Are the anthrax attacks a probe of US bio-terrorism defenses rather than an attempt to inflict massive casualties? If so, what vulnerabilities has the probe already demonstrated?


If the 9/11 attack was used as an opportunity (and possibly a cover) to test the effectiveness of dry, powdered anthrax bacteria an agent of disruption, the test established:

1) It can be delivered anonymously with a high-degree of confidence that the sender will not be identified. Consider the letter-laced bacteria which went to four high-profile targets: Senators Tom Daschle and and Pat Leahy, Tom Brokaw at NBC and the NY Post. Despite the post-marked envelopes and block-written threat-letters "WE HAVE THIS ANTHRAX," US intelligence proved unable to find where it came from or how it was manufactured. (The FBI, if anything, added to the cloak of ambiguity by allowing Iowa State to destroy the family tree of specimens of the strain, called the Ames Collection.)

2) Even when the anthrax was delivered without an explanatory letter, US law enforcement did not have the capabilities to identify the delivery channel.

Consider the 6 cases of anthrax in which no letter was found: American Media offices Governor Pataki's office, Kathy T. Nyguyen, the child of a TV producer at ABC, CBS News office and Mrs.O. Lundgren. All were attributed to either a missing letter or the, deus ex machina, cross contamination. But the concept of cross-contamination means micron-sized bacteria can leap from one medium to another medium in any direction. They can go not only from a post office to a home but vice versa. And they do not have to travel inside an envelope, the Post Office revealed that they travel also on the outside-- jumping onto thousands of letters.

There is no reason to assume that the proble was limited to mail. It could have been extended, for example, to tabloid newspapers, such as those published by American Media. Why couldn't the bacteria that killed Nyguyen and Lundgren, or which was found in the offices of Governor Pataki and American media, have come from their tabloid reading? The prober could monitor the progress of a newspaper test by buying copies of newspapers in different places and analyzing the spore count.

By monitoring whatever delivery channels that it used-- mail, tabloids, packages, whatever-- the attacker presumably determined the effectiveness of different modes for future reference.

3) Even a small quantity of spores of inhalation anthrax can kill people with suppressed auto-immune systems, as may have happened in the case of Mrs. Lundgren. By demonstrating this, the prober made it necessary to defend against minute amounts of anthrax to protect everyone.

4) So paradoxically, while small dosages of dispersed anthrax is not a lethal threat to most of the general population, the probe showed it is a threat buildings-- or at least their use. Once anthrax bacteria is detected, or made manifest by a letter, buildings must be evacuated and decontaminated to protect the most vulnerable. In doing so, the bacteria denies vital services and communications..

5) Anthrax can closed down building (or airports, train stations, etc) for extended time periods. Decontamination and re-occupation of even highly-valued facilities can take many months, as has been demonstrated by the successful attack on the Hart Senate Office Building in October. The headquarters of American Media, after two months, remains shut (The RR Donnelly printing plant that prints the north-east edition of its tablods, as well as the Lands End catologues for that regain, has not been tested, as far as I can determine).

6) The US has no immediate vaccine defense against the threat of economic disruption. The vaccine the US has developed for anthrax is designed to work against the Vullam not the Ames strain. So the US does not have a means of preventing panic in case of a wide scale shut down of sites and sustained series of attacks. Mass distribution of Cipro runs the risk of created resistant strains of the bacteria.

The successs of a probe is not the damage it has inflicted, but the information it provided about US capabilities. This probe demonstrated that a sustained anthrax attack could disrupt the movements of goods and people without taking a huge toll of human deaths, The attacker, moreover, as long as he maintained his anonymity, need not expect retribution.

The probe also serves as a demonstration to the US government. It showed that an unknown adversary has the technological capability to mill anthrax to one micron and concentrate one trillion spores in a single gram. Presumably, an adversary with such advanced technology could further weaponize the anthrax, if it choose to do so, by making it resistant to anti-biotics (as both Russia and US succeeded in doing four decades ago.) By doing so, it makes it a credible threat that can be used as a future instrument of extortion or deterrence.