How Fake Bioterrorism Attacks Became a Real Problem

The state of the universe.
Jan. 30 2012 12:03 PM

The Curse of the White Powder

How fake bioterrorism attacks became a real problem.

White powder hoaxes.
White-powder hoaxes might be an act of "faux terrorism" but they are still costly in terms of time and resources for law-enforcement agencies

Hemera/Thinkstock.

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.

* * *

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.

The tsunami died down eventually, but the idea of white powder as ammunition had taken root, a new expression in the dictionary of the disgruntled, the annoyed, the enraged and the anarchic. Today, hardly a week goes by without an anthrax scare at a government office or a business, an individual residence or a public place. Agents at FBI's field offices and the WMD Directorate find themselves reacting to the incidents paradoxically, with a mix of tedium and high alert. “Every time we get a call, it evokes a sense of 'here we go again,'” Vahid Majidi, a chemist who heads the WMD Directorate, told me. At the same time, he said, officials must respond to every white-powder attack as a potential terrorism threat.

Most white-powder hoaxes are themselves a reaction to situations ranging from the merely irksome—like receiving junk mail from a company—to the deeply troubling. Angry spouses have used fake anthrax as a tool of revenge, as have individuals out to settle a score with an employer or an abusive boss. In many instances, white powder letters are a way to make a political statement. “Every year around tax filing time, people annoyed with the tax system will send their returns back with white powder and hate mail to the IRS,” Michael Varacelli, an FBI special agent, told me. When the stimulus package was passed by Congress in 2009, there was a spike in white-powder mailings to lawmakers and government officials. The health care debate in 2010 generated another big wave.

Inmates of state prisons have been known to send white-powder letters to acquire a federal charge, so that they might be transferred to a federal prison, where conditions are better. Occasionally, the hoaxer is simply looking for attention, as was the case involving an aspiring rap artiste who placed envelopes filled with white powder on the windshields of 30 vehicles in a hospital parking lot in Miami in April 2009. Each had a smiley face on the back, and a note inside that said “define anthrax.” The hospital was shut down for 12 hours when somebody discovered the envelope and brought it inside the building. The FBI tracked down the perpetrator, 19-year-old Jerron Moffitt, and an accomplice a few days later. “Ultimately, what it came down to was that the individual was looking to work his way into jail to earn some street credibility as a rapper,” Greg Tarbert, an FBI agent who helped with the case, said. The plan evidently worked: In July, 2009 Moffitt was handed down a three-year prison sentence.

The price exacted on victims of white powder hoaxes is at a minimum a few hours of anxiety while field tests are completed. During this period, it is not uncommon for victims to develop psychosomatic symptoms like itching, burning, and shortness of breath—the opposite of a placebo response. Some are put on antibiotics as a precaution before conclusive lab results come in, which can take two days or longer. “Even if the field screening tells you with a 98 percent certainty that it is baking soda, to the victim that almost means nothing,” Alway told me.

* * *

Three days after the first Amarillo letters were received, the United States Postal Inspection Service announced a $100,000 reward for information that could help find the sender. The FBI assigned the case to a special agent in Texas named John Whitworth, who had in the months prior investigated a much rarer, real WMD case involving the attempted sale of a large consignment of cyanide bricks.

Whitworth quickly learned what the different entities targeted by the attack—JPMorgan Chase, the Office of Thrift Supervision and FDIC—had in common. The link was Washington Mutual or WaMu, a bank that had grown into the country's largest savings and loan association over the prior decade before collapsing in the weeks before the letters were sent out. OTS seized WaMu on Sept. 25, 2008 and placed it under the receivership of the FDIC, which then sold it to Chase for a price so low that WaMu shares were rendered nearly worthless.

Whitworth eventually traced the letters back to a 48-year-old man named Richard Goyette who worked at an Albuquerque power plant and lived in a trailer. A shareholder of Washington Mutual, Goyette lost $65,000 when WaMu was sold. FBI agents arrested Goyette on Feb. 1, 2009, as he was about to board a flight from Albuquerque to Chicago, where he was to interview for a job. “He told us that when he first got upset about the Washington Mutual deal, he tried to address it by sending letters to his Congressman and the FDIC, and he was very disappointed with the boilerplate responses he got,” Whitworth said. “He got very frustrated and angry and decided to lash out.”

Goyette saved money compulsively, living like a broke college student rather than somebody who owned stock worth tens of thousands of dollars. He didn't indulge even in small luxuries, making spaghetti on the weekends and eating leftovers the rest of the week. Even in executing his plot, Goyette showed a remarkable thriftiness. After typing the threatening notes and addresses on a computer at the University of New Mexico, he saved the files on a thumb drive and drove to Central New Mexico Community College to print them because printouts would cost a few cents a page at UNM but were free at the other campus. Back at his trailer, he put on gloves and scooped out some ant killer powder from an old container he had lying around.

I asked FBI agents if finding and punishing hoaxers like Goyette was helping to stem the tide of such incidents, or if it was simply making white-powder hoaxes a bigger drain on government resources than they would otherwise be. Could it be that the time spent by law enforcement in tracking down perpetrators of a white-powder hoax would be seen as an added incentive by those looking to commit the crime?

No one would give a clear answer to that question, but agents explained that ignoring hoaxes or hoaxers was not an option for the government. “We have to look at every white powder letter as the next big Amerithrax attack,” the FBI’s Mike Varacelli told me. “There’s really no way to rule that out unless you go through the first 72 hours of response.” He also did not doubt that punishing hoaxers was worth the effort. “It has acted as a significant deterrent,” he said.

Moreover, the FBI’s Don Alway said, hunting down the perpetrators was important for those who had opened the hoax letters. “If the victims perceive themselves as having been attacked, often they as the victim want to see justice prevail,” he told me. “They don’t want it whitewashed. They went through days or weeks of not knowing whether they were exposed, taking unneeded antibiotics. There may not have been a biological agent, but a crime has still been committed.”

Indeed it had. On June 4, 2009, Goyette was sentenced to 46 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to two counts of making a threat and perpetrating a hoax. He was also ordered to pay about $88,000 in restitution to fire departments, hazardous materials teams, and other responders. Coincidentally, the judge who ruled in the case had herself been the target of a white powder letter in 2002, sent by a prison inmate that she had sentenced previously. All that letter did was earn the inmate some additional years in prison.

Yudhijit Bhattacharjee is a staff writer at Science magazine, and a contributor to the New York Times, the Atlantic, Wired, and Discover.