Anthrax: The worst biological attacks in U.S. history

Reporter: Chris Cifatte
Published: Updated:
About a week after 9/11, media personalities and political leaders began receiving letters laced with anthrax. (CREDIT: WINK News)

Within days of 9/11, the worst biological attacks in U.S. history unfolded.

Letters laced with anthrax, a deadly bacteria in powder form, began making their way through the U.S. mail, killing five Americans and sickening 17 others.

The FBI code name “Amerithrax.

The first anthrax letters, primarily targeting the media, were mailed exactly one week after 9/11. They were postmarked Sept. 18, 2001.

Then, more letters to lawmakers followed. All of them were postmarked from Trenton, New Jersey.

“There was a real troublesome worry that this was an Al-Qaeda follow-on attack and this became one of the FBI’s next biggest investigations,” said WINK News Safety and Security Specialist Rich Kolko.

The message inside of the envelopes was chilling. A warning, you cannot stop us.

Kolko, a retired FBI agent, had firsthand knowledge on the investigation.

“The anthrax attacks themselves were only 3 or 4 weeks that the actual letters went out, but investigators quickly tracked down the mailboxes they came from, when they were sent, scouring video,” Kolko said. “Trying to track down the papers the letters were written on, what store sold them, when the stamps were purchased, the envelopes.”

Anthrax spreads through the air and the body, producing toxins and causing severe illness, even death.

The Amerithrax task force consisted of investigators from the FBI, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and other law enforcement agencies.

They interviewed more than 10,000 witnesses on six different continents.

“We had to respond to these white powder letters for years. We used to almost jokingly call it white powder donut letters,” Kolko said.

Mail collected from Capitol Hill ended up in 280 barrels.

It’s where the FBI found an anthrax-laced letter to Sen. Patrick Leahy on Nov. 16, 2001.

“Since the Leahy letter arrived at USAMRIID, it was examined by personnel from USAMRIID, and the letter was decontaminated to render it safe for subsequent forensic analysis in the FBI laboratory,” said Joseph Dizinno, who worked at the FBI lab in Washington, D.C. at the time.

New scientific methods were developed that led to a break in the case.

“The type of evidence that we attempt to recover from the letter are following our standard protocols any evidence that would subsequently possibly identify a suspect in this case,” Dizinno said.

Nearly seven years after the attacks, the FBI released documents and information that they were going to bring charges against Dr. Bruce Ivins, who died by suicide.

“The reason the FBI, the U.S. Attorney and Postal Inspector all think that he did it is that he was in charge of the anthrax vaccine and for years, that program had started to lose money. It was determined he wanted to raise the profile again,” Kolko said.

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