Letter accompanying weapons-grade anthrax in 2001 attacks. (Photo: U.S. Government Archives)
If we've learned anything in the United States during the Bush era, it's that we have to resist rushing to judgment in the face of catastrophic events. The exercise of careful, independent judgment is the best tool available - we should use it. US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who often wrote on the benefits of both privacy and transparency, offered the reminder "sunlight is the best disinfectant."
The impact of the anthrax attacks was at least as damaging to the US as 9/11. The weeks after 9/11 brought the Homeland Security Act and the war in Afghanistan, ostensibly to stop "the bad guys." As shown below, the result of the anthrax attacks was a greatly-toughened Patriot Act and a war in Iraq that destroyed the fabric of life in America as we know it. If 9/11 resulted in Americans suffering from psychic dislocation, the aftermath of the anthrax attacks was the deeply-felt sensation that there was literally no place left to hide anywhere in the United States.
As we work to end these wars and roll back this repressive legislation, we have to end these fundamental mysteries about what happened to America during the latter part of 2001. If we can't resolve the anthrax attacks, we sure as hell aren't going to resolve anything else. The best way to have closure is to have the truth. No investigation can be totally open - but with the prime suspect now dead, it must be as open as possible.
It's bad logic to assume that the accused microbiologist, the now-deceased Bruce E. Ivins, is either guilty or innocent. Nor should we assume that either Ivins or someone else was "a loner" or that he or she "worked with others." No matter how deep our biases or how strong our beliefs, we should pull together and fight as hard as we can for a truly independent investigation - which ultimately means out of the hands of the investigators at FBI and USAMRIID (the US Army Medical Research Institute on Infectious Diseases, the biodefense center in Fort Detrick, Maryland). The Los Angeles Times reports Ivins was one of those very investigators helping the FBI analyze the powder recovered from the envelopes sent to Capitol Hill in the days after 9/11. This investigation is now deeply tainted.
This is not a time to rely on Newsweek's "earth-shattering breakthroughs" cited by "unnamed sources." It must be remembered, during the panic of the opening days of the anthrax attacks, the FBI permitted Iowa State to destroy on October 11, 2001, the original "Ames strain" evidence during the opening phase of the investigation, simply because they weren't certain of its origins. If that puzzle could have been cracked, the germ's distribution could have been tracked over time, which might have quickly led to the identity of the perpetrators.
With Bruce Ivins dead, the ongoing grand jury investigation of him should be made public, with the possible exception of evidence that would unfairly damage the reputation of others. The use of an open grand jury has been used in controversial police shootings, and should be replicated in this case. This process has been used at least twice in Santa Clara County, California, most recently in 2004. The latter case resulted in the indictment of a state narcotics agent, who fatally shot a fleeing Latino man in the back. "It's essentially an effort to reassure the public that law enforcement is held responsible,'' said Joseph McNamara, a former San Jose police chief and a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.
There are three key reasons intense public scrutiny is critical. One is the intriguing story of Bruce Ivins's background in vaccine research with the Ames strain. Another is the well-documented use of the anthrax attacks to advance the Bush agenda of war with Iraq. The third reason is the less-explored relationship between the timing of the anthrax attacks and the passage of the Patriot Act.
Bruce E. Ivins's intriguing role as Fort Detrick's leading vaccine researcher and his work with the Ames strain deserves careful and complete public scrutiny.
Back in 1999, his colleague Dr. Meryl Nass, M.D., testified in Congress that Bruce Ivins was "the lead vaccine researcher" at Fort Detrick. Ivins was a key developer of the second-generation anthrax vaccine to combat the dreaded "Ames strain" that was used to poison Americans during those fateful days in 2001. The vaccine Ivins was working on has caused numerous American soldiers from the 1990s to the present day to refuse to accept military vaccinations for anthrax in fear of the dreaded "Gulf War syndrome." More research and foot leather will be needed to see whether Ivins's work on the new vaccine was good science or seriously in error. For that reason, people will see in Bruce Ivins what they want to see.
His story is simply remarkable. Look at this unprecedented situation - Justice Department prosecutors have made the case that the anthrax attacks came from a US Army lab biodefense expert - a scientist who played a key role assisting the FBI in "Operation Noble Eagle" (the hunt for the anthrax attackers and the 9/11 attackers). If Ivins's guilt turns out to be true, it means Ivins was literally investigating himself, and may have had access to all the key evidence and innermost thoughts of the investigators! It's well-documented that Ivins disinfected some anthrax off an officemate's desk in December 2001, and did not report it to his supervisors because he didn't want to "cry wolf."
Ivins's colleague in the field, Meryl Nass, MD, relied on Ivins's work in her report to Congress about anthrax vaccines in 1999. She is outspoken about her belief in Ivins's innocence, saying "Bruce was a gentle guy, the opposite of Hatfill." She has two main bases for this belief.
Nass believes Ivins did not have a financial motive, as he was Fort Detrick's top vaccine researcher and was not fishing for a better job in the private sector. David Willman, of The Los Angeles Times, claims such a motive existed, based on patents that Ivins held for his genetically engineered anthrax vaccine. Nass states her respect for Willman's reputation as a Pulitzer winner, while pointing out "historically, government employees do not receive these royalties: the government does."
Nass's other basis is Ivins had no ready access to the half ounce of "dry, powdered anthrax" that was used. Her point about access to dry anthrax was raised back in December 2, 2001, when The New York Times reported that Col. Arthur M. Friedlander, the senior research scientist at Fort Detrick, stated, "no one in his organization even knew how to make dry anthrax ... scientists there made wet anthrax, which is far easier to make. It is used in developing vaccines and testing their effectiveness." Friedlander admitted, however, that Fort Detrick "personnel who had access" were under investigation.
Ivins's work is the focus of a 2004 book by Gary Matsumuto, "Vaccine A: The Covert Government Experiment That's Killing Our Soldiers." Matsumoto is not shy about making controversial statements, which only adds to the aura of intrigue around both Ivins and himself.
The premise of "Vaccine A" is that since the 1991 Gulf War US soldiers have been unwittingly exposed to a "second-generation" experimental anthrax vaccine designed by Ivins and his colleagues, which improperly contained an oil-based substance known as squalene. Matsumuto and others claim squalene is the main cause of the autoimmune disorder known as "Gulf War Syndrome." From 1991 to the present day, many soldiers have refused to submit to military vaccinations for anthrax for fear of contracting Gulf War Syndrome. There are strong arguments on both sides of the squalene dispute, and this is an ongoing controversy.
The work of Bruce Ivins is known to many of these vets - especially those who suffered Gulf War Syndrome, or those who were court-martialed for refusing to use the vaccine in fear it was tainted. It is intriguing that Matsumoto paid special attention to Ivins, claiming that Ivins knew that the experimental oil-boosted vaccine "can provoke toxic, allergic, ulcerative, or lethal reactions."
Matsumoto's 2004 book focuses on Ivins as the man with the motive to be pushing to get approval for the new second-generation vaccine.
"Only one paper at the workshop reported near perfect results - 100 percent protection from the Ames strain with just one or two shots ... As an old Marine Corps expression goes, this particular paper shined 'like a diamond inside a goat's ass.' USAMRIID's Bruce Ivins had reported at this very same workshop that his "one-shot wonder" - protective antigen or mere fragments of it combined with oil additives - protected every animal challenged with Ames with a single injection." Matsumoto, Vaccine A page 87.
The BioThrax vaccine was approved by Homeland Security in 2006. It is currently the only anthrax vaccine approved for use. Made by the BioPort corporation, the new vaccine is derived from Ivins's experimental second-generation vaccine - however, BioPort maintains that no squalene is involved in its manufacture. The controversy continues - and Matsumoto's role in controversy will return later on.
A little background on the origins of the anthrax vaccine dispute is helpful here. On December 15, 1997, Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen announced that all US military personnel would be vaccinated in order to guard against the biological warfare agent anthrax, which was allegedly proliferating as a bioweapon in other nations. Rep. Christopher Shays, at the beginning of a 1999 hearing on oversight of the anthrax vaccine inoculation program, asked:
"Why would active duty, Reserve and National Guard personnel jeopardize their military careers, and even their liberty, rather than take the vaccine? ... The missing element of the mandatory anthrax vaccine program is trust. Radiation testing, Agent Orange, the reckless use of experimental drugs and mysterious Gulf War illness have made military men and women understandably distrustful of the Pentagon on medical matters."
The controversy over the anthrax vaccine among US military troops has been constant from the first Gulf War to the present. In a 2003 decision, US District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan ruled in favor of six anonymous military litigants, holding that the military's mandatory administration of the vaccine was illegal because the Food and Drug Administration had not approved its use for inhalation anthrax, only for anthrax contracted through the skin.
Judge Sullivan's ruling forced the Pentagon to suspend its involuntary program almost continually between December 2003 and February 2007, until the FDA ruled the vaccine was safe and efficient for all forms of anthrax and permitted the Pentagon to reorder. Based on this decision, another federal judge admonished the Air Force Board in April 2008, for refusing to compensate military personnel for refusing the vaccine between 1999 and 2004.
Setting aside the fundamental question of Ivins's possible motives as the maker of the anthrax vaccine, there are a million other questions waiting in the wings. Here are just a few.
The anthrax attack letters were mailed from Princeton, New Jersey, 200 miles away from Ivins's home in Frederick, Maryland. His father was a Princeton professor. His father's personal history, standing alone, is not evidence - it could be used either to support one's belief in his guilt or that he was set up.
The same is true about Ivins's devout Catholicism and his alleged suicide. Most Catholics don't commit suicide, as it violates their faith. What was the nature of his faith? Was this really a suicide?
While Ivins's brother Thomas says the suspect acted like he was "omnipotent," other friends and colleagues say it is impossible Ivins could be guilty. The former head of USAMRIID, David Franz, says "Bruce was an enthusiastic guy. He was always upbeat, with a big smile. It was "Colonel Franz, let me tell you what I'm doing." I think of him as a geek, his pants too short and his pocket protector showing. He had kind of a 1960s look."
His counselor Julie Duley sought a restraining order against Ivins on July 24. She wrote the court that Ivins's psychiatrist David Irwin described him as "homicidal, sociopathic," accused him in court of a history of "homicidal threats since graduate school" and that "he will be accused for five capital murders" as the authorities tightened their focus on him, and adde that he had plotted revenge killings "especially against women" - comments that must be taken very seriously.
It should also be known that the local paper in Frederick reports that she is a "BSW, CSC-AD", which stands for "Bachelor of Social Work, Certified Supervised Counselor - Alcohol and Drug." Under Maryland law, this is attained after two years of college, and means that she can only work under supervision and cannot practice independently. Did she accurately report the serious evaluations she presented to the court?
It's also important to keep in mind that witnesses claimed to see another anthrax vaccine researcher named Kenneth Barry physically abuse his wife and daughter when he was under investigation by the FBI's as the anthrax attacker in 2004. Such intense pressure will make many people homicidal, if not suicidal.
It's also important to know that Ivins was in a psychiatric unit for several days, and apparently left the facility just a few days before his death. Dr. W. Russell Byrne, who worked at the bacteriology division of Fort Detrick, said, "Ivins was 'hounded' by aggressive FBI agents who raided his home twice." Byrne and local police said that Ivins was removed from Fort Detrick because of fears that Ivins had become a danger to himself or others. The investigation led to Ivins being hospitalized for depression earlier this month, according to Byrne, who emphasized he does not believe Ivins was behind the anthrax attacks.
As recently as four months ago, The New York Post ran a story entitled "Closing in on Anthrax Fiend":
"Federal investigators have focused their attention on 'about four suspects' at an Army research facility in the terrifying 2001 anthrax letter attacks that showed up in the offices of two senators and several newsrooms - including The Post.
"The suspects include three scientists - a former deputy commander, a leading anthrax specialist and a microbiologist (emphasis added) - at the bioweapons research facility at Fort Detrick in Maryland, sources told Fox News."
It seems fair to assume "the microbiologist" was Ivins. But who are the others? Journalist Gerald Posner said in a Keith Olbermann interview on August 1 that his Justice Department sources told him "they are rushing to wrap this thing up. They want it over with ... We're never going to know ... because they're not going to pursue this investigation. There's no outcry for it. That's unfortunate." That's the grave danger here.
There are compelling reasons to believe that the "anthrax attacks" case is a classic case of provocation to lead the United States into war with Iraq.
Even Posner, known to many investigators as a professional skeptic, admitted to Olbermann at the end of the interview:
"I am now more convinced than ever that there were individuals inside the Bush Administration and in the government that wanted the war in Iraq so badly that they decided if there was something they could use to push it forward they would - anthrax fell into their lap. Even if he is the deranged solo killer, they used him in order to scare this country and say Iraq is something we have to go after, and we did."
Olbermann: "In that case, there would be no reason to go after the deranged solo killer."
Posner: "They could rely on the blunders of the FBI."
Posner's theory is reminiscent of how the United States got fatally embroiled in the war in Vietnam. See the recently declassified NSA report (at page 49) about the Gulf of Tonkin incidents of August 1964, which contain the startling admission that the facts were "deliberately skewed to support the notion that there was a (North Vietnamese) attack."
Constitutional scholar Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for Salon magazine, states that during the last week of October, 2001, ABC News, led by Brian Ross, "continuously trumpeted the claim" that government tests conducted on the anthrax at Fort Detrick showed the anthrax sent to Sen. Majority Leader Tom Daschle contained bentonite (a clay substance used as a fluidized agent in the preparation of powders). Ross was assisted by Gary Matsumoto in their October 26 story.
ABC News repeatedly claimed that the finding of bentonite in the anthrax was compelling evidence that Iraq was responsible for the attacks since bentonite "is a trademark of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's biological weapons program" and "only one country, Iraq, has used bentonite to produce biological weapons." However, no tests ever found any bentonite in the material used in the 2001 anthrax attacks - which was finally admitted by ABC News in 2007 after Greenwald repeatedly dogged them on the subject.
Greenwald states, "ABC News' claim - which they said came at first from 'three well-placed but separate sources,' followed by 'four well-placed and separate sources' - was completely false from the beginning. He relies on Brian Ross reporting on October 28, 2001, that these sources stated that "initial tests on the anthrax by the US Army at Fort Detrick, Maryland, have detected trace amounts of the chemical additives bentonite and silica."
Greenwald's two articles, which should be read in their entirety, provide a number of administration sources as additional bases for his claim that the Bush Administration "cooked" this evidence in order to justify an attack on Iraq.
Greenwald noted the role of Gary Matsumoto, who offers a good case study of how the Iraq-blamers never let go. On November 1, 2001, Matsumoto wrote a second article for ABC that backs off the bentonite story just a bit as "unproven," but continues to hammer the "possible Iraq connection." A year later, on October 28, 2002, with a possible war with Iraq in the offing, Matsumoto wrote an article in The Washington Post offering a fallback argument for Iraqi involvement based on silica instead of bentonite: See http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A28334-2002Oct27:
"... early in the case, US authorities dismissed the possibility that Iraq could have sponsored the attacks because investigators determined that the spores had been coated with silica to make them disperse quickly, rather than the mineral bentonite, regarded by the US Army Medical Research and Materiel Command as Iraq's additive of choice.
"However, Iraq's alleged preference for bentonite appears to be based on a single sample of a common pesticide collected by U.N. authorities from Iraq's Al Hakam biological weapons facility in the mid-1990s. By contrast, the US Defense Intelligence Agency warned in declassified documents as early as 1989 that Iraq was acquiring silica to use as a chemical weapons additive.
"In 1998, Iraq reported to the United Nations that it had conducted an artillery test of a live biological agent that used silica as a dispersant. And U.N. and US intelligence documents reviewed by The Post show that Iraq had bought all the essential equipment and ingredients needed to weaponize anthrax bacteria with silica to a grade consistent with the Daschle and Leahy letters ...
"Bush administration officials have acknowledged that the anthrax attacks were an important motivator in the US decision to confront Iraq ...
In late 2003, Matsumoto reiterated his argument that Saddam Hussein must be investigated as a suspect, publishing an article in the prominent journal Science. This piece amplified his claim that anthrax powders contained silica and added a crucial new argument - that the grains had a "coating" that indicated that the anthrax was industrially processed.
Matsumoto protested too much about the silica, as no one disputed its presence in the Senate anthrax. Matsumoto's controversial claim was about the alleged "coating" - his evidence was based on a graph created by a spectrograph. Ed Lake, a meticulous author who has been chronicling the anthrax case on a daily basis, lost his patience with Matsumoto. He spelled out a ten-point refutation of Matsumoto's argument for an industrially-created coating, with these high points:
"Professor Matthew Meselson of Harvard and former bioweaponeer Ken Alibek have both seen large, clear electron micrographs of the Daschle anthrax. They have reported that they saw NO coating on the spores.
"There is virtually no way an experienced scientist can make a mistake and not notice coatings of fumed silica or a silica coating or glass particles or anything like that on a micrograph - particularly if they were specifically looking for such things - which Meselson and Alibek almost certainly were ...
(Matsumoto) did not ask the key scientific question: How can a spectrograph detect silicon if there is no silicon-based material visible in the micrograph images? There are many possible explanations ... (Lake cites a few.)
"The Matsumoto article simply ignores or discounts the alternative explanations and says that the spores were coated - without any true proof that they were coated ...
"Why is this important? Because, if the spores were coated, that would indicate a large state-sponsored manufacturing facility probably made them. If the spores were not coated, then they could have been made in almost any microbiology lab."
Lake points out that it took three more years, until July, 2006, when Dr. Douglas Beecher, a scientist at the FBI labs, released a scientific report, which resulted in headlines. On page six, it stated it was a "misconception" that the anthrax spore powders contained additives and/or that "sophisticated engineering" was required to make the powders. Beecher specifically referred to Matsumoto's 2002 Washington Post article in his rebuke.
From then on, it was not necessary to show the 2001 anthrax was created in the course of military weapons production - a big step in narrowing the focus of the investigation.
Beecher's evidence does point to a facility such as Fort Detrick where Ivins worked, due to the purity of the anthrax material, but it eliminates the need to look for a suspect who had access to engineered anthrax with special additives as a "coating."
We need to take a long look at how the anthrax attacks influenced the debate on the Patriot Act.
The Patriot Act was taken "off the shelf" and introduced into Congress eight days after the 9/11 attacks, on September 19. Bush demanded the act be signed in the next forty-eight hours. He was opposed by Senator Russ Feingold and the Democratic party leadership, led by Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy.
Meanwhile, the first wave of anthrax letters were sent on September 18 from Trenton, NJ, near Princeton University, in a child-like handwriting to media outlets - specifically, ABC, NBC, CBS, The New York Post and The National Enquirer."Anthrax Pervades Florida Site, and Experts See Likeness to That Sent to Senators." The New York Times. The Patriot Act recieves a chilly reception on Capitol Hill, as Bush is requesting passage of its draconian provisions within 48 hours. Naturally, however, the media was in a complete panic as the full impact of this first wave of anthrax letters slowly sunk in.
On October 3, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D) said that he doubted the Senate will take up the newly reintroduced bill in the time demanded by the administration - now extended to "one week." Daschle has great power over whether the bill will pass and in what form. Attorney General John Ashcroft attacks the Senate Democrats for unnecessary delay. (The Washington Post, 10/3/2001.)
On October 4, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D) accused the Bush administration of reneging on an agreement on the antiterrorist bill. Like Daschle, Leahy has the power to kill or modify the bill. Some warn, "lawmakers are overlooking constitutional flaws in their rush to meet the administration's timetable." Two days later, Ashcroft complains about "the rather slow pace ... over his request for law enforcement powers ... Hard feelings remain." (The Washington Post, 10/4/01.)
On October 9, in the story "Cracks in Bipartisanship Start to Show," the Washington Post reports, "Congress has lost some of the shock-induced unity with which it first responded to the 9/11 attacks." (Washington Post, 10/9/01)
On October 9, the second wave of anthrax letters were sent with a much higher grade of purity - this time, the letters focused on Democratic leaders Daschle and Leahy are postmarked. Were these two key Democratic leaders targeted in order to ensure quick passage for the Patriot Act with as few revisions as possible?
Both letters again bore the postmark of "Trenton, NJ," with lethal doses to Senators Daschle and Leahy. Inside both letters are the words: "Death to America, Death to Israel, Allah is Great." An excellent chronology has been created by The South Florida Sun-Sentinel. When Daschle's letter arrived on October 15, the reaction on Capitol Hill was an evacuation not seen since the British invasion during the War of 1812. Twenty-eight staffers were exposed to anthrax, including staffers of Daschle and Feingold. (Due to quarantining of the mail, Leahy's letter was not found until a month later, and provided a veritable cache of evidence.) The bill passed both houses of Congress and was signed by President Bush on October 26, with few amendments.
Although Leahy's letter never got to his office, it exposed people who handled it prior to the quarantine. When interviewed on the subject in 2007, Leahy stated, "I wish they had turned this investigation over to some good sheriff or police chief somewhere. I think it's been very badly handled." Later in the conversation, he added, "But I don't think it's somebody insane. And I think there are people within our government - certainly from the source of it - who know where it came from. And these people may not have had anything to do with it, but they certainly know where it came from."
On Daschle's part, he complained in March 2008, that the FBI told him seven years ago they were 100 percent confident they would capture those responsible. "We have not yet pressed those in enforcement to provide with far better understanding than what we have today about what they know ... the transparency level in health care looks good compared to the transparency level with anthrax."
This is a time to open the shades and let in the light. We can't rely just on scientists and law enforcement. Any farmer can tell you sunlight kills anthrax. That's what we need - and lots of it. While theories are presented here, the request to everyone reading this is to focus on the evidence rather than one's own preconceptions about 9/11 and other hot-button issues. Opening the grand jury proceedings should be just the first step. The second step may be to follow Glenn Greenwald's lead as to which Congressional body has the expertise and the backbone to examine the role of ABC and other media entities in the rush to war with Iraq.
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