The Curse of the White Powder
How fake bioterrorism attacks became a real problem.
At first glance, the 53 letters mailed in October 2008 from Amarillo, Texas, to Chase banks around the country looked like the multitude of letters that companies and government agencies receive from regular people every day: addressed to the institution at large and not anybody in particular, an implicit sign of the power differential between hapless sender and indifferent receiver. The content of the Amarillo letters, however, was intended to invert this relationship, at least temporarily. The first of them was opened by an employee at a Chase bank in Norman, Okla., a little after 11 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 20. A white powder, soft as talcum, spilled out of the envelope, landing on the employee's desk. Inside was a typewritten note that read, in part, “It's payback time. What you breathed in will kill you within 10 days.”
The employee recoiled in alarm. Ever since letters filled with anthrax spores killed five people in the United States and sickened 17 in the fall of 2001, the discovery of white powder in packages and mail has come to evoke instant fear of a biological attack. The bank called 911, and police and firefighters rushed to the building. In short order, hazardous materials personnel wearing gas masks had arrived on the scene.
Almost simultaneously, a similar drama was unfolding at a Chase bank inside a supermarket in a Denver suburb, where another Chase employee opened an identical letter. When emergency responders ordered an evacuation, dazed customers abandoned their shopping carts in the aisles and checkout lanes to hurry out of the store. Inside, hazardous materials experts collected a sample of the powder and began running a series of tests to check for anthrax and other biological agents, as well as nuclear, explosive, and chemical threats.
By the middle of the afternoon, the Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate at the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., had received word of similar scenes playing out at more than a dozen other locations in Colorado and Oklahoma. The anxiety sparked by the letters died down within hours as field tests showed the powder to be harmless, although it would still take two to three days of further testing at regional labs to completely rule out a hazard. More letters postmarked at Amarillo continued to arrive over the next few days; one was cut open by a machine at a Chase card payment facility in Elgin, Ill., sending white powder swirling about the room.
In all, 64 addresses around the country had been targeted—including the U.S. government's Office of Thrift Supervision and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation—costing local, state, and federal agencies tens of thousands of dollars in resources and manpower deployed to respond to the scares. The specific motivation behind the letters would become clear only in the months ahead, but a link to the financial crisis was evident. The attacks were in effect an act of faux terrorism, a vengeful form of protest somewhere between a threatening phone call and outright arson. They were also a kind of criminal offense that federal law enforcement officials have sought to prosecute aggressively in recent years.
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No matter how benign it may be physically, a white powder packed into a letter or package has become in the post-9/11 world what you might call an interactive weapon: an ordinary substance transformed by fear into an agent of psychological warfare. In the decade following the 2001 anthrax attacks, white-powder hoaxes have proliferated into an epidemic in the United States, perpetrated in most instances to make a statement or exact revenge. There are more than 800 incidents reported across the country every year—involving baking soda, sugar, ground-up antacids, corn starch, baby powder, dried toothpaste and every other manner of white powder available. Although only a small percentage of these rise to the level of a federal investigation, the volume is large enough that the FBI's WMD Directorate—created to investigate WMD crimes—finds itself having to spend nearly 60 percent of its time on such cases.
The white-powder phenomenon arose in the wake of the 2001 anthrax mailings, which terrorized a nation already shaken by the strikes on Sept. 11. Hoax threats had of course been around for a long time – there were many occasions in the ‘90s when emergency responders had to evacuate courthouses following a verbal or written threat of a biological agent having been released in the building. White powder lent credibility to the hoax by leaving less to the imagination. “Now you actually had a substance that had to be tested,” Donald Alway, an FBI agent with the WMD Directorate told me. “It quickly gained notoriety because of the copycat factor.” Within a year of the original anthrax letters, there were 50,000 incidents. “We had to set up special call boxes to deal with the volume,” Alway said.
Yudhijit Bhattacharjee is a staff writer at Science magazine, and a contributor to the New York Times, the Atlantic, Wired, and Discover.