Sunday, June 07, 2015

B'nai B'rith's Anthrax Hoax

April 24, 1997, USFA-TR-114, Fire Department Response to Biological Threat at B'nai B'rith Headquarters Washington, DC ,

The Duck and Cover...or, put your head between your knees, and kiss you-know-what goodbye.

Eight local and six federal agencies responded---so many personnel that the after-action report had a recommendation that states the "[f]ire and EMS agencies should maintain an operational command post separate from the unified command post," stretching the meaning of "unified" a bit, while at the same time a conclusion was reached that
[t]here was also a problem with an inadequate number of Hazmat personnel. The limited number of trained Hazmat technicians forced many of the personnel tasked with decontamination and entry operations to remain suited up 

Fire Department Response to Biological Threat at B'nai B'rith Headquarters Washington, DC, USFA-TR-114/April 1997
This is Report 114 of the Major Fires Investigation Project conducted by Varley-Campbell and Associates, Inc./TriData Corporation under contract EMW-94-C-4423 to the United States Fire Administration, Federal Emergency Management Agency.


On April 24, 1997, the District of Columbia Fire/EMS Department (DCFEMS) responded to the Washington, D.C. offices of B'nai B'rith, an international Jewish organization, for a suspicious package. The package had been mailed to B'nai B'rith and contained a Petri dish labeled with wording which led local emergency responders to suspect the package might contain Anthrax and Yersinia, both disease-causing bacteria that have been used as biological weapons. Several occupants of the building complained of dizziness and headaches, additional factors that indicated the possible presence of a chemical agent as well.

The DCFEMS established a perimeter around the site where the package was located, attempted to protect occupants of the B'nai B'rith building by isolating them in place, established a command post, and set up hazardous material decontamination procedures. After consultation with numerous national agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Biosafety Branch, responders engaged in Hazmat operations to secure the package and its contents, which were then sent to a Federal laboratory in Bethesda, Maryland. Laboratory tests revealed that the contents of the package were non-hazardous.

During the operation, DCFEMS decontaminated approximately 30 people for exposure, including civilians, police officers, and fire-rescue personnel. One security guard suffered chest pains during the incident and was transported to a local hospital for a heart attack following decontamination.

Though there have been several chemical and biological incidents over the past few years, this incident received National media exposure and was broadcast life on CNN and other news networks, generating discussions among emergency responders as to the actions that took place. Though the threat was a hoax, the incident revealed many lessons for the fire service to share in preparation for any future threats.


On April 24, 1997 at approximately 11:00 a.m. a person working for the Washington, D.C. office of B'nai B'rith discovered a suspicious looking package that was leaking a reddish fluid in the mailroom. The director of security for B'nai B'rith, a retired police officer, opened the package and found a Petri dish and a threatening note. He took the package and its contents outside the B'nai B'rith building and placed it on a small grass lawn. He then dialed 9-1-1 and requested police.

Some people in the building complained of headaches, dizziness, and other minor ailments. The rapid onset of these symptoms led responders to believe that the package might also contain some kind of chemical agent. An action plan was developed that treated the incident as a possible chemical hazard, as well as a biological one.

Initial efforts were made to contact Chemtrec (the Chemical Manufactures’ Association emergency information resource), the United States Army Medical Research Institute For Infectious Disease (USAMRIID) at Ft. Detrick in Maryland, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia. Chemtrec had no information to pass on to the fire department, and the responders had to wait for return calls from USAMRIID and CDC.

Once the Hazmat Task Force units were on the scene, E-16 and T-9 were returned to service. Other agencies responded, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Under Presidential Decision Directive 39 (PDD-39), which gives jurisdictional authority for "crisis management" to the FBI in terrorist incidents, the FBI assumed overall command of the incident.¹ This was done in a quiet and unassuming manner. The FBI Supervisory Special Agent in charge of the Joint Terrorism Task Force was present at the incident command post and offered assistance, as they simultaneously began a criminal investigation into the incident. Battalion 6 retained the key operational role in charge of mitigating the incident.
1 The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is given jurisdiction over "consequence management" in the same directive.
After some discussion over options, the fire department decided upon an action plan to shelter in place 109 civilians in the B'nai B'rith building. The fire department further isolated the scene, expanding the hot zone to include a one block area surrounding the B'nai B'rith building. Occupants of a hotel across the street from the B'nai B'rith building were also sheltered in place, and the HVAC systems for both buildings were shut down. At this time, approximately 1:05 p.m., the Metro/Safety Battalion Chief arrived on the scene, as did the DCFEMS Mass Casualty Unit. Additional responders included the deputy fire chief and the fire chief.

The CDC eventually provided information to the Hazmat team, advising them in protective measures and decontamination procedures. Based on the initial information, CDC surmised that the package might not pose a great threat because the form of the suspected contents (in a Petri dish) would not enable airborne pathogens to be transmitted immediately, if at all. However, since some occupants of the building exhibited various symptoms, Hazmat personnel decided to err on the side of caution, suspecting that a chemical agent might also be present.

The fire department Hazmat sector officer raised the protective level used by Hazmat personnel. Level A encapsulated entry suits were worn by entry personnel, and Level B suits were worn by the
decontamination team. The CDC advised that decontamination with a 1.0% bleach solution would be effective.

Additional resources arrived on the scene, including the DC Office of Emergency Preparedness (DCOEP), the DC Department of Health, and a liaison from the United States Secret Service Technical Security Division. Two Hazmat personnel were then dressed as an entry team, with two additional personnel dressed as a back-up team. The entry team, under directions from Federal experts on the scene, secured the package in double bagging and placed it in a five-gallon packing drum. The entry crew and the secured package were then decontaminated. The decontaminated package was turned over to the FBI, which transported it to the National Naval Medical Center in nearby Bethesda, Maryland, for laboratory analysis.

Personnel then waited for the results of the testing. During this time, a security guard in the quarantine area developed chest pains. He was carried on a chair through the decontamination corridor and then transported to a local hospital for treatment at 3:25 p.m. Also during this waiting period, several MPD officers became upset with instruction that they undergo decontamination. The officers had become aware that the media was broadcasting live pictures from cameras positioned on top of a nearby building. The officers refused to disrobe and undergo decontamination. One of the officers struck the EMS Lieutenant assigned to the quarantine area. High-ranking police officials were asked to help get the officers to comply with the procedures and, eventually, the officers were decontaminated. Firefighters were sent to check on the welfare of the civilians who had been sheltered in place.

Going Commando

Photo brought  to you by CNN's handy roof cam:

The DCFEMS Rehab Unit was brought in to provide a waiting area for decontaminated civilians and police officers. Kosher food was ordered and delivered for the civilians still isolated in the B'nai B'rith building. At approximately 8:00 p.m., almost nine hours after the package was first discovered, results of the analysis of the package revealed that no chemical or biological threat was present. A final press conference was held, the civilians being protected in the building were released. The fire department terminated operations at 9:00 p.m.
Few fire departments are prepared to handle the scope of a potential terrorist chemical/biological attack. The DCFEMS was able to utilize existing response plans and adapt their own Hazmat policies and procedures to deal with the scope of this incident. The fire department incident commanders made appropriate decisions based upon their knowledge of the perceived threat, and consistent with their training and experience. First responding fire units were staged at appropriate distances while the battalion chief and the Hazmat Unit sized up the situation. A hot zone was established quickly. Unfortunately, these efforts were compromised by a few MPD officers on the scene who did not understand the serious nature of the potential chemical/biological threat and treated the incident more as a bomb scare. These officers initially crossed in and out of the hot zone, and could have contaminated themselves and other personnel had this been a real incident.

DCFEMS personnel performed admirably given the limited amount of information provided regarding what might be contained in the threat package. The Hazmat task force units provided trained hazardous materials technicians and specialists to conduct mitigation operations. Initial responding units (Engine 16 and Truck 9) that did not have trained Hazmat personnel were placed in service as quickly as possible to cover responses to other areas of the city.

The department was able to effectively utilize general guidelines it had established only a few months prior to this incident (Appendix A).

Hazmat Operations The Hazmat operations were conducted in accordance with Nationally acceptable practices (OSHA 1910.120) for a fire department operating on the scene of an incident. It should be noted that, afterwards, some scientists and physicians expressed concerns as to how the department handled the contaminated package. These expressions ranged from comments that there was no real risk and the department's actions were overkill, to complaints that the process was not thorough enough. The fact is that the fire service personnel acted conservatively, after receiving diverse and contradictory information from many different sources. Personnel were presented with a leaking package containing an unknown substance, civilians who claimed to be symptomatic, and a threatening letter from an unknown perpetrator. The department operated after consulting the CDC, and (due to the perceived threat of a possible chemical or biological agent) increased the level of protection used by personnel. Hot, warm, and cold zones were established, and a quarantine area was set up for contaminated civilians and first responders.

Limitations in equipment did hamper operations. The lack of tents for the discreet decontamination of civilians forced several people to disrobe in front of television cameras. However, decontamination procedures have traditionally been targeted for the decontamination of fire service personnel and victims under emergency conditions. The department should not be faulted for the live broadcasts by local and National media which were beyond the fire department's ability to control. Many departments are, as a result, now taking the issue of the public's modesty into consideration in developing action plans for decontamination operations.

There was also a problem with an inadequate number of Hazmat personnel. The limited number of trained Hazmat technicians forced many of the personnel tasked with decontamination and entry operations to remain suited up or to rotate through assignments over a long period of time.

Communications were also difficult on several levels. Hazmat entry teams were forced to use hand signals because their suit radios did not function effectively. The team did not have enough cell phones, fax machines, or a computer to access information in a rapid and systematic fashion. The DCFEMS has made several steps to address these shortfalls (see Initiatives, below).
Protect-in-place or evacuate to a safe haven? – The review of this incident revealed disagreements between fire service responders and health service professionals at both the local and National level as to whether the occupants of the B'nai B'rith building should have been sheltered in place. Traditional fire service and Hazmat actions often lead to the isolation of an incident, including the protection in place of civilians. The DCFEMS followed this long established procedure in developing their action plan. Both the civilians in B'nai B'rith and in the hotel across the street were isolated and the HVAC systems were shut down.

Some health service providers disagree with this tactic for a biological incident. The contention among some health service experts is that people must be evacuated from a possibly contaminated area (in this case, the B'nai B'rith building) and moved to a safe haven where they can either be quarantined or treated prophylactically with medications or antibiotics. By isolating people in an unventilated and possibly contaminated area, the victims are in effect exposed to any toxic biological pathogen for an extended duration. The perception is that the people isolated in place have been effectively written-off by emergency response personnel. Some respected experts have even suggested that, because there is no true decontamination process for exposure to a biological agent, possible victims should be simply treated, observed, or sent home. The view is that – unlike chemical agents – unless a biological agent is present in an aerosolized form, transmission of the agent from person to person is less likely.

Further discussion and research is required on this topic. Ultimately, such decisions will be at the discretion of the incident commander, after conducting a thorough risk assessment based the unique nature each incident, to develop and decide upon the best course of action.

Initial reports indicated that several people were complaining of dizziness and headaches. Efforts were made to isolate and assess all people who might have been exposed. After the decon area was set up, these people were decontaminated and either held in a bus or in a quarantine area. The George Washington University Medical Center and the Washington Hospital Center were alerted of the situation and prepared to receive patients. Several personnel were evaluated and released from these hospitals; one patient was admitted to a hospital after suffering chest pains while waiting in the hot zone. More thorough interaction with the civilians protected-in-place in the B'nai B'rith building, (including possible prophylactic treatment with medications), might be a consideration in any future incident of a similar nature.
7. Biological agents present differently than chemical agents. Public health departments response plans should include the capability to recognize the differences and address biological and chemical attacks.

While this incident was properly handled as a local chemical/Hazmat situation, a biological weapon release would likely sicken and kill victims over the course of several days. Anthrax, for example, mimics flu symptoms and has a 48-72 hour incubation period. A biological attack would reveal itself in the form of many people coming into emergency departments or being transported to hospitals with flu-like symptoms, or worse. A chemical agent will likely cause immediate and localized casualties. Mechanisms should be developed and put in place for public health departments and EMS services to identify when they are dealing with exposures that could be related to a biological attack, as opposed to a chemical attack.

8. While Federal resources may be necessary to mitigate a chemical/biological incident, local public safety agencies will be the first on the scene. Advanced plans must be made for coordinated interagency and intergovernmental cooperation during response.

In this incident, civilian resources were effectively utilized to mitigate the incident. Military advisors were contacted for assistance, and military facilities were used to test the products. The FBI assumed its role without alienating fire/EMS personnel. The need for interagency coordination and cooperation is paramount, but it also must be remembered that the first responders will be uniformed civilian personnel: police, fire, and EMS. In most parts of the country, Federal resources will be deployed from distant locations requiring several hours to become operational.

1. Hazmat teams need special equipment to respond to these types of incidents.

Due to budget constraints beyond the control of DCFEMS personnel, Hazmat crews were hampered by some equipment shortages, notably tents to protect the privacy of people being decontaminated. Additional trained personnel, protective equipment, supplied-air breathing apparatus, and communications gear would have aided Hazmat crews.

2. A supply of vaccines and antibiotics should be available in stockpiles for responders and victims from a chemical or biological attack.

Stockpiles of nerve agent antidotes for chemical attacks, and medications for victims exposed to biological agents are only now being established. Vaccinations against some biological threats such as Anthrax are expensive and of yet unquantified value, though the military is inoculating many of its personnel. Treatment is available for many victims of bacteriological agents through prophylactic administration of antibiotics immediately after exposure. Limited treatments are available for those exposed to viral agents. Currently, it can take substantial time to collect and distribute the available medications and antidotes. Therefore, the identification of such resources should be an integral part of response plans.
What's the difference between a "bacteriological agent" and a "viral agent?"
11. Good public information is key for helping to maintain public confidence in emergency personnel and emergency organizations.

The terrorists' goal is to make people feel unsafe and unprotected. Successful public information management utilizes the media to relay important information to the public as well as to help solidify the public's confidence in the responding agencies. A technically competent person from the special operations groups involved should be assigned to explain technical operations in plain terms to the media.

The fire department PIO at such an incident needs to be supported with a technical expert to handle media inquiries in an appropriate fashion. Because of the lack of a technical spokesperson, the media turned to experts not directly involved for commentary. This practice encouraged people to speculate widely on what was occurring at this incident, and resulted in incorrect and conflicting information to be transmitted to the public.

14. Fire and EMS agencies should maintain an operational command post separate from the unified command post.

DCFEMS commanders indicated that they would establish a separate operational command post away from the unified command post on future incidents to facilitate fire/EMS operations. The command post at this incident was crowded and made smooth organization of the actual fire service operations difficult. Fire departments should have plans for their own command post area so they can effectively coordinate the strategies that are developed in the unified command post. Additionally, access to the unified command post should be limited to key incident management team members and liaisons from responding agencies. Security is necessary at the fire and unified command posts to restrict access.

16. First responders need affordable equipment to detect and characterize chemical and biological agents.

Devices and field test kits that are currently being developed for the military and Federal government should be made available to civilian first responders. Currently affordable technology is limited and some types are prone to false positive readings. More funding should be provided to develop promising technologies. The ability to detect the release of chemical and biological agents was recently identified as a priority in a survey of needs of State and local responders by the US Department of Justice.²


April 24, 1997: Fake Anthrax Received at B'nai B'rith DC Headquarters,

A package containing a petri dish mislabeled "anthracks" is received at the B'nai B'rith headquarters in Washington, DC. The choice of B’nai B’rith may be meant to suggest Arab terrorists, because the building had once been the target of an assault by Muslim gunmen. The letter is signed, “The Counter Holocaust Lobbyists of Hillel,” which is similar wording to a known Holocaust denier. The dish does not contain anthrax but does contain bacillus cereus, a very close, non-toxic cousin of anthrax used by the US Defense Department. There are similarities to the later real anthrax attacks (see October 5-November 21, 2001), such as misspelled words—"penacilin,” in the case of the post-9/11 attacks. In July 2002, B'nai B'rith will say the FBI still has not asked it about this hoax anthrax attack. [NEW YORK TIMES, 8/13/2002; VANITY FAIR, 9/15/2003]


April 24, 1997, CNN, Leaking package at B'nai B'rith makes people sick, Archived,
Web posted at: 11:06 p.m. EDT (0306 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- At least 17 people were taken to hospitals after a package leaking an unknown liquid was discovered at the international headquarters of the B'nai B'rith Jewish fraternal organization.

The package and its contents were placed in sealed containers and taken to the Bethesda Naval Research Facility for examination.

Police say labelling on the package indicated it contained anthrax, a dangerous biological warfare chemical, but they added that testing has shown that is not the case.

The package was labeled as possibly containing a chemical or biological agent. It was accompanied by a letter of several pages, signed by an organization no one recognized, FBI sources told CNN. That name was not released.

The package was leaking liquid when it was discovered late Thursday morning by mail clerks. Two people who came in contact with the liquid reported feeling ill, and complained of headaches. They were taken to a hospital for treatment and were reported in stable condition.

A spokeswoman at George Washington University Hospital said at least 15 to 18 other people exposed to the package were going to be examined and were decontaminated as a precaution.

Authorities sealed off several blocks of Massachusetts Avenue, a main Washington artery, and briefly evacuated the building housing the organization's offices. A B'nai B'rith spokeswoman said there were fewer than the normal 100 employees in the building because of the Passover holiday.

The FBI was assisting other officials in tracing the movement of the package before it arrived in Washington.

At the White House, about a mile away, officials were monitoring the situation but taking no unusual precautions.

Washington Bureau Chief Frank Sesno contributed to this report.

April 24, 1997, CNN, FBI: Leaking package at B'nai B'rith not life-threatening,Web posted at: 11:35 p.m. EDT (0335 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- More than 100 people spent hours in quarantine after a package leaking a foul-smelling red liquid was discovered Thursday at the international headquarters of the B'nai B'rith Jewish service organization.

Police and firefighters wearing hazardous-protection suits cordoned off a two-square-block area and kept those inside the building from leaving. Traffic was snarled on Massachusetts Avenue, a main north-south thoroughfare, after part of it was closed.

The FBI was investigating the incident as terrorism, and was helping trace the movement of the package before it arrived in Washington.

After laboratory tests allayed initial fears that the suspicious substance might be a deadly toxin, the workers -- and several children -- finally were told they could go home.

"It is not life-threatening, but we still have not determined what it is," said Thomas Pickard, head of the Washington field office of the FBI.

The package and its contents were placed in sealed containers and taken to the Bethesda Naval Research Facility for examination.

The label on a broken petri dish found in the package was inscribed "antracis yersinia," authorities said. Anthrax, which is caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis, is a deadly disease, and Yersinia pestis is a bacillus that causes Bubonic plague. Initial tests were negative for anthrax and a number of other biological agents.

The package was accompanied by a letter of several pages, signed by an organization no one recognized, FBI sources told CNN. That name was not released.

The package was leaking liquid when it was discovered late Thursday morning by mail clerks. Two people who came in contact with the liquid reported feeling ill, and complained of headaches. They were taken to a hospital for treatment and released a short time later.

Fifteen to 18 others, mostly law enforcement officers, were forced to strip down to their underwear outside the building and were hosed down with decontaminants as a precaution.

At the White House nearby, officials monitored the situation but took no unusual precautions.

Washington Bureau Chief Frank Sesno and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

April 26, 1997, Washington Post, FBI Alerts Jewish Organizations After Scare at B'nai B'rith Office

WASHINGTON — The suspicious package discovered Thursday at B'nai B'rith--sparking an hours-long chemical-hazard alert that closed several downtown streets--was sent by someone claiming to be associated with a group called the Counter Holocaust Lobbyists of Hillel, according to the FBI Joint Terrorist Task Force.

The task force sent an advisory to Jewish organizations across the country Friday describing the package as a 5-by-10-inch, brownish, bubble-lined envelope containing a cellophane-wrapped petri dish and a threatening letter.

According to the advisory, the "rambling" two-page letter, which was typed and unsigned, called the package a "chemical weapon" and derided Jewish liberalism and the Jewish community in general.

Federal authorities have not disclosed the identity of the red, gelatin-like substance in the petri dish, but they have said it is not toxic. The postmark began "MA," and the rest was indecipherable, the advisory said.

David C. Friedman, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, said Friday that he had never heard of Counter Holocaust Lobbyists of Hillel.

Sidney M. Clearfield, executive vice president of B'nai B'rith, called for an investigation into what he called the District of Columbia's lack of preparedness and training for such an incident.

"It is inexcusable for police and fire personnel, in a city which is so vulnerable to terrorist incidents, to not have the highest level of training and appropriate resources for dealing with situations as potentially deadly as this," said Clearfield, who was held hostage in the B'nai B'rith building 20 years ago during a siege by Hanafi Muslims.

FBI officials said they were generally pleased with the city's response, which they called quick and appropriate.

The incident began Wednesday, when a package arrived at the B'nai B'rith world headquarters in downtown Washington. The building was closed Tuesday and Wednesday for Passover, but mail clerk Rusty Mason came in to sort mail.

Mason, who is trained to look for suspicious packages, put it aside because it was addressed simply to "B'nai B'rith" with no department specified, and he couldn't read the postmark. By Thursday morning, when he looked at the package again, a red liquid was oozing from the envelope, and it was emitting an "ammonia-type" odor.

Mason contacted Carmen Fontana, the chief of security, and about 10:30 a.m., they placed the package in a wastebasket and put it on the lawn. Then they called 911.

April 28, 1997, CNN, FBI: B'Nai B'rith package threat an apparent hoax,

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- "No disease causing organisms" were present in a suspicious package discovered at B'Nai B'rith Headquarters in Washington last Thursday, the FBI said Monday.

Tests conducted by Naval Medical Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, concluded only common micro-organisms normally found in the environment were discovered in the broken petri dish recovered from B'Nai B'rith.

The FBI said Navy scientists worked over the weekend to be certain there was nothing dangerous in the petri dish.

A letter that accompanied the package had claimed dangerous biological agents were present in the dish. That prompted authorities to seal off the area around the building and quarantine employees for hours until initial testing showed the incident was apparently a hoax.

July 15, 2005, Wiley Online, Anthrax Hoaxes: Case Studies and Discussion, by Monterey WMD-Terrorism Database Staff,


Archived, diigo,
ADL, Anthrax Hoaxes: 1998-1999

The total number of anthrax hoaxes probably cannot be accurately measured, but they numbered well over a hundred during the peak period of October 1998 through February 1999. It was a vicious cycle. The media duly reported on each event, causing more anxiety and more hoaxes, especially in Southern California, where for some reason the hoaxes really caught on.

In April 1997, an anthrax hoax was directed at the international headquarters of B’nai B’rith, the well-known Jewish organization, in Washington, D.C. B’nai B’rith received an envelope in the mail that contained a petri dish with an unknown substance and a letter that contained rambling statements aimed at Jewish liberalism and the Jewish community, as well as a reference to anthrax. The letter purported to be from the "Counter Holocaust Lobbyists of Hillel." The reaction by police was swift but harsh: four B’nai B’rith employees were taken outside, stripped to their underwear, and decontaminated with a bleach-water spray in full public view in front of photographers. Meanwhile, more than 100 other employees were quarantined in the building for eight hours until authorities decided the substance was not dangerous (since anthrax is not contagious but can be inhaled in enclosed spaces, this measure was certainly misguided, as it potentially increased the employees’ risk). A few months later, an anonymous source sent a fax to a variety of news organizations around the country, warning that terrorists planned to poison urban water supplies with botulism and anthrax, causing anxiety in several cities.

In March 1998, a collection agency in Phoenix received an anthrax threat by mail, resulting in the quarantining of ten people and the evacuation of several buildings (a Maricopa County public health biologist expressed doubt that anthrax attacks could even be carried out through the mail, because whoever contaminated such a letter would contaminate him or herself, as well as the post office where it was mailed; "If we see a bunch of postal workers suddenly sick in the next couple of days, we’ll know," he said). The perpetrator was later discovered and arrested.

Meanwhile, in Texas authorities discovered a rented vehicle with a canister inside that was marked "anthrax." It was not long before the floodgates were opened. In August, authorities in Wichita, Kansas, had to evacuate a state office building after someone left an envelope in a stairwell, along with a note claiming the building had been contaminated by anthrax. The perpetrator of the Kansas incident then sent a demand letter to fringe radio personality Art Bell in Nevada that contained anti-government rhetoric and demanded money. Both letters claimed to be from the "Brothers for the Freedom of America" and the "Christian Identity Movement." In October, a Denver-area family received an envelope with a towlette and a note claiming anthrax contamination. By the end of the month, abortion clinics in a number of states in the Midwest had begun to receive anthrax threats with Cincinnati postmarks.

Victims of anthrax hoaxes, both during the 1998-1999 episodes and again in 2001, have tended to fall into four categories:

Government Employees, Agencies and Buildings

Such threats have been directed against state, local, and federal buildings in many different areas of the country. In Calabasas, California, a telephoned anthrax threat in December 1998 caused 90 people to be temporarily quarantined. Later that same month, an employee at the federal building in Rochester, New York, had to undergo decontamination procedures after opening a letter with an anthrax threat. Two weeks later, the Tualatin City Hall in Tualatin, Oregon, had to be shut down for two days because of an anthrax threat.

The main post office in Columbus, Georgia, received a letter in February 1999 telling employees that they had been exposed to anthrax; meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., authorities had to respond to packages allegedly containing anthrax that had been sent to the Washington Post building and the Old Executive Office Building. Five days later, the State Department received an anthrax letter. The likelihood that some of these and other anthrax threats directed against governmental targets were ideologically motivated is high.

Abortion Clinics

Soon after the tactic of anthrax hoaxes emerged, extreme opponents of abortion seized upon the measure as a way to interfere with the operation of abortion clinics and to harass, humiliate, and intimidate workers and patients. When workers at an Indianapolis Planned Parenthood clinic opened a powder-filled envelope allegedly containing anthrax, emergency crews shut down the clinic, set up a tent outside, then stripped and scrubbed employees and patients (as well as firefighters, police officers, and one postal worker). The perpetrator targeted at least nine abortion clinics in four states with this hoax.

A January 2000 report from the Feminist Majority Foundation, which tracks abortion-related violence, revealed that 39 abortion clinics nationwide received anthrax threats in 1999, with the majority of such incidents occurring in the Midwest and Northeast. Many of these threats came in February 1999, when 30 clinics received envelopes bearing a Lexington, Kentucky, postmark.

Overall, the number of hoaxes in 2000 declined from 1999, but still affected 7 percent of all abortion clinics. In the first two weeks of January 2000, more than 30 clinics in 22 states received anthrax threats, all of them located in the eastern half of the U.S. The nature of the anti-abortion anthrax threats, especially their precise geographical targeting (against the eastern half of the U.S.), suggests a conscious campaign by a dedicated group of extremists rather than a collection of copycat incidents. The threats also provoked one wave of reactive counter-threats (directed against Catholic institutions and a few anti-abortion activists).


Most anthrax threats involving schools have been malicious pranks rather than being ideologically inspired. Such threats have disrupted school settings and caused considerable harassment and embarrassment to teachers and students because of the decontamination procedures conducted by emergency crews, often with little regard for the dignity of potential victims. In December 1998, for instance, a mailed anthrax threat to a Riverside, California, school district building caused authorities to quarantine, then decontaminate 21 people (including a postal worker and two firefighters), in a tent set up outside the building. "It was the most humiliating thing I’ve ever been through," school superintendent Antonio Arredondo, Jr., told reporters. "I had to strip down naked, and they sprayed all of us down with a bleach solution and then hosed us down with water afterward." That was the third hoax in Riverside County in as many months.

Threats against schools were common, and for the most part were probably a direct result of the media attention given to anthrax. In Anaheim, California, an anthrax threat at a high school caused a quarantine of students and teachers for three hours in January 1999; two weeks later in Newfane, New York, a high school had to be closed for a day while hazmat teams were called in (a student was later arrested for this incident). Anthrax threats against schools occurred in all parts of the country; in some areas they were part of a series of anthrax threats made against a variety of local targets. In Buffalo, New York, for example, a series of threats occurred in February 1999 against the town hall, the town library, and various schools. One school threat shut the institution down for ten and a half hours.

Other Threats

The total number of threats made was truly high and encompassed a bewildering array of victims, some of whom were surely targeted at random or because of personal grudges on the part of the perpetrators. A few examples illustrate the range of such incidents, as well as the anxiety and personal frustrations that they routinely caused. In Palm Desert, California, in December 1999, 200 shoppers were hosed down with bleach after an anthrax threat at a department store. Five days later in La Quinta, California, hundreds of Wal-Mart customers were evacuated and detained after an anthrax threat.

That same month in Pomona, California, nearly 800 people were quarantined for hours in a nightclub following an anthrax hoax. In January 1999, anthrax hoax victims in California alone included a car dealership in Los Angeles, a Target department store in Cathedral City, a pizza restaurant in Palm Desert, and a hospital in Los Angeles, among many other targets. It is difficult to comprehend the fear induced in customers who one minute were going about their business and the next minute forced to strip down in a public parking lot to be hosed off with bleach and put in a "decontamination suit."

The period 1995-2000 resulted in America inadvertently telegraphing to the entire world, as well as to dissidents and malcontents within its own borders, how vulnerable the American psyche was to the threat of anthrax, to say nothing of the American critical infrastructure.

The 2001 Outbreak: New Hoaxes and Public Anxiety

Although the anthrax hoaxes peaked in 1998-1999, they never entirely disappeared, as the abortion clinic incidents illustrate. The government emphasis on the extreme threat of anthrax terrorism coupled with the intense media coverage of events like the Larry Wayne Harris arrests and the anthrax hoaxes themselves created an intense national anxiety about biological warfare that culminated with the October 2001 national anthrax crisis.

The crisis began in Boca Raton, Florida, where Robert Stevens, a 63-year old photo editor for a tabloid newspaper, was admitted to the hospital in early October and later diagnosed with inhalation anthrax. He died on October 5. Three days later officials announced that Ernesto Blanco, a 73-year old mailroom employee in the building, had anthrax spores in his nasal passages. Moreover, spores had been found on Stevens’ computer keyboard. On October 10, a third person was hospitalized and the case became a federal criminal investigation.

With startling rapidity, anthrax contaminated letters then showed up in Washington, D.C., and New York City, with political leaders and media figures being the primary targets. Postal workers in facilities that had handled anthrax-contaminated letters began testing positive for—and dying of—the disease.

Almost as soon as the anthrax incidents began occurring, a second wave of anthrax hoaxes commenced. The victims in this second wave were much the same as in the first: government buildings, abortion clinics, schools, and a variety of miscellaneous targets. Some of the hoaxes, such as the abortion clinic hoaxes, gave every indication of being as planned and as purposeful as those in the first wave. Others have been opportunistic or impulsive. One example is the disturbing case of a Los Angeles fire captain arrested for sending a threatening letter with a suspicious powder to a law firm that had represented his ex-wife during their divorce (the letter did not use the word ‘anthrax’). Only weeks before, the captain had served with a crisis intervention team at the World Trade Center following the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The perpetrator or perpetrators at this point of the actual anthrax incidents are completely unknown (as is the identity of most of the hoaxers). The main lines of speculation point fingers at international terrorists on the one hand and domestic extremists on the other. At first, "expert" speculation concentrated on possible international connections, not surprising in light of the September 11 terrorist attacks and the trauma they are still causing, as well as the puzzling coincidence involving the wife of an employee at the Boca Raton building attacked by anthrax who brokered rental apartments for two of the September 11 hijackers.

More recently, perhaps simply because of a lack of additional clues or evidence, speculation is leaning toward a domestic source. However, the possibility of a non-ideological criminal perpetrator cannot be ignored, either.

Though the identity of the perpetrator remains unknown, the intent seems to be much clearer. America’s first anthrax terrorist event was designed to cause terror, not mass casualties. An anonymous figure mailed anthrax-laden letters to several strategically selected destinations. This is a poor way to cause mass casualties: the number of people likely to be exposed to the agent is limited; the recipient has every chance of becoming suspicious of the letter and not opening it in the first place; and an envelope containing anthrax is probably most likely to cause cutaneous anthrax, the most diagnosable and treatable form of the disease. The perpetrator may or may not have thought about the possibility that spores might leak through the envelopes and contaminate the postal system.

The fact remains that the anthrax incidents so far have not caused mass casualties.

What these incidents have caused, and what it seems certain that they were intended to cause, is panic and fear. In every city and town across the country, frightened citizens have contacted public health authorities and law enforcement about suspicious powders they have seen, including sometimes items such as spilled laundry detergent found in their own homes. Some municipalities have experienced hundreds of calls. Many citizens are afraid to open the mail at work or at home, even though the possibility that someone may have mailed them anthrax remains overwhelmingly low.

The result of the recent incidents, as well as the attendant hoaxes, which provide a "force multiplier" effect, is that Americans are being targeted with a particular terrorist tactic precisely because in recent years the nation demonstrated that it is uniquely vulnerable to such an attack. The nation was vulnerable not in terms of critical infrastructure or public health infrastructure, but rather psychologically. Regardless of whether the perpetrator will turn out to be linked to international terrorism, to a domestic anti-government or hate group, or to an unaffiliated psychopath, constituents of all three categories can hardly help but have noticed our continued vulnerability in this area.



(Sidney Clearfield)

May 2, 1997, JWeekly, Questions lingering after bizarre mailing to B'nai B'rith, by Matthew Dorf , Jewish Telegraphic Agency,

The episode was over, but questions were just beginning as Jewish organizational officials were left to assess the motive behind the threat and the handling of the emergency situation.

The announcement by Clearfield, B'nai B'rith's executive vice president, at about 8:30 p.m. on April 24 ended an ordeal that began when a B'nai B'rith mail clerk discovered an envelope leaking a red gelatinous substance from a petri dish that the sender claimed was an agent of "chemical warfare."

The dish was labeled with a misspelling of anthrax, a highly toxic biological agent.

Hazardous material experts arrived at the downtown office building to remove the envelope, which also contained a suspicious and threatening anti-Semitic note, according to B'nai B'rith officials.

The incident, which is being investigated as domestic terrorism, spread beyond the headquarters of the international service organization. Chaos descended as reporters rushed to the scene and police cordoned off a five-block radius around the building, snarling evening rush-hour traffic and trapping people in adjacent office buildings, a restaurant and at least one hotel.

When tests at the Naval Medical Research Institute determined that the substance was not harmful, Clearfield announced that the quarantine was over.

But the questions continued.

Citing conversations with law enforcement personnel who had tended to the emergency and had expressed their own concerns about lack of training to deal with such a situation, B'nai B'rith officials complained that the nation's capital was not equipped to deal with such an incident.

"It is inexcusable for police and fire personnel in a city which is so vulnerable to terrorist incidents to not have the highest level of training and appropriate resources for dealing with situations as potentially deadly as this," Clearfield said.

He specifically cited the lack of proper suits and decontamination equipment needed to hose down some of the employees who were exposed to the potentially hazardous material.

He also expressed anger that the decontamination took place in the open, leaving two of his employees shown on national television being hosed down in their underwear.

B'nai B'rith has called for a federal investigation to determine if the police are prepared for such incidents.

Ironically, B'nai B'rith, which has been involved in anti-terrorism efforts abroad, also unsuccessfully lobbied Congress to include in last year's anti-terrorism bill a provision allowing military personnel to assist local law enforcement and FBI agents in the event of a chemical or biological incident.

"This incident needs to be a wake-up call for our government," Clearfield said.

Last week's threat to B'nai B'rith came to an institution with unusually tight security.

After the 1977 siege, when 12 Black Muslim extremists seized the B'nai B'rith building and two other buildings not affiliated with Jewish organizations, B'nai B'rith implemented strict security measures.

Of the 134 hostages held in the 1977 attack, 107 were held in the B'nai B'rith building. That siege ended peacefully after 39 hours.

Although the site of last week's incident was the same, the situations were very different.

"In 1977, we were in an immediate life-threatening situation, with people holding guns to our heads and hitting people with rifle butts and their fists," Clearfield said.

"This time we were at our desks, waiting and worrying."

Although Jewish hostages were not singled out during the 1977 raid, anti-Semitic epithets were hurled frequently at the group.

This time, police believe that the Jewish group was targeted.

The substance came in an envelope with a two-page typed letter that identified the sender as the "Counter Holocaust Lobbyists of Hillel," according to the FBI.

The letter was anti-Jewish and included non-specific threats, according to Clearfield, who saw the letter at a private FBI briefing.

Clearfield confirmed that the letter included a reference saying that the only "good Jew is an Orthodox Jew," but cautioned that this was "a single phrase among many."

The letter also included references to Nazis, the Holocaust and Hillel, the Jewish college organization, but did not mention B'nai B'rith specifically.

"It's a crazy letter," Clearfield said. "It didn't make any sense."

As the situation began to return to normal at the building that also houses the Washington offices of the Council of Jewish Federations, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, law enforcement officials began trying to identify the sender of the package.

At the same time, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service said it would pre-screen all mail addressed to Jewish community organizations in New York, according to the FBI.

Meanwhile, speculation about the source of the threat continued.

Initially, Clearfield said he would have "bet money" that the package was related to Passover.

The incident occurred during Passover, which is associated with the blood libel myth, the ancient anti-Semitic allegation that Jews murder non-Jews, especially Christians, to obtain blood for holiday rituals.

"When I first heard that there was red liquid dripping from the package, I thought it was related to the blood libel," Clearfield said.

But with no reference in the letter to Passover, Clearfield dismissed his earlier conjecture.

Many in the building were thinking of Passover during the ordeal.

With the employees having gone without food since noon, police allowed B'nai B'rith volunteers to drop off gefilte fish, matzah, cream cheese and cookies for dinner.

After they left the building, many staffers said they were concerned during the episode, but did not believe they were in danger.

"Once I heard that the petri dish had been labeled, I thought that a terrorist would not be so silly to label the contents of his petri dish," said Leila Barcony, a project assistant at B'nai B'rith's Center for Jewish Identity.

Copyright Notice (c) 1997, San Francisco Jewish Community Publications Inc., dba Jewish Bulletin of Northern California. All rights reserved. This material may not be reproduced in any form without permission.


October 9, 1996, JTA, B’nai B’rith: Southern Baptists Still 'dont Get' Jewish Concerns,

A senior Southern Baptist Convention official has charged that Jewish opposition to the denomination's recent focus on evangelizing Jews is rooted in fund raising rather than fear.

The international president of B'nai B'rith, which has recently engaged in a war of words with the Baptists over the issue, called that charge "utterly distasteful" and untrue.

Jewish outrage was widespread after the Southern Baptists, the largest Protestant denomination in America, adopted a policy statement June 13 resolving to "direct our energies and resources toward the proclamation of the Gospel to the Jewish people."

The resolution stated that the time is right for such an emphasis in part because of "evidence of a growing responsiveness among Jewish people."

A broad range of Jewish and Christian groups and leaders condemned the Southern Baptists’ focus on Jews for evangelism.

B'nai B'rith International sent out a piece of direct mail about the resolution to 100,000 homes.

The mailing, which was also a solicitation for funds, included a protest postcard addressed to Morris Chapman, president of the Southern Baptists’ executive committee.

In response, a sea of those postcards has flooded the Nashville headquarters of the Protestant group.

William Merrell, the Southern Baptist Convention’s vice president for convention relations, said the group had received more than 5,000 of them.

The postcard enclosed in the B'nai B'rith mailing read, in part: "The outrageous Southern Baptist Convention resolution advocating an active program of converting Jews to Christianity is both condescending and contemptuous.

"This profoundly disrespectful action demonstrates a basic lack of respect for Judaism as a sister religion.

"I strongly urge its immediate repeal."

Merrell said it is "not at all likely" that the resolution will be repealed, and that the resolution and its intent had been purposely misrepresented by B'nai B'rith and other Jewish groups.

"Some used the resolution as an occasion for their own agenda of fund raising, Merrell charged in a telephone interview from his Nashville office.

The fact that the B’nai B’rith mailing took the form both of an action alert and a solicitation for funds makes the Jewish group’s motivation suspect, he said.

"Well-informed people have known for a long time that Southern Baptists believe that evangelism is important, and when the motive is as badly represented" as it was after the resolution was passed, he said, "it causes me to believe that it's knowing and orchestrated."

"I don't understand the shrill alarm, frankly," Merrell said.

Responding to the charge, International President of B'nai B'rith Tommy Baer said his group's opposition to the resolution "long predated anything designed to raise funds."

"They apparently just don't understand our perspective," Baer said. "They just don't get it."

Baer was equally concerned by a letter sent by the Southern Baptists to the B'nai B'rith members who had protested.

In that letter, Chapman encouraged the protesters "to take note of numerous congregations of 'Messianic Jews' in the United States and Israel who celebrate their Jewish culture and historic religious rituals as well as their devotion to Messiah Jesus."

Chapman wrote that "the resolution does not suggest or imply that Jewish people should forsake their Jewish identity or Jewish values."

Citing parts of the Christian Bible that, according to Southern Baptist belief, require evangelism, Chapman wrote that their theology, "coupled with love and goodwill for all people, culminates in the earnest desire that our Jewish friends know Jesus as the Messiah."

Baer read Chapman's letter as an attempt to encourage Jews to check out Messianic Judaism.

In a letter to Chapman, Baer wrote, "We cannot accept your response to B'nai B'rith's concerns over the Southern Baptist Convention’s resolution."

"To target the Jewish community as a special quarry for conversion is to trample over the trust and mutual respect that lies at the foundation of our pluralistic society," wrote Baer.

Another B'nai B'rith official said he is pleased with the number of people who have sent in the postcards.

Now the Southern Baptists "know that somebody is aware of what is going on, that they have been recipients of a lot of anger and they're aware that the action they have taken is looked on with great disfavor by members of the Jewish community," said Sidney Clearfield, B'nai B'rith's executive vice president.

"We want to keep reminding them," he said, though he added that there are no additional plans in the works to do so.

B'nai B'rith International claims 350,000 members in 56 countries.

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