This Tuesday, Oct. 4, marks the 10th anniversary of the announcement of the first deaths in the 2001 anthrax-letter attacks, the first successful, fatal bioterrorist attack in American history on American soil. The anthrax attacks were recognized in the midst of the grief and disquiet that swept the United States after the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attacks, and like those, they changed for good the US’s sense of its security and its role in the world.
The foot-soldiers of much of the government response to 9/11 and 10/4 were the Epidemic Intelligence Service, the rapid-reaction disease detectives of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In recognition of the anniversaries of the two attacks, I’ve been running excerpts from my book Beating Back the Devil about the little-known, behind the scenes disaster response work performed by the disease-detective corps.
Beating Back the Devil was written in 2004. In 2008, the FBI acknowledged that for several years, it had incorrectly pursued a government scientist named Steven Hatfill as a “person of interest” in the letter attacks. That same year, another government scientist named Bruce Ivins committed suicide as the FBI was preparing to name him their chief suspect. But that did not bring the story to an end; as Wired‘s Noah Schachtman reported earlier this year, serious doubts remain about the FBI’s actions and Ivins’ role.
But in October 2001, all of that lay in the future. The CDC’s disease detectives were enmeshed in the aftermath of the World Trade Center bombings, and turning their attention to mysterious illnesses in Florida, New York, and Washington, DC.