Anthrax Hoaxes: From Baghdad to Las Vegas
Despite a growing concern over bioterrorism in general, as
well as scattered incidents involving domestic extremists and biological or
chemical agents, American concern about anthrax in the 1980s and early 1990s
remained at a relatively low level. Certainly there was little hysteria or hype.
However, several events in the 1990s drastically increased both concern and
publicity over anthrax, oversensitizing the American public to the dangers
of anthrax in the hands of extremists or terrorists and resulting by the end of
the decade in a frustrating rash of anthrax hoaxes that, ironically, only fueled
the publicity fire still further. By the beginning of the 21st century it had
become abundantly clear that the U.S. had developed an almost primal fear of
anthrax – and anybody who wanted to throw the country into a panic need look
no further for an instrument with which to do so.
The event that really introduced anthrax into the public
consciousness was the Gulf War. Reports had emerged during the 1980s that the
Iraq government had used chemical agents both against Iran during the Iran-Iraq
War and against the discontented Kurdish minority in its own country. By the end
of the decade, U.S. and Israeli intelligence services had developed strong
evidence of an Iraqi biological and chemical weapons program. W. Seth Carus, at
the time a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy,
estimated in 1989 that Iraq had the capacity to produce a thousand tons of
chemical agents annually. Early that same year, the Reagan administration
formally acknowledged that Iraq was completing construction of a biological
weapons plant and expressed "concern and displeasure" to Saddam
Even after the Gulf War, though, anthrax was more the stuff
of thrillers than a real concern. Although the threat of anthrax was highly
publicized in 1990-1991, Saddam Hussein refrained from using the biological
agent against a people far more capable of massive retaliation than the Iranians
or Kurds. Terrorist attacks like the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993
raised American concerns about terrorists, but that act involved conventional
weapons. However, in 1995 the U.S. experienced a "one-two punch" that
raised its concerns about biological and chemical terrorism.
Ironically, neither "punch" involved biological or
chemical weapons use in the U.S. Nevertheless, together they had a tremendous
impact. The first event was the March 20, 1995, use of nerve gas by the Aum
Shinrikyo sect on the Tokyo subway in Japan. The Sarin attack killed 12
people and hospitalized thousands more.
The March 20 episode actually turned out to be the latest in
a series of efforts by Aum Shinrikyo to release agents such as botulinum and
anthrax in government buildings and public places, but every previous effort had
ended in failure – so much so that authorities were not aware they had taken
place. Aum Shinrikyo was the first terrorist group to attempt to kill using
anthrax, but had not taken a single life with the disease.
Nevertheless, the event sent shockwaves around the world and
caused people in many countries to wonder if their own borders harbored people
with the capacity and desire to cause such mass casualties. For the U.S. that
question was answered only a single month later when, on April 19, 1995,
anti-government extremists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols used a fertilizer
bomb to destroy the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people
and injuring hundreds more. It was the worst terrorist act up to that point in
What was more, Americans soon realized that McVeigh and
Nichols were hardly alone. In the early to mid-1990s the extreme right
in the U.S. experienced a major resurgence. Not only were many older groups such
as neo-Nazis given new energy, but entirely new movements emerged, such as the
militia movement and the common law court movement. McVeigh and Nichols used
conventional explosives to perpetrate their terrorist act but perhaps the next
Timothy McVeigh would use nerve gas or plague or anthrax.
The combination of the Aum Shinrikyo incident and the
Oklahoma City bombing heightened U.S. concern over biological and chemical
agents to new levels, a concern that rhetoric soon reflected. "To build a
really devastating anthrax weapon," one defense expert told a Pittsburgh
newspaper, "takes less money and skill than the Oklahoma City bomb…A
fertilizer bomb kills by the hundreds. A biological weapon kills by the tens of
thousands." The Tokyo gas attack was a "wake-up call," according
to Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre, "to us and the entire world,
that people in the future are going to use these rather terrible weapons in ways
that potentially just bring an entire city to its knees." In late 1995, Dr.
Gordon C. Oehler, Director of the CIA’s Nonproliferation Center, testified to
Congress that "extremist groups worldwide are increasingly learning how to
manufacture chemical and biological agents, and the potential for additional
chemical and biological attacks by such groups continues to grow."
Such statements were often accompanied by extreme scenarios. The Office of
Technology Assessment issued a report in 1993 suggesting that a small plane
flying over Washington D.C. could use 100kg of anthrax and a crop sprayer to
kill up to three million people. A few years later, in 1997, Secretary of
Defense William Cohen held up a five-pound bag of sugar at a press conference to
illustrate how little anthrax would be needed to devastate Washington, D.C.
Richard Preston, who had written a sensationalistic book on the Ebola virus and
a 1997 novel, The Cobra Event, about a bioterrorism event in New York
City, grew to stature high enough to address Congress on the subject in 1998.