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Context of 'September 18-28, 2001: Scientist Briefly Investigated over Anthrax Threat'

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On September 18, 2001, a scientist in Milwaukee tells police that he is building an anthrax delivery system in his basement. The unnamed scientist is drunk and having a dispute with a neighbor when he makes the comments to the police. On September 28, FBI agents arrive with a search warrant but find no anthrax or any sign of an anthrax delivery system. The man is said to work in a bowling alley, but had worked as a senior research scientist at Battelle Memorial Institute, a private contractor working with the US government on bioweapons programs including anthrax. He was fired from Battelle in 1996 and again in 1999. He is said to have specialties “in the areas of radio chemistry, military ordnance and munitions, and decontamination.” After being fired in 1999, his house was searched and chemicals were found in his basement that were not illegal to possess but which could have been used to make a lethal concoction. The story will first be reported in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on October 5, 2001, right when the real anthrax attacks are first becoming public (see October 4, 2001 and Shortly Afterwards). [Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 10/5/2001] ABC News will revive the story on December 20, 2001, and say the unnamed scientist is under investigation for a role in the anthrax attacks. ABC will claim the FBI did find suspicious chemicals in his basement, but not anthrax. [ABC News, 12/20/2001] However, the next day it will be reported that the ABC story was wrong. US Senator Mike DeWine (R-OH) will say he talked to FBI Director Robert Mueller after hearing the ABC New report, and Mueller “said the ABC News report was not true, that ‘The network did not check with us, we have no investigation and no one with or formerly with Battelle is a suspect.’” [Columbus Dispatch, 12/21/2001]

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Battelle Memorial Institute, Mike DeWine, Robert S. Mueller III

Timeline Tags: 2001 Anthrax Attacks

On September 22, 2001, an employee at the New York Post gets a blister on her finger. She will later test positive for cutaneous anthrax. Six others get sick from anthrax on September 26, 27, and 28, and October 1, including an assistant to NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw. But most of these cases their only visible symptoms are minor skin lesions. None of these cases are seen as anthrax infections at the time. On September 30, Robert Stevens, an employee at the tabloid The Sun, starts to feel ill. He will later die of the more serious inhalation anthrax (see October 4, 2001 and Shortly Afterwards and October 3, 2001). Only in the days right after his death will these earlier cases be properly diagnosed and linked to the anthrax letters. [South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 12/8/2001]

Entity Tags: Bob Stevens

Timeline Tags: 2001 Anthrax Attacks, US Domestic Terrorism

A letter postmarked September 26, 2001 is sent to the FBI that seems to blame scientist Ayaad Assaad for the upcoming anthrax attacks. Assaad is an Egyptian-American. The letter is sent days after the first anthrax-laced letters were sent out (see September 17-18, 2001), but days before the first media reports of any anthrax-related illnesses (see October 4, 2001 and Shortly Afterwards). The letter will be received by the FBI on October 2 (see October 2, 2001). [Associated Press, 5/16/2004]

Entity Tags: Ayaad Assaad

Timeline Tags: 2001 Anthrax Attacks, US Domestic Terrorism

On October 2, 2001, Robert Stevens, a photo editor at the tabloid The Sun, arrived at a Florida hospital with a 102-degree fever and vomiting. He quickly got worse. The next day, doctors determine he has been infected with anthrax. He is put on a respirator. On October 4, Florida doctors and officials hold a press conference to confirm that a patient has anthrax, but that they believe it is an isolated case. On October 5, Stevens is pronounced dead, becoming the first person in the US to die from anthrax since 1976. One of Stevens’s coworkers, Ernesto Blanco, has been hospitalized with pneumonia since October 1, but it will not be discovered that Blanco also has anthrax until shortly after Stevens’s death. [South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 12/8/2001] Health and Human Services Director Tommy Thompson tells reporters that the Stevens infection is “an isolated case” that is “not contagious.” Thompson reassures the public, “There is no terrorism” involved in Stevens’s infection. He also asserts that Stevens was infected from an environmental source, saying, “We do know that he drank water out of a stream when he was traveling to North Carolina last week.” It is unclear whether Thompson is misinformed or being deliberately deceptive. [Daily Telegraph, 10/5/2001; Rich, 2006, pp. 34]

Entity Tags: US Department of Health and Human Services, Tommy G. Thompson, Bob Stevens, Ernesto Blanco

Timeline Tags: 2001 Anthrax Attacks, US Domestic Terrorism

Robert Stevens.Robert Stevens. [Source: Associated Press]The first case of anthrax infection, of Robert Stevens in Florida, is reported in the media (see October 3, 2001). Letters containing anthrax will continue to be received until October 19. After many false alarms, it turns out that only a relatively small number of letters contain real anthrax (see October 5-November 21, 2001). [South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 12/8/2001] In 2004, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen will recall how a widespread sense of panic spread across the US over the next few weeks, as millions felt the anthrax could target them next. He will write, “People made anthrax-safe rooms, and one woman I know of had a mask made for her small dog. I still don’t know if that was a touching gesture or just plain madness.” He says, “The [9/11] terrorist attacks coupled with the anthrax scare unhinged us a bit—or maybe more than a bit.” But he will also mention that the panic quickly passed and was largely forgotten by most people. [Washington Post, 7/22/2004] Columnist Glenn Greenwald will later comment in Salon, “After 9/11 itself, the anthrax attacks were probably the most consequential event of the Bush presidency. One could make a persuasive case that they were actually more consequential. The 9/11 attacks were obviously traumatic for the country, but in the absence of the anthrax attacks, 9/11 could easily have been perceived as a single, isolated event. It was really the anthrax letters—with the first one sent on September 18, just one week after 9/11—that severely ratcheted up the fear levels and created the climate that would dominate in this country for the next several years after. It was anthrax… that created the impression that social order itself was genuinely threatened by Islamic radicalism.” [Salon, 8/1/2008]

Entity Tags: Tom Daschle, Patrick J. Leahy, NBC, Glenn Greenwald, New York Post, Richard Cohen

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, Domestic Propaganda, 2001 Anthrax Attacks, US Domestic Terrorism

The five fatal victims of the anthrax attacks, from to right: Josep Curseen Jr., Thomas Morris, Ottilie Lundgren, Robert Stevens, and Kathy Nguyen. The five fatal victims of the anthrax attacks, from to right: Josep Curseen Jr., Thomas Morris, Ottilie Lundgren, Robert Stevens, and Kathy Nguyen. [Source: Reuters and Associated Press] (click image to enlarge)Two waves of letters containing anthrax are received by media outlets including NBC and the New York Post (see September 17-18, 2001), and Democratic senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy (see October 6-9, 2001). The letters sent to the senators both contain the words “Death to America, Death to Israel, Allah is Great.” Five people die:
bullet October 5: Robert Stevens, 63, an employee at the Sun, a tabloid based in Florida.
bullet October 21: Thomas Morris Jr., 55, a postal worker in Washington, DC.
bullet October 22: Joseph Curseen Jr., 47, a postal worker in Washington, DC.
bullet October 31: Kathy Nguyen, 61, a hospital employee in New York City.
bullet November 21: Ottilie Lundgren, 94, of Oxford, Connecticut.
At least 22 more people get sick but survive. Thirty-one others test positive for exposure. As a result of these deaths and injuries, panic sweeps the nation. On October 16, the Senate office buildings are shut down, followed by the House of Representatives, after 28 congressional staffers test positive for exposure to anthrax (see October 16-17, 2001). A number of hoax letters containing harmless powder turn up, spreading the panic further. [South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 12/8/2001; Associated Press, 8/7/2008] Initially it is suspected that either al-Qaeda or Iraq are behind the anthrax letters (see October 14, 2001, October 15, 2001, October 17, 2001, and October 18, 2001). [Observer, 10/14/2001; BBC, 10/16/2001] However, by November, further investigation leads the US government to conclude that, “everything seems to lean toward a domestic source.… Nothing seems to fit with an overseas terrorist type operation (see November 10, 2001).” [Washington Post, 10/27/2001; St. Petersburg Times, 11/10/2001]

Entity Tags: Iraq, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Patrick J. Leahy, Tom Daschle, Al-Qaeda

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 2001 Anthrax Attacks, US Domestic Terrorism

The FBI is now investigating “whether potential profit from the sale of anthrax medications or cleanup efforts may have motivated” the anthrax attacks (see October 5-November 21, 2001). Battelle, a company doing anthrax work for the CIA, mostly at the Battelle Memorial Institute in Ohio, is the company most discussed in a Washington Post story about this. Dozens of scientists at Battelle have been interviewed by the FBI already because it is one of only a few places where weaponized anthrax has been made. [Washington Post, 12/21/2001] The story comes one day after ABC News reported a Battelle scientist is under investigation for the anthrax attacks, but that story is quickly denied (see September 18-28, 2001).

Entity Tags: Battelle, Battelle Memorial Institute, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Timeline Tags: 2001 Anthrax Attacks, US Domestic Terrorism

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