001]
German Terrorist Plans to Attack Washington with Anthrax - The episode, titled “A Slight Case of Anthrax,” which was filmed in August, features a German man who is planning to attack Washington, DC, using anthrax sprayed from a crop duster plane. The man has acquired the same anthrax that the US government developed and sold to Iraq when it was an ally. The CIA discovers that he was behind an anthrax attack in Belgium, and Washington is his next intended target. CIA agents then scramble to stop the terrorist before he can reach the capital. [St. Petersburg Times, 10/29/2001; E! Online, 11/2/2001; People, 11/6/2001; Jenkins, 2012, pp. 68] Al-Qaeda was originally going to be responsible for the anthrax attacks in the storyline, according to Michael Frost Beckner, who wrote the episode. However, CBS said: “This al-Qaeda thing, you’ve got to get off that. No one is interested. Trust us.” The episode was consequently redrafted so that it featured “Iraqis making an anthrax attack through German terrorist proxies.” [Hollywood, Health and Society, 4/2/2002 pdf file]
Episode Canceled due to Actual Anthrax Attacks - The US is currently in the middle of a series of terrorist attacks using anthrax (see October 5-November 21, 2001). [South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 12/8/2001] Anthrax has been discovered in three states and the District of Columbia in the past two weeks. At least 13 people either have anthrax or were exposed to its spores, and one person has died. The episode of The Agency about anthrax attacks is therefore canceled and is replaced with another episode of the show. CBS spokesman Chris Ender explains, “We certainly don’t want to do anything to add to the country’s fears about anthrax.” [E! Online, 10/16/2001; Associated Press, 10/17/2001] “A Slight Case of Anthrax” was in fact going to be broadcast a week ago, on October 11, but had to be rescheduled because President Bush decided to hold a prime-time news conference that evening. [Variety, 10/16/2001; Associated Press, 10/17/2001]
Storyline Was Suggested by CIA Liaison - Gail Katz, one of the show’s executive producers, will later suggest why the storyline about anthrax so closely resembles real-world events, commenting: “This is a series which is dealing with reality. It has to deal with threats like this that concern us.” [E! Online, 11/2/2001] Bazzel Baz, a former CIA operative who is a technical adviser for The Agency, will say, “We know how the CIA works, so if we write a script about anthrax or about a bomb or about an assassination or about bin Laden, it’s probably going to happen.” [CNN, 10/30/2001] Tracey Rabb, the show’s publicist, will comment, “[Y]ou really can’t do a serious drama about the CIA without colliding with topical events.” [People, 11/6/2001] However, Beckner will reveal that the storyline for “A Slight Case of Anthrax” was suggested to him by Chase Brandon, the CIA’s entertainment liaison officer. Author Tricia Jenkins will note that this means it “originated from the CIA.” [Jenkins, 2012, pp. 66] The CIA has in fact cooperated extensively with the producers of The Agency, such as by reviewing the show’s scripts. [New York Times, 8/26/2001]
Episode Airs in November - “A Slight Case of Anthrax” will finally be broadcast on November 8. [E! Online, 11/2/2001; People, 11/6/2001] The pilot episode of The Agency, which features a storyline in which Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist group plots to blow up a department store in London, was also canceled and will be broadcast on November 1 (see September 27, 2001). [New York Times, 9/29/2001; South Florida Sun Sentinel, 10/25/2001; Hollywood, Health and Society, 4/2/2002 pdf file]

Entity Tags: CBS, Bazzel Baz, Chris Ender, Gail Katz, Michael Frost Beckner, Tracey Rabb

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Category Tags: Other Entries

In a speech, President Bush refers to the 9/11 attacks as the “first attack,” and then discusses the recent anthrax attacks (see October 5-November 21, 2001). “The second attack against America came in the mail. We do not know whether this attack came from the same terrorists. We don’t know the origin of the anthrax. But whoever did this unprecedented and uncivilized act is a terrorist.” [New York Times, 11/8/2001]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

Category Tags: Al-Qaeda, Other Suspects, Other Entries

Dr. Antonio Banfi.Dr. Antonio Banfi. [Source: Public domain]A letter containing anthrax is mailed to Dr. Antonio Banfi, a pediatrician in Santiago, Chile. Although the return address is Orlando, Florida, the postmark is Zurich, Switzerland. The letter is sent via DHL, which uses a Swiss bulk mail shipper in New York and a Swiss postmark. Unlike the anthrax letters with US addressees, the letter to Chile is mailed in a business envelope and has a typewritten return address, a business in Florida. Dr. Banfi receives the letter, but finds it suspicious and gives it to the Chilean authorities. No one is known to have been infected with the material contained in the letter. The letter baffles American and Chilean officials because, according to the New York Times, “as they dig deeper, nothing quite adds up.” The New York Times article states, without direct evidence and with ambiguous citation of unnamed “officials” from either Chile or the US, that the anthrax strain most likely originated in Chile, despite the Swiss origin of the letter. The strain is reported to be a different one than used in the US attacks, and is said to be similar to a strain in Turkey. Dr. Banfi says he has no strong political views or known enemies. [New York Times, 11/29/2001]

Entity Tags: Anto­nio Banfi

Category Tags: Other Entries

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