Browse Topics



Anthrax Origins
Some Experts Suspect a Foreign Source in U.S. Incidents

listen Listen to NPR's Mike Shuster's report for Morning Edition.

listen Listen to NPR's Daniel Zwerdling report for All Things Considered.

search More NPR News radio coverage of the anthrax threat.

Oct. 18, 2001 -- Investigators looking into the discoveries of anthrax spores in New York, Washington, D.C., and Florida want to know where the bacteria came from. Experts differ on whether the source is domestic or foreign. Many experts point to Iraq, which has a history of developing and using biological weapons.

Preliminary tests show that the anthrax bacteria found at NBC in New York and at a publishing company in Florida were the same strain, according to federal officials. It is not yet clear whether the anthrax spores sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office in Washington were also from the same strain. But the FBI has said the anthrax-laden letters to Daschle and to NBC were both postmarked from Trenton, N.J.

Daschle said earlier this week that the anthrax powder his office received appeared to be finely ground, professional grade. Investigators haven't confirmed that, but they're wondering: Does this suggest that the attacker or attackers are plugged into an international terrorist network?

NPR's Daniel Zwerdling reports for All Things Considered on whether the anthrax cases are the work of a sophisticated group or the act of amateurs. In a separate report on Morning Edition, NPR's Mike Shuster reports on experts' speculation that a foreign source is behind the cases. Following are some key points covered in their reports:

More than 30 people in Sen. Daschle's office were exposed to anthrax spores. What does that tell investigators about the nature of the bacteria?

Experts say this means the spores in the envelope to Daschle were grown, dried and ground small enough to become airborne.

What type of expertise does it take to create that grade of anthrax?

Alan Zelicoff

Alan Zelicoff

Alan Zelicoff, senior scientist at the Center for National Security and Arms Control at the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico: "It typically requires being able to coat the organism with special materials. That requires an enormous investment because this is not merely a project in the realm of microbiology. It's really much more in the world of aerosol physics and engineering. And most people in microbiology, of course, have no training in that at all."

David Franz, former chief of the U.S. Army's biological defense program at Ft. Detrick, in Maryland: "It's a pretty tricky process and the recipes have to be followed in a fairly exacting way. I mean, you've got to control the nutrients that you provide the organisms to allow them to grow. You've got to control the sort of acid-base situation within the fermenters. You've got to control the gases like oxygen and carbon dioxide and you've got to control temperature. It's not just pouring in all the ingredients of the recipe for the omelet and turning on the blender and having a result on the other end. It's a lot more difficult and harder to do than that."

What does this say about who is behind it?

David Franz

David Franz

Franz: "I have always felt that it would require state sponsorship, that another country, some proliferant nation in this world would have to help the terrorists..."

Zelicoff: "It suggests that there is a well-funded organization, probably a state-run biological weapons program, something like the Iraqi program -- perhaps indeed the Iraqi program that was likely the source of the material."

Why is Iraq suspected of having a role in the current round of anthrax cases?

Richard Butler, former head of the UN Special Commission on Iraq, an agency which conducted weapons inspections in that country from 1991 to 1998): "It's a complicated process to get up from the basic stuff to the sort of grade that would work well in a weapon and be dispersed through the air. They spent a lot of money on getting the equipment they needed to get to the more sophisticated level. And we think they got there. I certainly saw evidence of them having loaded anthrax into missile warheads."

What about other possible foreign sources?

The former Soviet Union produced tons of anthrax in the 1970s and 80s. Much of it has been buried or burned in what is now Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. But Moscow has not accounted for all of it, according to U.S. officials. Experts suspect Iran, Syria and Libya also have biological weapons programs.

Could lone criminals get their hands on powerful strains of anthrax without getting foreign help?

Franz: "Well, anything's possible. But I think it would be difficult for a biologist with a college degree or even a Ph.D. to do this, especially on a large scale."

What are potential domestic sources of the anthrax?

Small amounts of anthrax in this form could be made in a laboratory in the United States, experts say. A U.S. biological weapons program existed until 1969, but it was terminated by President Nixon. Small amounts of anthrax in a powder form still are produced domestically for research into bio-defenses.

Other Resources

Federation of American Scientists Web site on Iraq's biological weapons program

Pentagon report on whether Iraq used biological warfare agents during the Gulf War

U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases

Sandia National Laboratories Web site about biological weapons

Photos: Sandia National Laboratories (Alan Zelicoff); Southern Research Institute (David Franz)