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Tainted Letters

A chronicle of the 2001 anthrax crisis
October 25, 2011

In the fall of 2001, five anonymous letters containing the deadly microbe anthrax were sent to media outlets and the offices of two U.S. senators, killing five people and exposing many more to serious health risks. The United States was still in shock from the September 11 attacks, and this new threat compounded the national sense of fear and vulnerability. 

Those tragic events led Jeanne Guillemin, a medical anthropologist who had investigated a 1979 anthrax outbreak in the Soviet city of Sverdlovsk, to recalibrate her career. “I felt, as never before in my life, a kind of call to service,” she says. Then a senior fellow at MIT’s Security Studies Program, she was already focused increasingly on bioterrorism and biological weapons. In American Anthrax: Fear, Crime, and the Investigation of the Nation’s Deadliest Bioterror Attack, she recounts the gripping story of the 2001 anthrax attacks.

“I decided to write American Anthrax to clarify for myself why those anthrax letters, which callously exploited the fears we all felt after 9/11, were sent,” Guillemin says. She tried to provide closure for victims’ families and to present a coherent narrative of events whose repercussions “have been less than rational.” “The letters added impetus to the Iraq War decision in 2003, and billions continue to be spent on biodefense research that may or may not have value,” she says. 

The Centers for Disease Control struggled to find the best way to address the attacks, which killed people in Florida, New York, Washington, D.C., and Connecticut. “To say that [the CDC] was unprepared for the letters would be an understatement,” she says.

Guillemin’s previous research in Russia had accustomed her to obstacles when inquiring into state secrets. But in this case, she says, she faced two layers of secrecy. “The FBI was involved in a difficult, frustrating investigation, the details of which couldn’t be revealed except after the suicide of its prime suspect, Bruce Ivins, in 2008,” she says. “Even then, follow-up government inquiries and lawsuits kept information I was interested in under wraps. On another level, because Ivins was a microbiologist at Fort Detrick, at the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, the U.S. Army became the focus of the FBI investigation and subject to scandal when it became clear that Ivins could have been the anthrax murderer.”

Ivins was implicated several years after the attacks, when scientific advances linked the DNA “fingerprint” of the spores in the letters to a flask that had been under his control. “It was beyond CSI and nothing the criminal could have predicted in 2001,” Guillemin says. “I would love to have been a fly on the wall when the FBI analysts and scientists involved in that quest realized that out of nearly a thousand comparative samples, they had found the exact match.” The discovery alone could not prove Ivins’s guilt, but it did show that Fort Detrick had experienced a major national security breakdown. And that, says Guillemin, is more significant than the lingering question of “whodunit.”

Recent Books

From the MIT community

(winner of the 3-Day Novel Contest)
By Jennifer K. Chung ‘02
Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011, $14.95

Fusion: An Introduction to the 
Physics and Technology of Magnetic Confinement Fusion, 2nd Edition
By Weston M. Stacey ‘66
Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, $130.00

Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide
By Joshua Goldstein, SM ‘84, PhD ‘86
Dutton/Penguin, 2011, $26.95

Modes of Creativity: Philosophical Perspectives
By Irving Singer, professor of philosophy
MIT Press, 2010, $36.00

CRC Standard Mathematical Tables and Formulae (32nd Edition)
By Daniel Zwillinger ‘78
CRC Press, 2011, $69.95

Infinite Possibility: Creating Customer Value on the Digital Frontier
By B. Joseph Pine II, SM ‘91, 
and Kim C. Korn
Berrett-Koehler, 2011, $26.95

Modeling Methods for Marine Science
By David M. Glover, William J. ­Jenkins, and Scott C. Doney, PhD ‘91, professors in the MIT/WHOI Joint Program 
in Oceanography
Cambridge University Press, 2011, $85.00

Policy and Choice: Public 
Finance through the Lens 
of Behavioral Economics
By William J. Congdon, Jeffrey R. Kling, PhD ‘98, and former MIT economics professor Sendhil Mullainathan
Brookings Institution Press, 2011, $29.95

Please submit titles of books and 
papers published in 2011 and 2012 
to be considered for this column.

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