Visit to the Postal Museum I: Echoes of Anthrax

Not so long ago, I visited the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, it was very interesting – I recommend it highly – and I’ll write more about it elsewhere, but something dramatic jumped out at me during my visit.

In the exhibit on the Postal Inspection Service however, something grabbed my attention.

The Postal Inspection Service is the law enforcement agency dedicated to protecting the mail. Lots of interesting stuff happens in and through the mail. Criminals mail illicit stuff to one another, fraud is carried out through the mail. There was the Unabomber.

And there was the Anthrax attack. For many this is a footnote in a truly mad period of time in our nation’s history. Such a terrible thing had happened just before and so much awful has happened since. The anthrax attacks don’t fit neatly in the narrative, carried out by a deeply disturbed individual for motives that appear – at best – obscure. But seeing the exhibit was a sharp reminder of what a big deal it was when it occurred.

As it happened, I was on Capitol Hill that day (trying to hand out resumes and schmooze.) Since I had friends there, I brought my wife and infant son (great move in retrospect) but he was quite a hit with many of the staffers. We were fine of course, but when I got the flu a few days later it was terrifying. (I flew a United flight to LA just days before 911 and the DC sniper was all too close to my neighborhood.)

As a student of national security decision-making, the anthrax attack had a disproportionate effect on the worldview of U.S. leaders. 9/11 was – as much as anything that has ever happened – like a stunning moment out of a movie. Everyone’s worldview changed very quickly and dramatically. Just weeks later, the shock remained, the wound was so very raw and open. Every conversation was still about 9/11 and suddenly yet another crazy thing – some thing out of Hollywood – happened.

AND we had NO idea who did it (it was years later, after false starts and a complex investigation, that the mystery was solved – and there are still questions.)

After 9/11 the administration vowed to not let this happen again. The term became the 1% doctrine. That is if there was a 1% chance a crazy terrorist plot could happen, we had to treat it as virtually certain. In retrospect this is a highly problematic worldview. But 9/11 itself was a 1% and it happened

On September 10, 2001 an intelligence analyst with a strong suspicion (but not certain evidence) that four planes were going to be hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center, and Pentagon and the White House would not have been taken seriously. On 9/12 his suspicion would have received an airing at the highest levels.

Everyone was pondering what al-Qaeda would do next, what else did they have in store?

Then, there were the anthrax attacks, using a biological agent, seemingly state sponsored. Did al-Qaeda have WMD capabilities? Was it in league with a state that had such capabilities? Was some other adversary taking advantage of American weakness and disorder? Was it an effort to test U.S. capabilities or undermine our resilience? Was it carefully planted “noise” to obscure the signal of a coming attack?

All of this seemed possible.

Prior to 9/11 Vice President Cheney had run a Homeland Security Task Force, directed by his chief of staff Scooter Libby to look at the biological terror threat. They found an effectively disseminated biological attack could quickly kill tens of millions. Cheney had spent a fair amount of his career thinking about disaster scenarios.

In retrospect, the anthrax attack was noise – not signal. But it sure didn’t feel that way in the White House. In retrospect, it would be great to have an independent advisor who could help parse this out. But distinguishing signal from noise is art, not science. It is always obvious in retrospect but rarely at the time when very busy people wrestle with hard problems – and after 9/11 – worry that a mistake will cost thousands of lives.

Hopefully, future students of national security decision-making will remember the anthrax attacks and draw lessons in how to interpret events around them. But history suggests they won’t. When future historians write about the early 21st century, hopefully they will remember this seemingly obscure event and consider how it moved decisions and maybe history itself.

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