Daschle letter called first use of anthrax as a weapon

greenspun.com : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread


October 17, 2001

Daschle Letter Called First Use of Anthrax as Weapon


The discovery of what government officials say is high-grade anthrax in a letter mailed to Congress is the most worrisome development yet in a series of bioterrorist attacks that has already rattled the nation.

The officials and weapons experts said yesterday that it suggested that somewhere, someone has access to the sort of germ weapons capable of inflicting huge casualties.

So far, the officials said, the attacker or attackers have used a rudimentary delivery system: the mail.Their intent and capabilities remain unknown, as does the amount of anthrax available to them. But what worries the officials in Washington is the possibility that an adversary with even a small quantity could easily find much more effective means of spreading the disease.

Until yesterday's preliminary analysis of the letter received by Tom Daschle, the Senate majority leader, the spate of anthrax-laced envelopes stirred considerable anxiety but posed a limited threat. Some experts assumed that the anthrax being sent around the country was crudely made, composed mostly of large particles that fell to the ground and thus endangered primarily those in the immediate area.

What government officials say arrived in Senator Daschle's office was significantly more threatening. Following the use of anthrax in Florida, it suggests that for the first time in history a sophisticated form of anthrax has been developed and used as a weapon in warfare or bioterrorism.

The key to understanding the danger, experts said, is in the size of the particles. The anthrax sent to Mr. Daschle, government officials said, was finely milled so that it would float a considerable distance on the smallest of air currents.

Producing germs that could be spread as a mist had been the main technical challenge facing germ warriors throughout the 20th century. Anthrax is what the Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg calls a "professional pathogen," a hardy germ that could wreak havoc if inhaled. The trick was turning it into an aerosol that lingers. Decades ago, Soviet and American scientists separately devised methods to dry and grind anthrax into the tiny particles five microns or less that could easily enter the nostrils and lodge in the lungs.

Experts say an adversary armed with anthrax in this form would have a host of possible targets for mass terrorism. Experiments by the United States in the 1960's showed that anthrax released in the New York City subway could spread widely underground, infecting large numbers of people. Federal officials used a benign germ related to anthrax to demonstrate the possible effects.

An enemy with large quantities of high-grade anthrax could mount a credible attack on a city or large office building. Dried anthrax could be spread using a crop-duster or small airplane equipped with the appropriate nozzles. Buildings are an easier target and could be contaminated with a much smaller amount of anthrax pumped through a garden spray bottle, experts say.

Victims of an anthrax attack can be easily treated with antibiotics, but that requires that public health officials recognize the germ has been dispersed at a particular location. Experts say that detection equipment is far from reliable, which means the first signs could come when people show up in the emergency room with flulike symptoms.

Anthrax was one of the most important weapons in both the Soviet Union's and the United States' germ weapons arsenals. Officials from both countries say they never used germ weapons, though Ken Alibek, a prominent defector from the Soviet germ warfare program, maintains that Moscow may have used germs as weapons against Germany and in Afghanistan.

The United States abandoned its own germ program in 1969, and soon after most of the world's nations signed an international treaty banning the development and possession of such weapons.The Soviet Union also signed the pact, but cheated on a massive scale, say former Soviet officials who worked to refine the strains of anthrax, among other germs, until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990.

In the 1980's, other nations, notably Iraq, began developing the germ as a weapon. Iraqi scientists spent more than five years on the project, cultivating anthrax and processing it into a wet slurry that was loaded into bombs and missiles. United Nations inspectors who later studied the Iraqi program said Baghdad did not manage to produce dry anthrax that could be delivered as an aerosol though it did buy specialized nozzles for its fleet of crop- dusters.In the years since, United Nations officials say, Iraq has acquired the capability to produce the high-grade, dry anthrax of the appropriate particle size. None of this history gives investigators much of a hint as to the origins of the current attack. It is not clear whether the anthrax sent to Senator Daschle was produced by the attacker or attackers, boughtfrom a foreign nation or made with the help of a rogue scientist. Nor was it known whether the attacker or attackers could make or obtain larger quantities.

Former germ weapons scientists say that neither is easy. It took experienced Iraqi scientists several years to figure out how to cultivate large amounts of anthrax, which is the crucial first step to making a weapon. Drying the germs is relatively straightforward. But that process creates a mix of particles that stick together, and most of them are far too large for use as an effective weapon. Grinding the material to a small, uniform size without damaging a significant portion of the germs is not easily done, former American and Soviet germ scientists say.

The discovery of expertly processed anthrax, one former scientist said, casts serious doubt on the theory advanced by some investigators that the germ attacks were the work of a lone amateur with a smattering of knowledge about biology. "I do think in one form or another, a state was involved," one former American scientist said. "It could be employees of a former state, such as a Russian scientist."

Nor is it clear whether Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden's network, was involved in any way. American intelligence officials say Mr. bin Laden has tried to acquire nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.Until now, there has been no suggestion that he has succeeded in this goal, although there have been reports of testing chemicals and crude biological weapons on animals at one of his training camps in Afghanistan.

The attempted use of anthrax against a United States senator takes President Bush into a new, uncharted realm, particularly if the attack is ever linked to a specific nation. On the eve of the gulf war, his father weighed the question of whether to respond with nuclear weapons to a germ attack against the United States-led coalition. After a discussion among his senior advisers, President George Bush decided against such retaliation. Instead, American officials sent Baghdad an ambiguously phrased warning that was delivered in a letter from Mr. Bush to Saddam Hussein.

"Your country," the letter said, "will pay a terrible price if you order unconscionable acts."

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

-- Swissrose (cellier3@mindspring.com), October 17, 2001


Iraq is the origin....I feel it in my bones.

-- R2D2 (r2d2@earthend.net), October 17, 2001.

Actually it makes more sense if our own CIA did it to rile us up for the next set of targets for our tax funded bombs!

-- Frank (frankly@I_dont_care.com), October 17, 2001.

Isn't it so much more fun when the wackos join in?

-- Uncle Fred (dogboy45@bigfoot.com), October 17, 2001.


You may be on to something. Didn't the CIA keep Shellfish poison after ordered to destroy it??

I don't think the CIA is involved...I just think that these programs 'Leak', and there is undoubtedly a Black Market somewhere.

Whether it was Russia, the U.S., Britain, or some other state, military Anthrax is seen as a valuable commodity.

It is only natural that hard currency (Gold or Dollars) based Black Markets develop.

-- Lael (lael@sendthemAlltoAllah.com), October 17, 2001.

Moderation questions? read the FAQ