The fantasy link: 9/11, anthrax, and the Iraq war

About the author
Philipp Sarasin is professor of modern history at the University of Zurich. He published recently Anthrax: Bioterror as Fact and Fantasy (Harvard University Press 2006), and Michel Foucault zur EinfÌ_hrung (Hamburg, Junius Verlag 2005).

The tragic events referred to as "9/11" are so well-known as to have become part of global consciousness and memory. Almost forgotten, however, is an incident that occurred in subsequent weeks, when the United States postal service delivered four letters containing a powder of milled spores of anthrax - a potential bio-warfare agent - to the New York Post and NBC's Tom Brokaw (posted on 18 September), and to Thomas Daschle and Patrick Leahy, senior Democratic party leaders in Congress (posted on 9 October). Five people died and eighteen were severely injured as a result of contamination. There were further confirmed cases of anthrax contamination at media outlets in New York and Florida around the same time, though it is less clear if these were the result of letters being sent.

After an investigation, the FBI denied any link between the anthrax letters and al-Qaida. As the identity of the perpetrator remains elusive, so the memory of these deadly mailings has weakened; they barely feature even in the official report of the 9/11 commission.

The question of what really happened in the "anthrax letters" case is, in my view, deeply tied to the political atmosphere in the United States in the period before and after the incident. Where then did the letters come from, what is their political significance, and who sent them?

Philipp Sarasin is professor of modern history at the University of Zurich. Among his recent books are Michel Foucault zur Einführung (Hamburg, Junius Verlag, 2005) and Anthrax: Bioterror as Fact and Fantasy (Harvard University Press, 2006)

The anthrax frenzy

The real story of the 11 September 2001 attacks, which many claim have aspects yet to be explored, is undoubtedly more complex in at least one particular. On 30 September 2001, the New York Times reported that "minutes after two jets slammed into the World Trade Center, the National Guard had already been mobilized. The Guard had available 29 teams around the country to aid the response to chemical, biological, and radiological attacks; on 9/11, a 22-member unit was ordered into Manhattan to test the air for deadly germs or chemical toxins."

So, although the air force failed to respond to the fighter-jets quickly, the National Guard was soon on the scene looking for germs. Not only that: at 1 pm on 11 September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta released a "health alert" about a possible bio-terror attack to all hospitals nationwide. Moreover, from early on 9/11, White House personnel (as spokesman Gordon Johndroe acknowledged in June 2002) were given the powerful anthrax antibiotic Cipro even "before the situation could be fully assessed".

In the ensuing weeks, a nation in shock lived in fear of a bio-terror attack. On 13 September, a list in USA Today of the dangers threatening the United States had "biological weapons" at the top of the list: "Just 250 pounds of the infectious disease anthrax spread over the Washington, D.C., area could kill up to 3 million." Ten days later, Time magazine published the allegation that the "Bin Laden conspirators" had planned to use crop-dusting planes to disperse biological or chemical agents.

These scraps of information and semi-official rumours roused people across America - especially New Yorkers - into a state of high anxiety. "Fears of anthrax hung in the air over parts of the Lower East Side", the New York Times commented on 23 September. Judith Miller, the NYT reporter who was to leave the paper in October 2005 amid intense controversy over the quality of her journalism in the lead-up to the Iraq war, professed that there was reason to fear "Muslim martyrs willing to be infected with smallpox or Marburg, a cousin of Ebola, who could then walk around our malls and cause an epidemic."

It is important to note that the anthrax frenzy, both official and popular, emerged before any evidence that might justify it. It was only on 4 October that the first TV news alerts reported a strange case of pulmonary anthrax in Boca Raton, Florida. It was several days later that copies of the anthrax letters were featured in the media, to be followed by a wave of hoax ones, mixing fear and confusion in equal doses.

The coincidence of the pre-existing anthrax scare and the real thing in the form of the letters raise two questions. First, why was there a feverish expectation of a bio-terror attack in the first place? Second, what were the political effects of the killings of five people, inflicted by the material in the letters?

The expectation of "bio-terror"

The answer to the first question may illuminate the discussion about whether the US government was "prepared" for a major, foreign-sourced terrorist attack on its soil. It can begin with a novel: Richard Preston's The Cobra Event, published in late 1997, which depicts a bio-terrorist attack on New York, conducted with a genetically-engineered Iraqi "superbug".

President Clinton was among the first readers of Preston's apocalyptic script, whose Pentagon intelligence sources seemed to give it a patina of expertise. Clinton was not alone in treating Preston as a bio-terror expert; the novelist testified in that capacity to the Senate's select committee on intelligence in 1998, when he claimed that Iraq possessed bio-warfare agents in large quantities.

The Cobra Event was the trigger of the Clinton administration's obsession with bio-terror. It became one of the influences in the rise of official anti-terror exercises (thirty-two in 1996, fifty-three in 1997, 116 in 1998) designed to prepare federal officials for new, post-cold-war threat scenarios. Between 1998 and 9/11, there may have been as many as 200 such anti-terror rehearsals; two-thirds of these have referred to "bio-terror".

A pre-9/11 example reveals the nature of these events. "Dark Winter" was a major exercise staged at the Andrews air-force base near Washington, DC on 22-23 July 2001. The scenario was a bio-terrorist attack on three American cities. The script was vivid, even novelistic:

"The previous month, Russian authorities had arrested ‘Yusuuf Abdul Aziiz', a close friend of Osama bin Laden and senior al-Qaeda operative for attempting to procure fifty kilograms of plutonium and various weapons-grade pathogenic agents on the black market. For purposes of the exercise, the U.N. weapons embargo had ended; Iraq had returned to full-scale production of bioweapons and moreover had deployed its troops along the Kuwaiti border. The exercise included various military options for an American move against Iraq. At the same time, participants are informed that the Middle East supplies 26% of the 8.46 million barrels of oil the United States imports every day, and that the Strategic Petroleum Reserve will only suffice for 54 days."

Meanwhile, a defector from the Saddam Hussein regime claims that the Iraqi secret service is behind the attack - and, at the end of the briefing to the US government employees involved in the exercise, the letters emerge: "The NY Times, Washington Post, and USA Today receive[d] anonymous letters demanding the immediate removal (one week) of all US forces from Saudi Arabia and all war ships from the Persian Gulf. Failure to comply will result in renewed attacks on the US, which will include anthrax, plague and small pox. Each letter also contained a genetic fingerprint of the smallpox strain matching the fingerprint of the strain causing the current epidemic."

Hence, the short answer to the first question is: America on the eve of 9/11 was expecting a bio-weapon attack rather than a "conventional" attack using commercial airliners, (even though the latter had been feared since the cold-war era, and had remained a component of "new world order" risk scenarios - as indicated by an anti-terror exercise in November 2000 involving airplanes crashing into the Pentagon).

Above all, the US was expecting Osama bin Laden to "spread" anthrax and smallpox, weaponised in Iraqi "mobile hot zones" (Richard Preston); it expected "weapons of mass destruction" in handy portions, produced by a rogue state and delivered by its terrorist allies. This was the official "terrorist attack" narrative operating at least since the end of Clinton's presidency in January 2001 - regardless of the fact that the likelihood of the US being hit with such weapons was (as then FBI director Louis Freeh testified to Congress in 1999) practically zero.

The 9/11 terrorists, then, seem to have watched closely all the Hollywood disaster movies, but they obviously hadn't read The Cobra Event. From their perspective, the success of 9/11 was overwhelming. What a strike for terror! How could you top that? Who needed anthrax? But for those under attack, a critical element was still missing: the "superbug" of the "Dark Winter" exercise - smallpox, or anthrax.

A ticket to ride

The second question concerns the effects of the anthrax letters. It is notable that before the anthrax incident, the Bush administration never used the term "weapons of mass destruction" (WMD) in connection with the 9/11 attacks. In October 2001, Bush referred to the anthrax letters as "biological weapons", but only on 6 November was there a dramatic discursive shift, when Bush used in place of "anthrax" the more general signifier "weapons of mass destruction".

On 8 November, Bush stated at a joint press conference with Tony Blair: "But our nation and this terrorist war says to me more than ever that we need to develop defences to protect ourselves against weapons of mass destruction that might fall in the hands of terrorist nations." In a press briefing on the same day, the then national security advisor Condoleezza Rice made the connection between terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and Iraq. On 10 November, in his speech before the United Nations general assembly, Bush spoke in an unmistakably sharper tone of the supposedly clear link between "terrorism" and "weapons of mass destruction." The US administration had found the narrative that would carry it to the gates of Baghdad.

This, says the veteran insider journalist Bob Woodward, was the moment when Bush decided to wage war on Iraq. The anthrax letters - henceforth always referred to as "weapon of mass destruction" - helped incalculably to "sell" this war, because only these letters provided a sense (however doubtful) of "empirical evidence" of connections between a terrorist group, a rogue state and a bio-warfare agent. The anthrax letters served as the perfect fantasy link between 9/11 and Saddam's "WMD".

Who did it?

No one knows. Even after the most extensive manhunt in its history, the FBI is not able to identify the perpetrator of the anthrax letters. The story presented here, however, leads to the suspicion that the anthrax attacks of October 2001 were an inside job. There is a further piece of circumstantial evidence: it is highly improbable that weapon-grade anthrax can be fabricated by any laboratory in the global south.

On 28 November 2003, Gary Matsumoto reported in Science magazine ("Bioterrorism: Anthrax Powder: State of the Art" [subscription only]) that the technology used for the extremely fine particles contained in the letters, especially those sent to Patrick Leahy and Thomas Daschle, is so cutting-edge that bio-weapons experts have concluded that nobody can procure anthrax of this quality without substantial state support.

The writer concludes: "If the Senate anthrax powder did in fact have these refinements, its manufacture required a unique combination of factors: a strain (of the bacteria) that originated in the United States, arcane knowledge, and specialized facilities for production and containment. And this raises the discomforting possibility that the powder was made in America, perhaps with the resources of the U.S. government."