Anthrax Hysteria

Richard Cohen, a columnist for the Washington Post, revealed earlier this year that, "soon after" al-Qaeda successfully brought down the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, a "high government official" suggested he get a supply of Cipro, "the antidote to anthrax."

Sure enough, quoth Cohen:

"In the following days, as the horror started to be airbrushed – no more bodies plummeting to the sidewalk – the anthrax letters started to come, some to people I knew. And I thought, No, I’m not going to sit here passively and wait for it to happen. I wanted to go to ‘them,’ whoever ‘they’ were, grab them by the neck, and get them before they could get us."

Since Cohen had no doubt that "One of ‘them’ was Saddam Hussein," he promptly enlisted in the ranks of the media sycophants, cheerleading for the invasion and occupation of Iraq that the Cheney Cabal had begun to plan upon taking office.

Now, one might ask, why did Cohen have no doubt?

Well, oddly enough, Bill Clinton gets part of the credit.

In 1997, President Clinton directed that all U.S. armed forces personnel – including Reserve and National Guard units – be inoculated with an anthrax vaccine.

And, on Jan. 22, 1999, as part of his "Initiative on Biological and Chemical Weapons Preparedness," Clinton proposed giving anthrax vaccinations to police, fire, public health, and other emergency officials in cities throughout the country.

Clinton also proposed establishing a commander in chief for the defense of the continental United States – a step that would go far beyond the civil defense measures and bomb shelters that marked the Cold War.


Well, it seems Clinton had read a novel, The Cobra Event by Richard Preston, and he misunderstood what he read.

Clinton told associates that of all the new threats, the one that “keeps me awake at night” is the possibility of germ attack as described in The Cobra Event.

“A chemical attack would be horrible, but it would be finite,” Clinton said, adding that the chemical-caused disease “would not spread. But a biological attack could spread.”

Now, Clinton was right that outbreaks of disease caused by certain biological agents could spread and could become epidemic or even pandemic.

But not anthrax.

Airborne anthrax spores, when inhaled, are absorbed, cease being spores and can kill only the individuals who inhale them. The disease caused cannot spread from one infected individual to another.

So if Clinton continued his highly controversial DoD anthrax vaccination program because he believed that the exposure of the troops in a small unit to anthrax could wind up spreading disease throughout the whole Army, he was mistaken.

Why was the program so controversial?

Anthrax is a naturally occurring bacteria. The U.S. Army has had the responsibility for developing vaccines and antidotes to protect all our armed forces from viruses, bacteria, and other naturally occurring disease-causing agents which our armed forces would likely encounter in various foreign climes.

The vaccine that was being used to vaccinate all of our armed forces had been developed by the Army in the 1950s. The six-shot vaccination schedule (with annual booster shots) had been approved by the Federal Food and Drug Administration in 1970. The FDA-approved vaccine had been determined to be effective against cutaneous exposure to the naturally occurring strains of anthrax infecting cattle and, rarely, humans.

But President Yeltsin had acknowledged, in 1992, that the Soviet Union had had a program in which biological warfare agents were developed and that an accidental release of anthrax spores had occurred from a military facility near Sverdlovsk (now called Ekaterinburg) on April 2, 1979, which killed 64 people.

The U.S. Army hadn’t been working on biological weapons since the Biological Weapons Convention had been signed in 1972 but had still been required to develop vaccines and antidotes for such weapons.

In the early 1980s, Assistant Secretary of the Army Jay Sculley had caused to be established within the National Academies of Science an advisory board on Army Science and Technology. The board’s first task would have been to help identify likely Soviet biological warfare agents – including agents possibly genetically engineered – for which vaccines and antidotes would be needed.

But the NAS Grand Pooh-Bahs refused – at the end of a two-day presentation of the Army’s request – to allow the Army Science and Technology Board to provide such assistance to the Army on the grounds the results were really intended to advance the Army’s "covert" biological warfare program.

Now, the anthrax vaccines developed thus far – including the one Dr. Bruce Ivins co-developed at Ft. Detrick – have never actually been shown to be effective against the inhalation by humans of aerosolized anthrax spores.

But in the First Gulf War, since there had been reports that both Iraq and Iran had used anthrax in some form in the Iran-Iraq War, more than 150,000 U.S. troops were given the six-shot vaccination regime.

The Iraqis did have tons of biological agents – some of it anthrax – at the time of the First Gulf War. They had actually loaded some into missile warheads and bombs. However, there is no evidence that Iraq actually used biological weapons at any time and in any place in the First Gulf War.

The principal reason the Iraqis say they didn’t use biological agents on the battlefield – even as a last resort – is the fear that they would not be effective.

Had the Iraqis used them, they intended to use them against Israeli civilians as a weapon of terror.

Now, recall that of the so-called "weapons of mass destruction," only the terrorist use of nukes can be prevented at the source. That is, no terrorist can make even a simple nuke unless he can get about a hundred pounds of very expensive and very difficult to make “fissile” materials.

However, there is literally no way to prevent a terrorist from acquiring and employing biological agents – especially naturally occurring anthrax.

So in the climate created by President Clinton’s Initiative on Biological and Chemical Preparedness and with the added impetus of Cohen’s "second wave" – deliveries of deadly anthrax spores through the mail – it’s little wonder that the PATRIOT Act sailed through Congress and Clinton’s envisioned Department of Homeland Security was established.

Of course, Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with either attack, and almost 5,000 of our occupying troops have been killed in Iraq. But Saddam wasn’t a very nice man and that’s a small price you and "the high government official" who advised Richard Cohen to start taking Cipro have paid to get rid of him.

Author: Gordon Prather

Physicist James Gordon Prather has served as a policy implementing official for national security-related technical matters in the Federal Energy Agency, the Energy Research and Development Administration, the Department of Energy, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Department of the Army. Dr. Prather also served as legislative assistant for national security affairs to U.S. Sen. Henry Bellmon, R-Okla. -- ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and member of the Senate Energy Committee and Appropriations Committee. Dr. Prather had earlier worked as a nuclear weapons physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico.