Homegrown Horror: The Prospects for All-American Bioterrorism. (Gazette)

By Silverstein, Ken; Isenberg, David | The American Prospect, January 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Homegrown Horror: The Prospects for All-American Bioterrorism. (Gazette)


Silverstein, Ken, Isenberg, David, The American Prospect


WHEN THE FIRST POST -- September 11 anthrax cases were revealed, speculation about who was responsible focused immediately on associates of Osama bin Laden or the government of Iraq. Now, though, it's widely believed that the anthrax attacks are homegrown, the result of an individual or a small domestic terrorist group. It also seems that the source of the anthrax is a U.S. government lab, since recent reports have said that the powder used in the attacks is virtually indistinguishable from anthrax produced by the military before it shut down its biowarfare program. In a strange way, all of this is good news. "The worst-case scenario is if there's a biological Unabomber out there who's making anthrax by himself," says Elisa Harris of the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland University, who previously has worked for the National Security Council. "That would suggest that the possibility of [using biological weapons] is much easier than previously thought."

Yet whoever turns out to be behind the current attacks, most experts say the risk of a major bioterrorist incident is clearly growing. Among domestic groups, right-wing extremists and messianic groups stand out as having shown the greatest interest in carrying out such an attack. In 1997, FBI Director Louis Freeh specifically warned during testimony before Congress that white-supremacist groups and militia organizations have sought to acquire biological weapons. Jessica Stern, a former National Security Council staffer, has said that right-wing extremists are "obsessed" with biological agents and have been trying to perfect their use for years.

Historically, the world has seen a few cases of bioterrorism, but until now none has achieved much success. The only notable instance in the United States came in 1984, when members of the Rajneeshee cult in Oregon poisoned salad bars with salmonella, which sickened 751 people. But W. Seth Carus, a bioweapons expert at the National Defense University until being hired at the new Office of Homeland Security (OHS), says that there has been "an explosion of interest" in bioterrorism in recent years.

AMERICAN RIGHT-WINGERS HAVE considered and sometimes planned the use of biological weapons since at least 1972, when a white-supremacist group called the Order of the Rising Sun apparently created as much as 40 kilograms of typhoid bacteria cultures in a college laboratory. They planned to contaminate water supplies in Chicago, St. Louis, and other midwestern cities, thereby leading to the deaths of "inferior" populations. The plot was uncovered when two members of the group panicked and informed police. At about the same time, the Minutemen, a right-wing outfit headed by the owner of a Missouri veterinary drug firm doing business as Biolab Corporation threatened to disperse a biological virus at airline terminals. More recently, in October 2001, a violent anti-abortion group calling itself the Army of God sent threatening letters containing bogus anthrax to Planned Parenthood headquarters in Washington, D.C., and to branches elsewhere in the United States.

Biological agents are effective in small amounts and are relatively cheap and easy to produce. A 1999 Defense Department study found that a domestic team with biological training was able to produce two pounds of mock aerosolized anthrax for about $1.6 million. The team had little trouble in gathering fermenters, grinders, and other necessary laboratory equipment. Timothy Tobiason, a right-wing agricultural-chemical entrepreneur from Nebraska, currently sells copies of a germwarfare cookbook he authored that experts say is accurate enough to be dangerous.

Perhaps the easiest biological agent to produce is ricin, which the Bulgarian secret police used during the Cold War era to assassinate dissident Georgi Markov. (He was jabbed with an infected umbrella tip while waiting for a bus in London. …

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