The Harris Hoax
The Tokyo gas attack and the Oklahoma City bombing were not enough by
themselves to increase American anxiety over anthrax to its highest level. That
would be accomplished in large part by one man, Larry Wayne Harris.
Harris, who lived in Lancaster, Ohio (a distant suburb of Columbus), was an
unambiguous extremist with an unhealthy fixation on biological weapons. An
adherent of the racist and anti-Semitic religious sect Christian Identity, which
teaches that white people are descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel and that
Jews are descended from Satan, Harris was also a member of the neo-Nazi group
Aryan Nations. Harris was not simply ideologically extreme; he also had
concocted a fantasy world for himself in which he was a former CIA operative who
had scientifically proven the existence of God and who had learned from an Iraqi
college student of secret Iraqi government plans to devastate the U.S. with
anthrax and bubonic plague.
Harris became fixated on this purported biological attack from Iraq; he
decided to write a book teaching people how to protect themselves against
threats such as anthrax. He also decided to begin conducting experiments on
bubonic plague and to this end in May 1995 obtained some samples of (inert)
bubonic plague from a Maryland company, which he put in the glove compartment of
his car. Suspicious health officials notified federal authorities, however, who
rushed to arrest him—only to discover that it was not illegal to possess
bubonic plague. Harris was able to plead to a single count of wire fraud (for
falsifying information on his original request) and received only probation.
Coming on the heels of the Tokyo gas attack and the Oklahoma City bombing,
this rather minor event received disproportionate attention by the media and by
the government, too, which could now point to Larry Wayne Harris as an example
of the dangers that Americans faced from biological warfare. In 1998, FBI
director Louis Freeh told a Senate subcommittee that Harris had been convicted,
"interestingly enough," on a fraud charge rather than possession of a
weapon of mass destruction, but asserted in the same testimony that "he was
going to use that against somebody."
But if the FBI could profit from Harris’s newfound notoriety, Harris
himself was not particularly unhappy with the results himself. Harris
self-published his book on defense against biological warfare, Biological
Warfare: A Major Threat to North America, and began promoting it on
extremist shortwave radio programs and in extremist publications. He was now
regularly billed as a "biological warfare expert," and appeared at
right-wing gatherings and survivalist expositions. Harris’s suggestions for
defending oneself against anthrax consisted of urging that people dose
themselves with quantities of antibiotics such as tetracycline in order to build
up resistance; a theory that was unorthodox at best and caused various militia
and "patriot" figures to speak out against him. Bad publicity, whether
in the mainstream press or the "patriot" press, did little to deter
Harris from pursuing his interests in biological agents.
These interests led Harris eventually to his second arrest and the media
circus that followed it. Harris developed an association with William Job,
Leavitt, Jr., a Nevada fire extinguisher manufacturer who had an interest in
pseudoscience. They met at an alternative science conference, following which
Leavitt hired Harris to help him test a device offered to him by pseudoscience
researcher named Ronald Rockwell. This device, the "AZ58 ray tube,"
allegedly could kill bacteria through frequency vibrations; Leavitt had visions
of manufacturing and selling the invention. Harris told Leavitt that he could
test the device on anthrax; he even boasted of having "military grade"
anthrax that could, he alleged, wipe out a city. Harris did not, however, have
any such substance at all—he simply had some anthrax vaccine, which is
Rockwell, however, contacted the FBI on February 18, 1998, and informed them
that Harris supposedly had anthrax. Rockwell, an ex-con, may have been genuinely
concerned, or he may have been trying to retaliate against Harris, thinking that
his deal was not likely to be accepted. In any case, by that evening, the FBI
had initiated close surveillance of Leavitt and Harris, tracking them by
helicopters and closing in with a SWAT team. They soon arrested the pair,
charging them with conspiracy to possess and possession of a biological agent.
FBI Special Agent in Charge Bobby Siller told a news conference that there
was no indication that the men had any target and that no one in the Las Vegas
area was in any danger ("In the few days it took to test the substance…the
media entered the throes of sensational ecstasy," one Las Vegas newspaper
reporter remembered several years later). However, despite Siller’s efforts,
the arrest nevertheless turned into a media spectacle. A comment in an FBI
affidavit which described Harris talking at an event the previous year about a
biological attack on New York City and the consequences it would have became
construed somehow as evidence of an actual and credible plot by Harris to attack
New York. Tabloids carried headlines such as "SUBWAY PLAGUE TERROR"
and "FEDS NAB 2 IN TOXIC TERROR."
While scientists at Ft. Detrick, Maryland, tested the samples seized from
Harris, the FBI raided his home, leaving no stone unturned in a search for
anthrax. It did not find any; moreover, the Army eventually revealed that the
alleged anthrax was in fact harmless vaccine. Because there was no agent and no
plot or intention to use an agent, the case fell apart. Leavitt was released,
while Harris was extradited to Ohio, where prosecutors were prepared to argue
that he had violated the terms of his probation. In the end, all charges were
dropped and Harris returned to his Lancaster home.
The intense publicity surrounding Larry Wayne Harris’s second arrest moved
anthrax anxiety from the halls of Congress and the cubicles of bioterrorism
experts to the living rooms and kitchens of all Americans. The discovery that
Harris had no actual anthrax did nothing to stem the tide of media and
government publicity given to anthrax during the spring and summer of 1998.
Both the specter of Harris as a potential bioterrorist and the immediacy and
severity of the federal government’s response telegraphed to all Americans the
deadliness and seriousness of anthrax.
The Harris spectacle sent another message, too, one that was received only by
certain individuals and groups with malicious tendencies. This message was: If
you want to cause a panic, do it with anthrax. The main consequence of the
second Harris arrest was a wave of malicious anthrax hoaxes that began in 1998.