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The Anthrax Attacks and the Costs of 9/11

Anthrax and the costs of 9/11
The Anthrax Attacks and the Costs of 9/11
Commentary: Those powder-filled envelopes of October 2001 are all
but forgotten. How come?

By Tom Engelhardt

December 19, 2005

[This is the second of two pieces focused on reevaluating the costs
of the September 11 attacks. In the first, I took the New York Times
back to the week before September 11, 2001, time-machine style, and
found a forgotten world in which the Bush administration, with its
poll numbers dropping and congressional Republicans fretting, was
drifting, politically challenged, and besieged -- a moment not
unlike our own. I concluded: "Four long years to make it back to
September 10th, 2001 in an American world now filled to the brim
with horrors, a United States which is no longer a `country,' but
a `homeland' and a Homeland Security State."]

Imagine, for a moment, that someone had a finger on a pause button
just after the attacks of September 11, 2001. That's not such a
crazy thought. After all, most Americans watched the attacks and
their aftermath on television; and, as coups de théâtre, they were
clearly meant to be viewed on screen. Of course, the technology for
pausing reality didn't quite exist then. But if someone in that pre-
TiVo age had somehow hit pause soon after the Twin Towers came down,
while the Pentagon was still smoking, when Air Force One was
carrying a panicky George Bush in the wrong direction rather than
towards Washington and New York to become the resolute war president
of his dreams, if someone had paused everything and given us all a
chance to catch our breath, what might we have noticed about the
actual damage to our world?

As a start, there were those two towers and so many of the people in
them (and those who came to rescue them) tumbling in that near-
mushroom cloud of smoke into one of the greatest piles of instant
rubble and powder in history. Even a few days later, glimpsed down
various side streets, the vision of destruction at the World Trade
Center site -- those gigantic, jagged shards of left-over building --
were (I can attest) more than worthy of some civilization-ending
sci-fi film; of, say, the final scene in the original Planet of the
Apes where the top of the off-kilter Statue of Liberty looms from
the sand. So, other than the loss of lives, the initial cost of 9/11
was two large buildings and, in Washington, part of a third --
clearly stand-ins for American financial and military power. (The
fourth hijacked plane, which went down in Pennsylvania, was surely
on its way to the capital to add political power to the ensemble,
creating the sort of triad that human beings seem eternally
attracted to.)

Add four expensive planes (and their passengers and crews) to the
list. Add as well, the economic impact of the downtown of a great
city left in chaos; of the Stock Exchange halted; of destroyed
businesses and lost business; then include the whack the travel and
tourism industry took; and that's undoubtedly not a full list. None
of this -- the lives lost most of all -- was in any way minor. We
were hurt, that's for sure, though the economic impact of 9/11 would
turn out to be closer to hiccup than earthquake.

But there were other costs, so much harder to tabulate. After all,
Americans were not just hurt, but hurting. We had been robbed of
something that seemed quite real (if you didn't happen to live in
the vicinity of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City),
something missing from the lives of so many others on this planet --
a sense of living in a safe and secure world. And the thieves had a
Hollywood-inspired sense of spectacle; they were scenario producers
who, with finances hardly suitable for a film noir, created the look
of a large-budget extravaganza (of a sort Americans had long been
familiar with in which towering infernos blazed, atom bombs went
off, and volcanoes erupted in urban downtowns). They managed to
mix "conventional" weaponry -- airplanes (that is, combustible
fuel), box cutters, and mace -- into a brew that, whether by plan or
simply luck, had the apocalyptic look of a weapon of mass
destruction. Because the damage at the Pentagon didn't have that
look, it never quite qualified for full membership in the 9/11
experience. On the other hand, the spot where the Twin Towers
collapsed was instantly and universally dubbed "Ground Zero," a term
previously reserved for the place where an atomic test or, in the
case of two Japanese cities, atomic bombs went off.

Imagine, then, pushing that pause button just after the damage was
done but before the "response" could begin; then look -- with as
cool an eye as you can -- at the damage, wildly outsized compared to
the group initiating it, but limited and not world-ending in the
least (certainly not in a week in which our President estimated that
30,000 Iraqis, "more or less," had already died in the war he
launched). As with the most successful terror attacks, the truly
outsized thing was the response provoked. After all, a Serbian
nationalist with a pistol was quite capable of assassinating an
archduke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but not of causing World
War I. Only major powers could have done that.

Most Americans responded not to al-Qaeda, but to a terrifying vision
of world's end and to headlines that indicated another Pearl Harbor
had occurred, that we had been attacked by a new Evil Empire.
Unfortunately, that vision and the feeling that our very Greatness
had been assaulted fit all too comfortably with the apocalyptic
religious and political visions -- world dominating and world-
ending -- that lay close to the hearts, minds, and long-range plans
of the tiny group then running an adrift administration for the
Earth's only superpower. In the endless rites that would follow as
the President launched his "Global War on Terror," we would seek a
variety of roles expansive enough to suit a wounded but globe-
bestriding colossus. We would become the planet's Greatest Victim,
Greatest Survivor, and Greatest Dominator, leaving only the role of
Greatest Evildoer up for grabs.

In the process, the horrific but actual scale of the damage would
disappear. It no longer mattered that the attacking group had been
relatively small, limited in its means (hence, four years without an
al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist incident in the U.S.), and massive only
in its luck and daring -- abetted by the fact that the Bush
administration was looking for nothing like such an attack, despite
that CIA briefing handed to George on a lazy Crawford August day --
"Bin Laden determined to strike in US" -- and so many other clues.

Over four years later, a question of costs naturally arises from
Gitmo-ized, Patriot-Act-ified, Homeland-Security-ificated America,
from the country of more than two thousand dead and more than
sixteen thousand wounded, from the perspective of a war of choice
that has taken at least $250- 281 billion in chump change through
fiscal year 2005. Our world has been damaged in so many ways, many
still not fully apparent, and one question is: Who made us pay the
price? What did they do to us and what did we do to ourselves? Or
put another way, how much of the costs of 9/11 were costs of choice?

The Costs of an Imperial Presidency

We know now that, within five hours of the moment the Pentagon was
hit, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had already asked his
aides "to come up with plans for striking Iraq"; that within days,
the President and his top officials were already considering
launching the Middle Eastern war of their dreams.

We know that eight days after the attacks, the complex 342-page
Patriot Act had already been hustled over to Congress by Attorney
General John Ashcroft; that it passed through a cowed Senate in the
dead of night on October 11th, unread by at least some of our
representatives, and was signed into law on October 26. The Act was
officially a response to 9/11, but as its instant appearance and
rushed passage indicate, it was made up of a set of already existing
right-wing hobby horses, quickly drafted provisions, and expansions
of law enforcement powers taken off an FBI "wish list" (previously
rejected by Congress). All these were swept together by people who,
like the President's men on Iraq, saw their main chance when those
buildings went down. As such, it stands in for much of what
happened "in response" to 9/11, including the invasion of Iraq that
the administration spent so much time tying untruthfully to that

9/11 was the necessary engine without which so many things wouldn't
have happened, but the storm that breached the weakened and leaky
dikes of the republic had been gathering since at least the first
days of the Reagan administration (as recently released memos by
judges Roberts and Alito remind us). In those years, rollback --
briefly in the 1950s the foreign policy of choice of zealous anti-
Communists -- became domestic policy as well. To be rolled back was
every modest breakwater against an imperial presidency that had been
erected in the wake of the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War;
then every Great Society program of the 1960s; and finally, someday,
everything for which the Democratic New Deal had stood.

The attacks of 9/11 gave the Bush administration an opening to
attempt to sweep away the last obstacles in the path of a presidency
dedicated to the idea that no prohibition of any sort should stand
in its way (or domestically in the way of the Republican Party). The
real costs of that day came from the leeway a frightened public, a
feeble Congress, and a cowed media gave a suddenly emboldened
administration to set in motion an aggrandizing vision of a
militarily-enforced Pax Americana, at home as well as abroad.
(Remember, this was the first administration to create a military
command -- Northcom -- responsible only for North America.) In other
words, the most devastating costs of "9/11" we inflicted on
ourselves in a way al-Qaeda was incapable of doing.

Normally, any such proposition faces a problem. Unlike in lab
experiments, there's never a control group in human life against
which to measure the nature of change. Oddly enough, though, that
doesn't hold when it comes to 9/11. There turns out to be something
against which to measure the Bush response -- the nearly forgotten
case of the anthrax killer (or killers), known in law enforcement
circles as "the Amerithrax case."

Lost in the Hills of America

The anthrax attacks of 2001 are now so out of memory that it's hard
to recall the panic and fear caused by the appearance of those first
envelopes, spilling deadly powder and containing threatening
letters. But according to a LexisNexis search, between Oct. 4 and
Dec. 4, 2001, 389 stories appeared in the New York Times
with "anthrax" in the headline. In that same period, 238 such
stories appeared in the Washington Post. That's the news equivalent
of an unending, high-pitched scream of horror.

Looked at with a cool eye, this buried nightmare could be seen as
the more threatening of the two attacks that year. The 9/11 assaults
were, of course, vastly more costly in lives -- almost 3,000 dead
against just 5 from anthrax inhalation. On the other hand, the al-
Qaeda strike only simulated a weapon-of-mass-destruction attack. You
had to use some sci-fi-style imagining -- and perhaps your knowledge
that the old Soviet Cold War weapons labs and arsenals were now ill-
tended and leaking material -- to conjure up a situation in which
Osama and crew might get their hands on a real version of the same.
(The administration, of course, did exactly this -- from Attorney
General Ashcroft's sudden announcement in Moscow of the arrest of
Jose ("dirty-bomb") Padilla to those Iraqi mushroom clouds that went
off rhetorically over American cities in speeches by the National
Security Adviser, the President, the Vice President, and other top
officials before we launched our invasion of Iraq.

With the anthrax killer, no sci-fi imaginings were necessary. He
(she, them) used an actual weapon of mass destruction -- highly
refined anthrax, the Ames strain that almost certainly fell out of
the not-so-perfectly guarded American Cold War weapons labs. And
then, after the series of postal attacks ended, the anthrax killer
(s) remained at large not in the mountains of Afghanistan, but
somewhere in the United States -- with no evidence that the supply
of anthrax had been used up. Who needs to imagine al-Qaeda "sleeper
cells" here in the U.S., when you have such a live wire in the

Keep in mind that visions of anthrax-like weaponry would soon
mobilize a nation in fear and hysteria around orange alerts and duct
tape, smallpox-inoculations and finally a war lest any of this
stuff, or anything faintly like it, drip out of the hands of Saddam
Hussein and into those of terrorists heading our way. And yet, by
early 2002, the first WMD attack in the U.S. was already slipping
out of the news and drifting from memory. Here was the stuff of a
terrifying made-for-TV movie or simply a trailer for the end of the
world. It should have been unforgettable.

Had the anthrax attacks been -- as the threatening letters,
ominously dated "9/11/01," that accompanied them implied -- the work
of an Islamic terrorist group, we would probably still be talking
about it -- and we would have no control group to measure 9/11
against. But let's briefly review what did happen.

Just a week after the Twin Towers went down, the first of seven
letters filled with anthrax arrived not from the distant outlands of
the planet, but from Trenton, New Jersey. This first wave was sent
to a potpourri of media outlets: ABC, NBC, and CBS news as well as
the New York Post and the National Enquirer in Florida. They
proclaimed, "Death to America. Death to Israel. Allah is great." Two
more, also postmarked from Trenton and dated October 9, 2001, were
sent to Democratic Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. These
letters emptied prime-time TV newsrooms and, for the first time
since the British burned Washington in 1814, cleared the halls of
Congress while it was still in session. It should have been

The cast of characters would come to include bumbling or
recalcitrant FBI agents, intrepid disease investigators, amateur
sleuths, heroic postal workers, a wounded child, brain-damaged
survivors, TV personalities like Tom Brokaw, the top politicians of
our nation, and the most secretive weapons scientists, labs, and
arsenals of the Cold War. Just to make matters more interesting,
Steven Hatfill, a bioweapons expert and for some time the main (as
the Attorney General put it) "person of interest" in the
investigation, had access to the U.S. Army Medical Research
Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) in Frederick, Maryland
at Fort Dietrich where some of the country's most secret bioweapons
work was done. It should have been the case of the century. It
should have been unforgettable.

September 11, 2002 rolled around amid weeks of ceremonies and rites,
interviews with survivors, and memorial articles galore, while TV
shows and books poured out. But where were the survivor interviews
with those victimized by the anthrax killer(s)? Where were the
books, the dramas, the movies, the TV shows? Four years later, the
victims and heroes of 9/11 are still being written about;
their "sacred" ground in New York is still being bitterly fought
over, but when was the last time you saw anything about the victims
or the heroes -- mainly postal workers -- of the anthrax attacks?

Within the last year, the ongoing investigation of the case has,
according to the Washington Post, been significantly downsized. The
number of FBI agents assigned to it has dropped from 31 to 21 and
postal inspectors from 13 to 9. Many of those remaining are now said
to be "in the process of taking inventory. The FBI and postal
inspectors have spent months piecing together a voluminous internal
report that will review the scope of the investigation?" It
has "cold case, dead file" written all over it.

When it comes to costs, according to the Post, "at least 17 post
offices and public office buildings were contaminated. Including
cleanup costs, an FBI document put the damage in excess of $1
billion." And that doesn't account for the more subtle costs such as
the role the attacks played in panicking Congress into an invasion
of Iraq. Would the administration's various bizarre fears and alarms
about the dangers to us of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction have
had such a realistic ring to them if our representatives hadn't
actually experienced a bioweapons attack? It should have been
unforgettable, but by some mysterious process that has yet to be
considered, the attacks were, in a sense, "disappeared."

A Terror War of Choice

If, as an editor of a major newspaper, you were to draw a single
conclusion from this horrifying episode, it might be: Despite what
we've heard, the greatest WMD danger to Americans comes not from
impoverished Third World or rickety Middle Eastern rogue states, but
from the arsenals and weapons labs of the two former Cold War
superpowers. But nothing in the media coverage since then has
indicated anything of the sort. While, prewar, reporters prowled
Iraqi nuclear facilities, wrote major pieces on Iraq's "Dr. Germ,"
and brought down whole forests of trees in the service of WMD
programs at Iraq's Tuwaitha or North Korea's Yongbyan, or on gassed
dogs in Afghanistan and the Iranian bomb that also wasn't, the
Soviet and American weapons labs, the Soviet and American Dr. Germs,
the Ames anthrax strain, and the anthrax killer hardly took out a
tree or two.

When was the last time you read a major report on the state of
American biowarfare work? When was the last time you encountered a
significant story about the weapons labs at Fort Dietrich in
suburban Maryland where the Ames strain was evidently first
researched or the Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah where it was
produced and tested? How much attention has been given to recent
contracts linked to Dugway that signal a desire on the part of the
U.S. military to "buy large quantities of anthrax, in a
controversial move that is likely to raise questions over its
commitment to treaties designed to limit the spread of biological
weapons"? When was the last time you read an article on whether the
Homeland Security Department or the Pentagon is attending to the
potential dangers of the American WMD arsenal? How much attention
has gone into the decrepit system for locking down Russian WMD
stocks? The odd news piece, nothing more. And while this
administration spends about a billion dollars a week on its war in
Iraq, it has hardly had the will or interest to raise the few
billion dollars a year needed to help lock-down the Russian arsenal.
Imagine that. If, of course, the President had chosen to launch
his "war" on terror against the anthrax killers, this might have
been our top priority.

Since September 11, 2001, weapons of mass destruction have been
dealt with purely as a danger from the peripheries, not as a
heartland issue. In fact, the Bush administration has successfully
focused all our WMD attention and fears out there, not in here. The
Iranian bomb -- at best, years away according to the latest National
Intelligence Estimate -- has been the singular focus of the world's
attention; while the nuclearized "global strike force" the Pentagon
has been preparing for future use in Iran, North Korea, or elsewhere
is barely attended to.

Now, here's the interesting thing: Because this administration had
its eyes set on the Middle East from the beginning, it essentially
chose its terror war from column A (the September 11th attacks), not
column B (the anthrax attacks, once it became clear that they were
connected not to al-Qaeda but the American arsenal). Hence our
control group. Here, for instance, is a very partial list of actions
not taken by this administration in relation to the anthrax attacks:

Our President never swore to get the killer(s), "dead or alive." He
kept no profile of the possible killer or killers in his desk
drawer, so he could cross him/them off when caught. The President,
Vice President, National Security Adviser, and others did not warn
the public and Congress regularly of the possibility of "clouds of
anthrax" being released in our major cities (though this had, after
a fashion, already happened) even as they were issuing dire warnings
about fantasy Iraqi unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs that might at
any time spray biological or chemical weapons over east coast
cities. (Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, for example,
said that he voted for the administration's resolution authorizing
force in Iraq because "I was told not only that [Saddam had weapons
of mass destruction] and that he had the means to deliver them
through unmanned aerial vehicles, but that he had the capability of
transporting those UAVs outside of Iraq and threatening the homeland
here in America, specifically by putting them on ships off the
eastern seaboard.") No American planes swooped down to bomb the
weapons labs of Fort Dietrich or the Dugway Proving Grounds; the
only suspect publicly identified, while hounded for a period, was
never declared an "enemy combatant." No one seized and rendered him;
no CIA agents swept him from the street, cut off his clothes, shot
him up with drugs, slipped him into an orange jumpsuit, whisked him
onto an unregistered plane, and took him to a secret prison in Egypt
or elsewhere to have "the truth" beaten or waterboarded or otherwise
tortured out of him. Nor did he end up incarcerated in Guantanamo
for years, trial-less and beyond the reach of the courts. Quite the
opposite, Hatfill is suing former Attorney General John Ashcroft,
the Justice Department, and others for violating his constitutional
rights and the New York Times for defaming him.

Nor, in the wake of the anthrax attacks, was any kind of global war
declared on the killer or killers, or troops deployed anywhere. In
fact, no drastic actions of any sort were taken. In the wake of the
attack, the post office became more careful; U.S. weapons labs were
assumedly better secured; and remind me what else occurred in
response to one of the most dangerous attacks in our history? Beyond
the dead and injured, the panic of the moment, and the monumental
costs of cleaning up congressional offices, newsrooms, and post
offices, what were the costs?

As it turns out, the Bush administration acted in response to 9/11
in every wild and extraordinary way -- and in response to the
anthrax attacks in next to no way at all. Put the two together and
what you can see is the degree to which the costs of 9/11, whether
in Iraq or at home, are the responsibility not of the attackers,
whose damaging acts were violent in the extreme, spectacular, and
limited, but the Bush administration.

Embedded World

It's an irony of our world that neither Osama bin Laden, nor the
anthrax killer(s) have been apprehended. By now, bin Laden has, in
fact, disappeared into something like the kind of anonymity the
anthrax killer had from the beginning. Whether in the mountains of
Afghanistan or the exurbs of America, the search for the
perpetrators of the two greatest terrorist attacks in our history --
the Twin Terrors -- was not expanded until success was achieved, but
downsized. When it came to the hunt for bin Laden, this happened way
back in 2002 when the Bush administration began switching key
personnel out of Afghanistan to prepare for its long-desired
invasion of Iraq. Both are now cold cases.

You might think that this administration, supposedly dedicated above
all else to protecting the United States from terrorism in its newly
formed Homeland Security State, would have devoted resources above
all else to the task of implacably hunting down these particular
terrorists, wherever they might be; that dead-ends met would have
only led to redoubled efforts. That would have been, if not a "war"
on terrorism, then at least a police action of note. Instead, with
thousands of Americans and Iraqis now dead and an actual weapon of
mass destruction still potentially loose in our land, the inability
to focus all resources on real terrorists and bring them to justice
seems but another cost of George Bush's "war on terror."

The saddest story is this: If tomorrow, George Bush, Dick Cheney and
their cohorts were somehow tossed out on their ears -- call it
indictment, impeachment, or something else -- what they, not Osama
bin Laden or the anthrax terrorists will have cost us, in life,
liberty, and the pursuit of happiness will still be incalculable.
Among the greatest costs will be the way administration officials
used the 9/11 attacks (and buried the anthrax ones) in order to
breach so many levees of our world.

What they have embedded in our lives since 9/11 -- from Northcom to
our newest pinheaded giant bureaucracy, the Homeland Security
Department, from the Patriot Act to ever increasing domestic spying
by the Pentagon and the National Security Agency among other
organizations -- will be with us long after they are gone. Just
imagine a political change of fortunes in our country in which the
Democrats take Congress in 2006 and the White House in 2008. Then
ask yourself a single question: What will the Democrats do with
Guantánamo. Unfortunately, you already know the answer.

Now, let that pause button go and watch not just the Twin Towers but
so much else in our world tumble down one more time.

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a
regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the
American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory
Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War. His
novel, The Last Days of Publishing, has just come out in paperback.

This piece first appeared at Tomdispatch.com.

found at  http://www.motherjones.com/news/feature/2005/12/anthrax.html
guess what 21.Dec.2005 14:58


Tom old chap-"al qaeda" didn't knock the wtc down. It was an inside job by the US government all the way. Quit fronting for the devil! Al-Qaeda my ASS.

Tremendously important, but forgotten 21.Dec.2005 19:58

swept under the rug

It still seems to me that the most likely culprits in the murderous anthrax attacks are those who tried to implicate Dr Ayoub Assaad.The evidence available to the general public is not sufficient to say so conclusively, but the timing of the events was remarkable(1.911> 2.the mailing of the anthrax letters> 3.the mailing of the letter casting suspition on Ayoub> 4.people began falling ill and anthrax was detected).It may have been merely coincidental that some well-meaning citizen/anonymous informant with knowledge of who worked in US bio-weapons programs decided to indulge in a little patriotic ethnic profiling in the wake of 911, but, maybe it's just me, that seems far-fetched, and Dr Assaad himself seemed fairly certain that the people who mailed the anthrax were the same people who tried to frame him, ie, the Arab-hating bio-weapons experts that systematically harassed him when he worked at Fort Dietrick.

The hasty identification of an alternate scapegoat (Dr Hatfill) on the part of Ashcroft, Dr Hatch-Rosenberg, AJ Weberman and the JDL crazies as soon as Assaad was cleared of suspicion also points to a certain desperation in those quarters to divert attention away from those who had framed Assaad.The fact that all of the anthrax was the same deadly US Army Ames strain, but that some of it was a very high quality weaponized preparation while some was a much lower quality preparation indicates that it was mailed by people who had acquired a small quantity of the pure US Army material and who also had the ability to produce a rudimentary anthrax weapon on their own outside the government labs - in other words, Army bio-weapons technicians. This would also explain why, once the case against Hatfill evaporated, there were no further suspects implicated.Certainly no one in the Bush administration would have wanted to pursue a case which could result in the explosive exposure of racist criminals in the US biological weapons industry who were willing to murder innocent Americans for the sake of anti-Arabism, just when the administration was organizing a massive false propaganda campaign which would lead to the overthrow and destruction of potentially the strongest Arab state - Iraq.