Anthrax, not the war in Afghanistan, is clearly the top news story of the day. But the media's obsession with anthrax attacks may be endangering all of us in ways neither the media nor government officials have contemplated.
What we know so far is that dozens of people have been exposed to the anthrax bacteria, eight have come down with pulmonary infections as a result, three of whom have already died, and at least five others have gotten skin infections, which seem to be fairly easily treated. What we don't know is who is sending anthrax through the mail, how many anthrax-laced letters they've sent out and to whom, or what their immediate and long-term objectives are.
Let's assume this assault is in some way connected to the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks of Sept. 11, even if only as a copycat crime by a domestic terrorist. Whoever is doing this wants to kill people -- probably large numbers of people. We know that some of the terrorists involved in the Sept. 11 attacks made inquiries into acquiring crop dusters capable of spreading some biological or chemical weapons over large areas. For the time being, we have made this avenue of assault more difficult -- which means that the bio-terrorists must look for an alternative delivery system.
They've now hit on the U.S. mail as a somewhat cumbersome option. But if their aim is to kill lots of people, they have to figure out how best to use this delivery method -- and here, the media's obsession with reporting every detail, every scintilla of evidence, plays right into the terrorists' hands.
The only people who know how many anthrax letters have been sent and to whom are the terrorists. It's clear from what has been reported that the letters we've actually identified were mailed on at least two separate dates in September and October. It's likely that the letter mailed to American Media in Boca Raton, Fla., which has never been found, was mailed earlier, since the victim there died on Oct. 4, before the letters to news outlets in New York and to Sen. Daschle were even discovered.
It also seems likely that differing amounts and qualities of anthrax were involved in the separate incidents. The anthrax in the Daschle letter clearly was very finely milled so that it leaked through the pores of the envelope containing it. It also may have been chemically altered so that the spores themselves could remain airborne, thus causing the more deadly form of inhalation anthrax. But it hasn't seemed to occur to anyone that these differences may reflect a sinister experiment being conducted by the terrorists themselves.
Could these letters be a trial run? If the terrorists' intent is ultimately to use the mail to target vast numbers of victims, not just the handpicked, high-profile targets we've been reading about, we are handing them a blueprint to do so effectively and efficiently.
Every day the media report the information the terrorists need to expand their terrorism more broadly. We tell them exactly where each letter traveled through our postal system and where it deposited anthrax spores, even what we're doing to try to render the bacteria harmless. Since the terrorists know -- but we don't -- how many letters there are, and how much and what kind of anthrax agents are in each, they can sit back and gather the data to plan their next -- bigger -- attack.
No matter who the bio-terrorists are, they don't have an unlimited supply of anthrax readily available to use in the United States. And, like the Sept. 11 terrorists to whom they may well be connected, their methods must be meticulously planned and carried out to achieve their aim. It is easy to imagine the terrorists sitting patiently with maps of their target sites gathering up the data we provide them each day to chart how effective they've been. It is terrifying to imagine them putting what they've learned to use in plotting further attacks -- more extensive and more effective because we unwittingly gave them the information they needed to do so.