At least 12 suspicious devices — possibly pipe bombs and at least one envelope containing white powder — have been mailed to prominent Democrats and their donors this week. As news breaks of an arrest in the case, many have found eerie similarities between these events and a still unsolved 2001 series of deadly mailings.
Political terrorism by mail isn't a new thing. In the 60's and 70's, mail bombing became a signature of fringe political groups. Ted Kaczynski, known as the Unabomber, continued the practice into the 80's and 90's, killing three people and injuring 23 more with a series of homemade bombs he often sent through the mail.
But the recent spate of 'suspicious' packages calls to mind one of the strangest (and still unsolved!) crimes of the last 20 years: the 2001 Anthrax mailings.
The anthrax attacks happened in the immediate wake of the September 11 attacks and launched a decade long investigation by the FBI that has technically never been resolved. In the chaos and fear that gripped the country post 9/11, letters contaminated with anthrax — a bacterial disease first found in cattle that emerged in World War I as an extremely deadly biological weapon — began arriving at major U.S. news outlets and politicians' offices. In the end, five people died and another 17 were injured from exposure to anthrax with another 32,000 treated with antibiotics for possible exposure.
Nobody has ever been prosecuted for the attacks.
Who received the poisoned letters?
On September 18, 2001 the first five letters were dropped into a Trenton, New Jersey mailbox addressed to NBC, CBS, ABC, The New York Post, and the National Enquirer. Many of the recipients seem to have ignored the letters at first, dismissing the brown granular substance inside and the photocopied letter that read: 9-11-01. THIS IS NEXT. TAKE PENICILLIN NOW. DEATH TO AMERICA. DEATH TO ISRAEL. ALLAH IS GREAT.
It wasn't until Bob Stevens, a photo editor at American Media Inc. (the company that owns the National Enquirer) died from inhalation Anthrax on October 5, 2001 that the alarm was raised. Anthrax is a rare bacteria, mostly found in laboratories, so Stevens' death set off an investigation.
On October 15, 2001 politicians began to receive the letters. An employee at Senator Tom Daschle's office opened an envelope filled with a white powdery substance and a letter that read: 9-11-o1. YOU CAN NOT STOP US. WE HAVE THIS ANTHRAX. YOU DIE NOW. ARE YOU AFRAID? DEATH TO AMERICA. DEATH TO ISRAEL. ALLAH IS GREAT.
On November 16, Senator Patrick Leahy received a letter found to contain at least 23,000 anthrax spores.
Who were the victims?
Bob Stevens from American Media Inc. was the first to die. On October 21, a D.C. postal worker, Thomas Morris Jr. died. The next day, another D.C. postal worker, Joseph Curseen, fell victim to anthrax. On October 31, Kathy Nguyen, an employee for the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital died. The last victim, Ottilie Lundgren, a 94-year-old Connecticut woman, died on November 22. All five victims died from inhalation anthrax, the more deadly and far less treatable version of exposure.
But many other people were exposed, including two dozen employees in Sen. Daschle's office, an unnamed NBC employee, the 7-month-old sone of an ABC news producer, an employee at CBS, a series of postal workers, and a U.S. State Department mailroom staffer. Most of these were cases of cutaneous anthrax exposure, where the infection enters through the skin. Still deadly, this version takes longer to present and can be treated with an intensive course of antibiotics.
Who sent the anthrax?
Good question, and one that remains officially unsolved today. Immediate suspicion fell on Steven Hatfill, a bioweapons expert who worked for the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. The FBI and Attorney General John Ashcroft publicly declared Hatfill a "person of interest" in the case. In 2008, he was exonerated and the government settled a lawsuit he'd filed against them for invasion of privacy for $4.6 million.
In 2005, the FBI focused their interest on Bruce Ivins, a scientist who worked at the government's biodefense labs at Fort Derrick in Frederik, Maryland with a history of mental illness. On July 29, 2008 Ivins killed himself with an overdose of Tylenol and codeine. While the FBI released a 92 page summary of evidence against Ivins, no definitive conclusion about his guilt has been made.
What happened next?
In the aftermath of the mailings, dozens of buildings in New York, Washington D.C., and Florida, including a postal facility had to be decontaminated. The combined efforts cost the government nearly $100 million. The attacks led to an increase in funding for biological weapons research.
But perhaps most immediately relevant to the lives of Americans, the anthrax mailings caused a large backup of U.S. mail as postal workers faced the most immediate threat. Many companies and business that had resisted electronic payment and communication made the shift to the online services in use today.