'The Killer Strain'
With Marilyn W. Thompson
Author, Assistant Managing Editor for Investigations, The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 1, 2003; Noon ET
Who sent the anthrax-laced letters that killed five people in the fall of 2001? The government doesn't know either.
The U.S. invested billions in terrorism preparedness and response; yet a killer kept the country terrorized through the mail. What happened? In her new book, "The Killer Strain" (HarperCollins), Marilyn W. Thompson, a prize-winning writer and editor who runs the investigative team at The Washington Post, examines how the government responded and the mistakes to avoid in facing threats in the future. She was online Tuesday, April 1, to talk about her behind-the-scenes account and what she learned.
The transcript follows.
A veteran journalist for more than 20 years, Thompson began her career as an investigative journalist at the New York Daily News. She broke the first stories of government contract fraud by the Wedtech Corp. and covered the ensuing scandal for several years. She wrote "Feeding The Beast: How Wedtech Became the Most Corrupt Little Company in America "(Charles Scribner & Sons) and co-authored "Ol' Strom: An Unauthorized Biography of Strom Thurmond" with Jack Bass (Longstreet Press). Thompson joined The Washington Post in 1990, served on both the Metropolitan and National desks and joined the investigative team, becoming Assistant Managing Editor in charge of Investigative in 1999.
Thompson will be making appearances and discussing "The Killer Strain" around the Washington, D.C. area: Barnes & Noble Annapolis Harbor Center, April 10, 7 p.m., and Reiters Bookstore on K Street in Washington, D.C. on May 7 at 6:30 p.m. She will also be in Princeton, N.J., at the University Bookstore on April 13 at 2 p.m.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
washingtonpost.com: Good afternoon, Marilyn, and thanks for joining us. Can you talk about the process for obtaining and creating weaponized anthrax, and the likelihood that terrorist groups could do it? Do the anthrax attacks that we experienced in 2001 bear the "fingerprint" of a terrorist organization?
Marilyn W. Thompson: There is still considerable debate about whether the 2001 anthrax bears the fingerprint of a terrorist organization. The FBI has divulged very little publicly and privately, authorities have said that the material could have been produced by very low-tech means -- something as simple as a culture dish in a laboratory. There have been conflicting accounts about whether the numerous lab analyses of the 2001 material have indicated the presence of silica or other additives that might suggest state-sponsorship or a link to a particular terrorist group.
It is certainly possible that a terrorist group could have made this anthrax, but the FBI steered away from that theory many months ago. The bureau still seems convinced that the attacks were caused by a scientist working in concert with others to distribute the letters.
Piscataway, N.J.: Do you think this attack was foreign or domestic, according to your analysis?
Marilyn W. Thompson: I believe that the attack was domestic, and the fact that the anthrax was typed as the Ames strain bolsters that theory. The FBI has pursued the notion that the material came from a foreign source, but thus far, they have not proved that it did.
Harrisburg, Pa.: I am concerned the police and investigators have never figured out who sent the anthrax. What this state about our investigative abilities?
Marilyn W. Thompson: That is certainly a valid concern. The FBI has devoted huge resources to trying to solve the anthrax case -- they have pursued leads all over the world and devoted hundreds of agents to it. But they still have no definitive evidence that would guarantee a prosecution. The big question is not the number of FBI agents pursuing the case or the dedication or competence of those agents. It is why the FBI was so slow out of the gate. It took agents months to get around to interviewing Fort Detrick veterans who worked on weaponized anthrax and might have known how this material was processed. It took months for agents to get to laboratories known to possess the Ames strain. Why?
Columbia, Md.: If Iraq had anything to do with the anthrax attack I would think that they would have tried to do the same at this stage of the war. What I am afraid of is that even if we get rid of the WMD of Iraq there is still a terrorist (or nation) that has the capability of harming us? What can we do?
Marilyn W. Thompson: Unfortunately, there are other nations with biological weapons capabilities and terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda are known to have been dabbling in bioweapons. We are at great risk. The only answer at this stage is to beef up preparedness.
Arlington, Va.: Could this be considered, in essence, a "perfect" crime? We think of the need for extensive planning for terror attacks, etc., but really using something as innocuous as the mail can wreak havoc and be virtually untraceable. Is it just a matter of time before other types of poison are mailed?
Marilyn W. Thompson: Let's hope not. Much attention has been paid to beefing up the security of the mail, so we can remain hopeful that this would not happen again. But the book raises the question of why we were not better prepared for the 2001 attacks -- we had experienced numerous anthrax "hoax letters" and all of them used the U.S. mail system. Yet we found ourselves completely vulnerable to a very simple distribution system.
Virginia: Can a U.S. biologist have done it?
Marilyn W. Thompson: Yes. A U.S. biologist could have done it. And certainly, the FBI's main theory is that this was the act of a domestic scientist.
Bandung, Indonesia: Have you found who is "the architect" of anthrax mail? Are you afraid to speak out if say for example you find that "the architect of anthrax mail" actually the U.S. government it self?
Marilyn W. Thompson: The book includes a chapter on Dr. Steven Hatfill, the FBI's main "person of interest," and why the FBI has focused on him and continues to keep him under 24-hour watch. It also raises the possibility that the perpetrator used and manipulated his government connections to execute the crimes.
Silver Spring, Md.: I hate to sound like a conspiracy nut, but the whole rationale behind the existence of Fort Detrick has always seemed to me to be ridiculous. We're really going to spend that kind of money and time on something that's only for "defensive" purposes? If that were true, wouldn't there be a vaccine or something?
Marilyn W. Thompson: Well, there is a vaccine for anthrax -- called AVA -- that has been in use for more than 30 years. Yet research on the vaccine continues. Fort Detrick has played a major role in those studies, and in the development of treatments and vaccines for other pathogens.
Deale, Md.: What trips did you have to make in the process of the making of this book? What did you do on these trips and how did they come into the plot of the book?
Marilyn W. Thompson: In my research, I spent time in Palm Beach County, Fla. examining the first attack and the death of photojournalist Bob Stevens. I spent time at the CDC in Atlanta to learn about the medical response to the attacks and the preparedness effort. And I worked on the cases in New York and New Jersey.
The book is a reconstruction of events between October, 2001 and October, 2002, a very dramatic story, full of compelling characters.
Washington, D.C.: How can we "beef up" our defenses against an attack like this? Seriously, isn't this one of those things that may simply be un-defendable? Unless we're all constantly on Cipro or something?
Marilyn W. Thompson: If we are lucky, more effort will be devoted to producing an effective and safe vaccine that the American public will be willing to take. The current vaccine has been so surrounded by controversy and political intrigue that it is currently unavailable for the general public.
Washington, D.C.: Does the book explore the possibility that the anthrax attacks were ordered by the federal government as a national security measure to get the public past the Sept. 11 attack, which was the only thing on television until the attacks began?
Such a scenario would certainly explain the apparently inexplicable lack of progress in finding the anthrax attackers.
Marilyn W. Thompson: The book does not explore that theory. It does, however, explore how a government "spin" campaign may have thwarted an effective response to the first signs of a bioterror attack. The Bush administration tried to minimize the events unfolding in Florida -- officials wanted to calm people down after the events of 9/11 and it was simply too alarming to think that a second attack with a biological agent had followed on the heels of the suicide hijackers. My premise is that we lost valuable time during these weeks -- time that may have, in fact, hampered the criminal investigation.
Baltimore, Md.: The military is vaccinated against anthrax. Why not the general population? Would it make sense to vaccinate against potential biological weapons when we're vaccinating for disease?
Marilyn W. Thompson: The book includes a chapter exploring the question of vaccinations and the fact that the average person cannot now obtain anthrax vaccine. We have had a vaccine for military use for some time, but the manufacturer, Bioport, has been surrounded by controversy. First, there was controversy about how the company got the huge Pentagon contract to produce the vaccine -- a classic contracting scandal. Then there were numerous problems at the plant with the Food and Drug Administration. Veterans have claimed that the vaccine may be responsible for Gulf War syndrome. And so now, production lags far behind the increasing public demand.
Chevy Chase, Md.: Why weren't more law enforcement or public health officials fired over the way this case was handled -- or should I say bungled?
Marilyn W. Thompson: Such firings in government are very rare -- no matter how bad the bungling.
Moonachie, N.J.: Is the federal government prepared today for the possibility of a new anthrax attack?
Marilyn W. Thompson: Agencies would like the public to believe that they have made great strides in preparedness under the new Homeland Security imperative. Certainly, there have been some improvements -- new labs at the CDC and Fort Detrick, for example, that will speed the analysis of pathogens. But I believe -- and so do many others -- that we remain ill -prepared. The problems exposed in the 2001 attacks shows fundamental weaknesses that can not be corrected simply by throwing money at an agency.
Rockville, Md.: Did the people who died from anthrax really need to? Could they have received better treatment?
Marilyn W. Thompson: No, they did not have to die from anthrax. The 2001 attacks proved that the speedy introduction of powerful antibiotics could save lives. But the attacks succeeded in killing people because of the element of surprise. No one was prepared for what they were seeing -- the doctors on the scene, the government officials. Mistakes were made that cost us lives. But there were also heroes -- quick-thinking doctors who acted upon instinct and did what they thought was right even while waiting for definitive results. This was certainly the case with Leroy Richmond, a Brentwood worker who is a main character in my book.
Washington, D.C.: Would you agree that there was a grave discrepancy in how people were treated during the outbreaks in the D.C. area? Hill staffers vs. postal employees, for example. Thank you.
Marilyn W. Thompson: Yes. There was an outrageous discrepancy -- all of it explained away by government officials as innocent mistakes and miscalculations. I believe that several lawsuits now underway will produce evidence that will bolster the case.
New York, N.Y.: Is Steven Hatfill the Richard Jewell of the anthrax case? Do you think the suspicion of him is warranted or circumstantial?
Marilyn W. Thompson: There is such a strong circumstantial trail surrounding Steven Hatfill that the FBI would have been completely lax not to pursue it vigorously. He remains the key "person of interest" in this case because of an inconclusive polygraph and the fact that FBI bloodhounds I.D.'ed him. But the circumstantial links are compelling and need to be conclusively nailed.
Washington, D.C.: In our open society, why can't we consider nutty, off-the-wall conspiracy theories?
Sure, Sept. 11, the anthrax and sniper attacks and Columbia were profoundly traumatizing events. But when the government screws up as badly as they have in all these instances, shouldn't we at least poke a finger in its eye? How else can you stop terrorism if you don't hold accountable those who have forever demanded more funds to prevent it?
Marilyn W. Thompson: I think you do have to hold government agencies accountable -- which is the main reason I wrote this book. I followed the anthrax case as an editor and knew that it had the potential to fall off of the public's radar -- unless someone took the time to go back and reconstruct what happened and what mistakes were made.
Washington, D.C.: Since the anthrax case has not been solved, do you have any idea why the attacks seem to have suddenly been suspended? Do you think the government will ever be able to solve the case? Thanks.
Marilyn W. Thompson: My law enforcement contacts would argue that the attacks have stopped because the perpetrator is under intense heat.. I do believe the government will solve the case, but it may take more time to close the holes in the case. The public -- including the Bush White House-- wants a quicker answer.
Alexandria, Va.: Weren't there warnings from scientists about how easy an anthrax attack would be to pull off? And warnings from intelligence officers about the possibility of al Qaeda attacks before 9/11? Am I wrong to have very very very little confidence in the ability of our government to do anything to protect its citizens -- or at least anticipate scenarios?
Marilyn W. Thompson: There were numerous warnings dating back to the late 1980s. The Washington area actually got a sample of the mayhem that could be caused by anthrax when a hoax package was sent to the headquarters of B'Nai B'rith and employees had to be taken into the streets and hosed down. Of course, there were many indications that al Qaeda was exploring the use of biological weapons and some signs that the 9/11 terrorists were contemplating an attack.
We certainly need to press for more government attention to preparedness and law enforcement scrutiny of potential attackers.
Washington, D.C.: This book must have been scary and maddening to write. Did anything surprise you?
Marilyn W. Thompson: Many things surprised me in this research, including the long history of scientific fascination with anthrax, the evolution of anthrax as an agent of terror, the early experiments at Fort Detrick..On the medical side, the treatment of anthrax disease is fascinating and makes for good reading. The medical sleuthing that helped solve some of these anthrax infections is the stuff of detective novels.
Washington, D.C.: As the FBI did in the UNABOM case, will they urge the public to search for the suspect based on the released written documents, in this case, letters, in hopes that a family member will come forward with identical samples from a hermit who "shuts down" under the mildest interrogation?
Marilyn W. Thompson: They long ago urged the public to do exactly that. They appealed to the 40,000 microbiologists in the country to search their memories. All of this led to some intriguing leads.
Silver Spring, Md.: Do you hold out hope that the government can get their act together on this case and others?
Marilyn W. Thompson: Of course, I hold out that hope. We must all hold out hope.
Somewhere, USA: Besides the dogs, why was Hatfill such a target for investigation?
Marilyn W. Thompson: Hatfill presents a long trail of circumstantial links to anthrax that had to be fully explored.
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.
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