Bioterror back, but panic is not
Capital pauses amid ricin alert, but anthrax-style scare is absent.
WASHINGTON — As the nation's capital once again responds to what may have been a bioterror attack, one element from the anthrax scare that surfaced two years ago is largely missing: panic.
True, the anthrax spores that were found in letters mailed to news outlets and to the Senate majority leader in 2001 surfaced just after the 9/11 attacks, when the nation was still on edge, and they did end up killing five people.
But this week's discovery of possible small amounts of ricin - a deadly poison - in the mailroom of Senate majority leader Bill Frist hasn't evoked the mass evacuations and national paroxysms of the earlier attacks. Though three Senate office buildings remained closed Tuesday while authorities awaited conclusive results that the white powder was, in fact, ricin, the capitol remained open and committee hearings proceeded. Other than an inhospitable sleet that slowed morning traffic, Washingtonians seemed largely unfazed.
One reason, in addition to ricin being less lethal and contagious than anthrax, is a better-educated public and now familiar emergency procedures. "The government tried to educate people about it," says Juliette Kayyem, an expert on terrorism at Harvard University's Kennedy School. "The consequences of that [education] could explain the lack of public hysteria."
For one thing, she says, the government explained to Americans how difficult it is to cause large-scale deaths through such attacks - and even illnesses. Moreover, it is likely, as in the anthrax case, that the attack was homegrown and not a result of international terrorism.
Still, just the presence of such a substance in a senator's office is cause for concern. After the anthrax investigation, procedures were established to prevent such attacks. All mail, for example, is radiated. But that would not affect ricin, which is a biotoxin, not a bacteria or virus.
Officials caution it is too early to draw conclusions. For instance, it isn't yet clear whether the substance was sent through the mail. And at presstime, officials were trying to confirm their initial findings that the powder is ricin. The tests were being performed at the US Army's Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMARIID) at Fort Detrick, Md.
Still, the episode has parallels with the 2001 anthrax attacks, which caused major disruptions on Capitol Hill, closing Senate mailrooms for extended periods.
There are also significant differences between the two events. For one thing, ricin is not considered as deadly as anthrax, although there is no antidote or vaccine. The US Centers for Disease Control ranks it as a "B" class weapon, a serious threat, but not as deadly as class "A" weapons such as anthrax.
But ricin is also relatively easy to make. The anthrax that was sent through the US mail was of such a pure strain that investigators have focused their attention on scientists with specific training in biological weapons programs. Indeed, to this day, the FBI still hasn't been able to re-create the kind of anthrax that was used in the 2001 attacks.
"We never had an incident like this before," says FBI spokesman Bill Carter. "We had to start from the beginning."
Ricin, on the other hand, is derived from the mash left from the extraction of castor oil from the bean of the castor plant, and can be made with ordinary kitchen tools. After World War I, the US studied its potential use as biological weapon. In collaboration with the British, a ricin bomb was developed and tested, "but apparently never used in battle," according to the "Textbook of Military Medicine."
"It's the third most toxic substance known to mankind," says Bruce Hoffman, an expert on terror at the RAND Corp. in Washington. "But short of injection, it is not very effective, nor is it contagious, as is anthrax."
Still, it's not surprising that it would turn up. "It is the easiest to fabricate," he says. "There are recipes for making it all over the Internet."
There is a recent record of ricin being used in terror attacks - both at home and abroad. As recently as October, a vial of ricin was discovered at the mail facility for the Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport in South Carolina. A letter accompanying the poison complained about new federal regulations requiring more rest for truck drivers, and threatened to taint the local water supply if demands were not met. The FBI has identified the sender as a fleet owner of a tanker company, although no arrests have been made.
Traces of ricin have also been discovered recently at a Paris train station and in a London apartment. Military officials say they found remnants of ricin manufacturing equipment at an Ansar al-Islam camp in northern Iraq during the war campaign. And manuals that described how to manufacture and use the toxin were discovered in Afghanistan, after the US forced out the Taliban regime in 2001.
One of the most well-known uses of it as a killing agent was the alleged assassination of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov, who was jabbed with a poisoned umbrella in London in 1978.
But if the anthrax investigation - the largest ever carried out by the FBI - is any indication, it may be some time before a culprit is caught in the latest case.
After 28 months, the FBI still has not solved the anthrax crimes. In tandem with the US Postal Service, it is offering a $2 million reward for information leading to the arrests and convictions of people responsible for mailing the anthrax letters.