The Anthrax Fumble | The Nation


The Anthrax Fumble

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Did the FBI's customary secrecy and turf-consciousness cause innocent people to die of bioterror? In October, when the first anthrax-laden envelopes were received, the FBI froze the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention out of the high-profile investigation, according to CDC officials. That meant half the country's experts on bio-attacks and the only scientists with a special interest in public health were kept out of the loop. Then, to make matters worse, the CDC spread faulty information it had received secondhand. This all resulted in a fumbled response that put postal and media workers at serious risk. Consider: The US safety net against bioterror was porous because of a turf battle initiated by FBI autocrats--and five people died.

About the Author

Dr. Marc Siegel
Dr. Marc Siegel is a practicing internist and an associate professor of medicine and a fellow in the Master Scholars...

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The main problem was that the CDC, the government agency charged with protecting the public from disease, was never permitted to see or examine the anthrax letters mailed to NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, the New York Post and Senator Tom Daschle. Without direct access to these deadly envelopes, the CDC experts could not accurately assess a vitally important matter--the danger the letters posed to those beyond the people who opened the mail.

On October 12 Brokaw turned over an anthrax letter, postmarked in Trenton, New Jersey, to the FBI. The CDC never examined it. Dr. Mitchell Cohen, the CDC's director of bacterial diseases and liaison to the FBI for anthrax issues, says he saw only photographs of it. On the basis of media accounts and conference calls with the FBI--not direct examination of the evidence--the CDC determined that the Brokaw letter was "only risky to those who opened it." By October 18, though, several New Jersey postal workers had suspicious skin sores, and Teresa Heller, a West Trenton letter carrier, and Richard Morgano, a Hamilton postal worker, had confirmed cases of skin anthrax. New Jersey's Hamilton postal distribution center--which had processed the Brokaw letter--was closed as a result of these cases, and hundreds of workers there were given precautionary antibiotics. Had the FBI allowed the CDC to examine the Brokaw letter on October 12, the CDC would have been in a better position to make judgments and predictions that could have led to an earlier closing of the Hamilton facility. The CDC might well have learned that this anthrax could spread beyond its envelope. Unfortunately, the FBI did not perform tests for leakage on the Brokaw letter.

A comparable series of events occurred after Senator Daschle's office received an anthrax letter on October 15; it had been handled by the Brentwood postal facility in Washington. Again, the CDC was not invited to examine the letter, and its doctors were unable to observe just how easily the anthrax it contained could become airborne and spread. Nor could they run a test checking for cross-contamination by putting this envelope with other uncontaminated envelopes in a mail sorter.

The FBI did have the anthrax letters tested at the laboratory of the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick, Maryland. But according to a letter sent by CDC director Dr. Jeffrey Koplan to Senator Chuck Grassley, who is investigating the bioterror crisis, "no CDC staff went to the Army labs to observe the tests." The FBI informed the CDC of its test results regarding the Daschle letter, telling the CDC via conference calls, for instance, that the letter was "well sealed," Koplan says. But for a scientist, being told of a result is not the same thing as being there. How was the CDC supposed to issue accurate directives if its doctors and lab specialists were kept away from criminal evidence loaded with contagion?

On October 16, microbiologists at the Army lab counted more than a billion spores in the Daschle envelope and discovered the fine military grade of the powder, which should have alerted them right away to its potency. In a conference call that day with the FBI and the CDC, the Army scientists described the powder as "going poof," an indication that it could become airborne. Yet, according to the CDC's Cohen, the Army and FBI officials didn't express concern that this could lead to the spread of the more deadly inhaled form of anthrax. In fact, Cohen said that the Army scientists, having heard from FBI officials that the Daschle letter was supposedly well sealed, predicted limited spread--as they had with the Brokaw letter. Army scientists, who are not accustomed to making public health proclamations, wrongly reassured the CDC without sufficiently testing the spread potential of this dangerous anthrax. The CDC, in turn, blindly passed the information to the post office, noting that there was no risk to postal employees and that mail sorting equipment could be presumed safe.

The dangerous powder in the Daschle letter was already working its way through the Brentwood postal facility by the time the letter hit Daschle's office. If the CDC had been given the opportunity to see the powder firsthand, it could have anticipated the illnesses and deaths then under way at Brentwood, and, consequently, it could have acted more quickly in examining postal workers and providing antibiotics there. It might even have closed Brentwood days earlier. But Brentwood continued to operate until October 21, and two US Postal Service workers there--Thomas Morris Jr. and Joseph Curseen Jr.--died from inhaled exposure due to contaminated equipment. According to Cohen, the CDC "based our assumptions [concerning the Daschle letter] on limited epidemiological information from the letter to Tom Brokaw that the greatest risk was to those who opened the letters." Tragically, this misinformation wasn't corrected in time.

The FBI also kept another piece of crucial evidence from the CDC. On October 19 the New York Post turned over to the bureau an anthrax letter it had received. The letter had been stored unopened by a mailroom worker. Though this envelope was never unsealed, three Post employees acquired skin anthrax from handling the letter, which seemed to spread skin anthrax to anyone who touched it. Had the letter been shared with the CDC, its scientists could have tested seepage from the envelope and made predictions.

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