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Cutting through the anthrax hype

By Lawence Henry
web posted October 22, 2001

I ran into the wife of my neighbor, a local police officer, at the coffee shop a few days ago.

"Has Scott been busy since September 11?" I asked her, thinking of stories I had read about neighboring police departments helping out New York City.

"Not really, not till this week," Sheila sad. "Now he has to keep answering calls from people who want him to open their mail. Even packages of Lego they've ordered, they want him to come over and open."

Hmmm…

Michael Kelly has rightly excoriated the American media for its ninnyish scare-mongering in covering the anthrax outbreaks and resulting panics, so I won't get into that. (The media had to do something after Condit withdrawal.) But I've been puzzled about something else. Every news show features some expert or other speculating on "strains" of anthrax, its potency, its status as "weapons grade," and its possible provenance - Iraq! Russia! Taliban! Osama bin Laden!

Instead, why not just pull a Nero Wolfe here, and try to reason out what's happening?

First, what would a coordinated terrorist anthrax attack look like? Would it use the U.S. mails? Wes Pruden owlishly asked how a letter postmarked in Trenton could take 27 days to get to Senator Tom Daschle's office. There are a several possible answers to that. That the Senator doesn't read his mail very diligently does occur to me. And there's the answer that points to a "gang that couldn't shoot straight" scenario - terrorists who don't know that we call the USPO "snail mail."

Even allowing for that, would a coordinated anthrax attack using the mails look like this? No. Instead, there'd be hundreds, if not thousands, of letters mailed to hundreds or thousands of destinations. All of them would turn up at approximately the same time.

As of last night, there had been three actual verified letters, one discarded from the American Media, Inc. offices in Florida, one addressed to Senator Daschle, and one addressed to NBC's Tom Brokaw. So far as can be known right now, those letters appear not only to have come from the same place, but from the same person. They employ the same strain of anthrax (apparently; not "weapons grade" at all), the two extant envelopes are postmarked Trenton, New Jersey, and all three were addressed to destinations of some prominence.

Thursday, October 18 brought reports of letters received by House Speaker Denny Hastert and CBS anchor Dan Rather, letters which seem to follow the established pattern. I suppose there's a possibility that hundreds more might still be received (snail mail, remember), but I don't think so. Half a dozen more letters still would not equal a massed terrorist onslaught.

The discovery of anthrax in a secure area used by the New York State Police in New York Governor George Pataki's Manhattan offices points to something else - how commonplace anthrax is, even in the wild, and how sensitive the tests for latent anthrax are. Maybe a New York smokey walked through a barnyard sometime.

From the administration on down, we've been on the receiving end of a propaganda war aimed at blaming Saddam Hussein for the anthrax. No less an authority than former Iraq weapons inspector Scott Ritter - hardly a flaming dove - has written, in the Los Angeles Times, that that is extremely unlikely. I'm all for bombing Saddam myself; he's guilty enough, no matter what. But we don't need this excuse, and it's only muddying the picture.

No, so far, working backwards from what we have, and imagining forward (how would you spread anthrax around using the U.S. mails?), what's happened so far points to a single person in a single location. I'm guessing it is a Muslim sympathizer with bin Laden. I'm guessing he got the anthrax from a domestic source. I'm guessing he had only so much of it. I'm guessing he's pretty much done.

And I'm guessing he's in Jersey City, and that the FBI will find him. The FBI is really good at tracing paper, ink, handwriting, and the like.

Chances are also excellent the mailer will turn up at a hospital, infected with anthrax himself, having scared himself half to death.

In the meantime, neighbors, leave Scott, our local policeman, alone. You're not important enough to attract a lone nut anthrax mailer. And Scott has more important things to do than open your mail.

Lawrence Henry is a senior writer with Enter Stage Right.

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