Marilyn Thompson's 'The Killer Strain' -- homicidal anthrax


The Killer Strain: Anthrax and a Government Exposed, by Marilyn W. Thompson. HarperCollins. 256 pages. $25.95.

The anthrax killer is still out there. He -- OK: he or she -- presumably takes pride in turning Washington upside down and rattling the American people with about as much powder as some people put in their morning coffee. If his goal was to focus the attention of the U.S. government on bioterrorism, he can consider his letters a smashing success.

Now, if he's feeling a bit ignored, he can pick up a copy of the first book wholly devoted to his crime. The Killer Strain is a readable narrative account of the first major bioterrorist attack in U.S. history. I'm sorry to report that it contains no scoops -- the chapter on Dr. Steven J. Hatfill, the FBI's most-scrutinized potential suspect, is a rehash of news reports. But the book offers a breezy condensation of the miles of newspaper column-inches devoted to the attack and its enormous impact.

If The Killer Strain feels incomplete, that is not the fault of Marilyn W. Thompson, an editor at The Washington Post who has supervised some anthrax coverage. She can't answer the most important questions about the attacks: Who mounted them? Was it a renegade American scientist, as the FBI seems to believe, or might it have been Iraq or al-Qaida, as some conservative analysts still insist? What equipment and expertise was required to make this spore powder so fine-grained that it spread like smoke? And what was the motive? Only when the FBI produces convincing answers to these questions will it be possible to draw more lasting conclusions about the significance of the attack.

Thompson wisely builds her story around a question that can be answered now: How did the government do in its initial response to the unprecedented germ assault, which killed five people and sickened at least 17 more?

Thompson offers a largely sympathetic account of the bureaucrats and scientists who suddenly found themselves facing a microscopic enemy with which they had little experience. While she depicts their errors in judgment under fire, she suggests that the only real villain is the anthrax mailer.

A central scene, for example, is the press conference held by top postal executives inside the Brentwood mail-sorting center in Washington on October 18, 2001 -- a setting selected deliberately to reassure nervous postal workers they were safe. They weren't safe, as would be tragically demonstrated within days as two workers died and two more got critically ill. But the bigwigs obviously didn't know it at the time, or they wouldn't have trooped into the cavernous mail facility for their show-and-tell.

"The press conference would stand as an illustration of the government's bumbling response to the dangers posed by the anthrax-laden letters," she writes. "With a taped envelope and a thirty-four-cent stamp, the letter's sender had outsmarted the government's top scientists, its doctors, and the seasoned bureaucrats running a critical part of the nation's infrastructure."

Consider John Ezzell, one of the Army's top anthrax experts at Fort Detrick and perhaps the leading character in her narrative. His work was not perfect; Thompson describes his horror as he notices that the bleach he's used to decontaminate his workbench has soaked the edge of one of the anthrax letters, conceivably destroying critical evidence.

But The Killer Strain also depicts Ezzell's fierce dedication to his job, his frustration when he and his colleagues are treated as potential suspects, and his very human fear for his own safety: After a day of working with the letters, he actually snorts bleach into his nostrils, determined to kill any stray spores. Such details round out the characters, making strident criticism seem unreasonable.

Thompson comes closest to outrage in describing the glaring contrast between the treatment of well-off, mostly white Senate staffers, who were given antibiotics that saved them from becoming ill, and that of working-class, mostly black Brentwood workers, who were assured for several critical days that they didn't need antibiotics. That delay probably cost the lives of two workers, Thomas Morris and Joseph Curseen.

On this point, I think Thompson is too easy on the bureaucracy. She notes that the Centers for Disease Control, the Army's biowarfare experts at Fort Detrick and postal officials all initially agreed during those critical days in October 2001 that postal workers were safe.

But she fails to emphasize sufficiently the fact that they hadn't even bothered to consult the Americans with the greatest knowledge of weaponized anthrax -- the Fort Detrick retirees who made horrific bioweapons in the 1950s and 1960s.

Reachable by phone in Frederick and Florida, the old-timers could have told the officials coping with the crisis that anthrax spores can pass easily through paper, and that some especially vulnerable people can be fatally infected with inhalation anthrax by exposure to a very small number of spores.

Armed with those simple facts, postal executives might have closed Brentwood immediately and ordered life-saving antibiotics for all the workers. But no one called the Detrick veterans until months later.

When the next attack comes, the government will know better.

Scott Shane, a reporter for The Sun, has covered the anthrax attacks and the FBI's investigation since the fall of 2001. He is a former Moscow correspondent and author of a book on the Soviet collapse, Dismantling Utopia: How Information Ended the Soviet Union.

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