Was the September 20, 2001 letter sent from St. Petersburg, Florida to Tom Brokaw of NBC News a component of the anthrax attacks? Or was the mailing a separate occurrence that had no relation to the anthrax attacks? The issue is important for several reasons, one of which is that it was this St. Petersburg letter that began its message with “THE UNTHINKABEL.”
Most researchers have followed the FBI’s lead, concluding that the St. Petersburg letter was a separate and unrelated phenomenon. However, Barbara Rosenberg, a leading critic of the FBI’s investigation and one of the authors of the Bioterrorism & Biodefense articles referred to in Chapter 5, suggested as early as 2002 that the set of St. Petersburg letters, to which the letter to Brokaw belonged, should be taken seriously as possible components of the anthrax operation. Researcher Ed Lake responded that the St. Petersburg letters were not linked to the anthrax letter attacks and were irrelevant to the study of the anthrax attacks.
A review of Lake’s arguments will show the weakness of his position.
- Lake said it made no sense that people possessing real anthrax should send hoax letters. They might send threat letters, he said, but not hoax letters. “The psychology,” he claimed, “is all wrong.” But even if he was right about “the psychology” (he provided no evidence to support this claim), everything we know about the St. Petersburg letter sent to Brokaw suggests it actually was a threat letter, not a hoax letter. That is, it did not pretend to contain anthrax spores. According to those who saw this letter, it contained phrases such as “see what happens next” and “sample of how it will look.” In other words, the letter was threatening actual attacks.
Is it credible that such threats might be part of a bioterrorism attack? Certainly, it is—as Lake admitted. The Dark Winter simulation of June, 2001 included, alongside dissemination of actual biological agents, threat letters sent to news media.
- Lake referred to the numerous hoax and threat letters that are regularly sent through the U.S. mail (“the Postal Service investigated more than 80 threats involving anthrax every year”), arguing that the St. Petersburg letters were mailed by “nut cases” and were unrelated to the actual 2001 attacks. While it is true that coincidence cannot be ruled out, Lake proceeded much too quickly to his coincidence theory. He did not give due weight to the coincidences that would have been required.
Both the St. Petersburg threat letter and a potentially lethal spore-laden letter from New Jersey were sent to the same person at the same news media office in the same city (Tom Brokaw at NBC TV in New York City). They were sent at nearly the same time: the threat letter postmarked September 20, the anthrax letter postmarked September 18. Moreover, although the writing on the two envelopes suggests different authors, the similarities in style are noteworthy: the addresses in both cases have been hand-printed in capital letters with four lines of text giving information in the same sequence with minimal punctuation.
- Lake’s final argument had to do with the copycat phenomenon. Copycat criminals, he said, will send hoax or threat letters after a genuine article is made public. He implied that the St. Petersburg letters can be dismissed for this reason. But neither the deadly anthrax letter postmarked on September 18 nor any of the other anthrax letters in the attacks was known to the public when the September 20 threat letter was sent. The writer of the September 20 letter, if he or she was an ordinary member of the public, could not have been “copying” any of the letters sent in the anthrax attacks.
It is true that already by September 20, 2001 fear of imminent anthrax attacks had been expressed in the news media, as indicated in Chapter 6, but there was little public discussion at this time about the sending of anthrax spores to media persons via letters (the Dark Winter exercise, for example, was not well known at this time). Dispersion of an agent through letters as a method of biological warfare is quite different from dispersion through the much-feared and much-discussed crop-dusters.
Quite apart from Ed Lake’s arguments, it is important to remember that the September 20 threat letter was part of a set of three. Don Foster, the university professor given access by the FBI to the letters, has pointed to the “same backward N’s and Russian quotes” used in the letters—surely not coincidental similarities. We can, therefore, say that whoever sent this set of letters established, via the repeated St. Petersburg postmarks, a Florida connection of the sort that would later become a vital feature of the actual anthrax attacks. Moreover, the person or persons who sent this set of letters also drew a connection to Judith Miller (one of the three St. Petersburg letters went to her address at The New York Times), and Miller was a key player over several years in the campaign to frighten the U.S. public with stories about Russia and Iraq as bioterrorism threats. Miller’s St. Petersburg letter allowed her to claim victimhood and helped make the book, Germs, published in early October of 2001, a bestseller.
For the above reasons, I regard it as very likely that the September 20 St. Petersburg letter was a component of the anthrax operation.
Notes to Appendix
- Ed Lake, “Hoaxes, Psychology & Barbara Hatch Rosenberg,” The Anthrax Attacks, July 6, 2003, http://www.anthraxinvestigation.com/HoaxVsReal.html.
- “Anxious About Anthrax: A Few Cases Do Not an Epidemic Make.,” Newsweek, October 22, 2001; Don Foster, “The Message in the Anthrax,” Vanity Fair, as Reproduced at: http://www.ph.ucla.edu/epi/ Bioter/messageanthrax.html, October 2003.
- See:http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/history/famous-cases/anthrax-amerithrax/the-envelopes-2; http://members.tripod.com/anthrax_hoaxes/ ANTHRAX_HOAXES/INDEX.HTML
- Foster, “The Message in the Anthrax.”