Secretary of State Colin Powell went to the United Nations on Feb. 5, 2003, to make the case for war in Iraq. A central plank of his presentation: the anthrax attacks that killed five people and helped send the United States into a panic in the days after 9/11.
“Less than a teaspoonful of dry anthrax in an envelope shut down the United States Senate in the fall of 2001. This forced several hundred people to undergo emergency medical treatment and killed two postal workers just from an amount just about this quantity that was inside of an envelope,” Powell said. “Saddam Hussein could have produced 25,000 liters [6,600 gallons]. If concentrated into this dry form, this amount would be enough to fill tens upon tens upon tens of thousands of teaspoons.”
By the end of the following month, the invasion of Iraq was underway.
The debate over Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (or lack thereof) has been endlessly rehashed in the eight years since. Less discussed — and less understood — is the role that the largest bioterror attack in American history played in launching the march to Baghdad.
The anthrax attacks “made it possible to manufacture the argument that there was WMD in Iraq and links to Al-Qaeda,” Rep. Rush Holt (D-New Jersey), a leading congressional critic on the anthrax investigation, tells Danger Room.
And long after any links between Iraq and the killer spores were disproven, the Bush administration used the mystery surrounding the anthrax mailer to press its case for war.
“I point out the anthrax example just to remind everybody that it is very hard sometimes, especially when we’re dealing with something like a biological weapon [to] know who launches the next attack,” Dick Cheney said in September 2002. “And that’s why it’s so important for us when we do identify the kind of threat that we see emerging now in Iraq… we have to give serious consideration to how we’re going to address it before he can launch an attack, not wait until after he’s launched an attack.”
By the time the anthrax letters began arriving the fall of 2001, the public — and public officials — had been thoroughly conditioned to be terrified by a biological strike. Books like the The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story and Biohazard: The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World scared the hell out of audiences. Movies like Outbreak didn’t exactly calm their nerves.
In June of 2001, a simulated smallpox attack on Oklahoma City killed nearly 6,000 during Dark Winter, a biodefense exercise later criticized for overhyping the threat. On Oct. 2, Simon & Schuster released Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War, co-authored by controversial reporter Judith Miller.
Two days later, Robert Stevens tested positive for anthrax. The attacks — and the panic — only grew.
Perhaps the most unnerving case was that of Ottilie Lundgren, a 94-year-old widow who lived by herself in the small, rustic town of Oxford, Connecticut. She didn’t leave the house much, except to go to the hairdresser and to collect her mail. Yet in mid-November, she somehow became infected with anthrax, and passed away.
No one was really sure how she got sick. Investigators never found a spore-laden letter addressed to Lundgren. Their best guess was that one of the anthrax letters might have brushed against one of hers somewhere along its route and left some spores behind.
The country was only starting to come down, ever so slightly, from its 9/11 panic. What happened to Ottilie Lundgren confirmed, and rekindled, everyone’s worst fears.
Lundgren didn’t get on a plane or go to a job at a known extremist target, like the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. She didn’t live in New York or Washington or some big city. She just stayed at home in her small town, opening her mail. And she still became a victim, anyway. If that could happen to Ottilie Lundgren, it meant that no one was safe.
“It was the second and confirming incident that a worldwide network had penetrated the United States, that the country was under widespread attack — and that anything was possible,” Holt says. “The enemy could be anywhere and everywhere and use any means to attack.”
That was the view inside the Bush Administration, where the “bioterror attacks had a larger impact than is generally appreciated — one in many ways bigger than 9/11. Without the anthrax attacks, Bush probably would not have invaded Iraq,” wrote Newsweek’s Jacob Weisberg.
‘I think the seminal event of the Bush administration was the anthrax attacks,” someone close to the president told me. “It was the thing that changed everything. It was the hard stare into the abyss.’
In the days that followed, a few government officials — most notably, Sen. John McCain (R – Arizona) — publicly suggested the Saddam Hussein regime may have been behind the anthrax letters. ABC News trumpeted a bogus claim that the attack spores contained the chemical additive bentonite, a hallmark of the Iraqi anthrax program. “Some are going to be quick to pick up on this as a smoking gun,” anchor Peter Jennings said.
In November, microbiologist Paul Keim was able to prove that wasn’t the case. An FBI agent gave Keim a sample of Iraq’s anthrax — obtained by an undisclosed “U.S. government agency.” Keim used a series of DNA tests to identify the sample’s strain. It didn’t match the anthrax found in the lethal letters. The investigation for the anthrax mailer turned inwards, to domestic scientists, while the Iraq war drums quieted, ever-so-briefly.
“I tell people: I didn’t stop the Iraq war,” Keim says. “I just delayed it for two years.”