The Anthrax Attack

Review by Willard Manus

It was the most expensive case the FBI ever conducted – and the longest in its history. Nine years at a cost of ten million dollars was the final tally.

It was time and money well spent because someone was playing lethal games with anthrax, the deadly bacillus. That person had access to a lab and was sending a powdered extract of the germ to various targets in the USA. These ‘letters of death’ were sent to a congressman (Tom Daschle), an NBC-TV news show, and others with an attached note: “Death to America,” “Death to Israel.” Several fatalities were the result, especially among the office workers who first handled the letters.

Also affected were the workers at a Boca Raton post office where the letters had been sorted. Enough spores leaked out to kill two workers and cause numerous others to come down ill. The staff wanted the government to shut down the poisoned installation and decontaminate it, only to be told by the authorities that “there was nothing to worry about.” They were ordered to stay on the job – an error that eventually triggered a class-action suit that cost the government several million dollars.

News of the anthrax threat reached the general public, who reacted with understandable hysteria. All this happened in 2001, right after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. A terrified populace concluded that Al-Queda was also behind the mailings and had planned to kill millions of Americans. As a result many people rushed out, bought gas masks, and began wearing them whenever they went outside.

This paranoid story is recounted in THE ANTHRAX ATTACKS, a new documentary film directed by Dan Kraus. Essentially a who-done-it, the film traces the effort by the FBI to nail the anthrax culprits. Using archival footage, interviews, and re-created scenes based on transcripts, THE ANTHRAX ATTACKS tells an exciting tale, one that had a dizzying number of ups and downs as the FBI, led by an agent named Vince Lisa, fought against seemingly insurmountable odds to discover the guilty party.

Al-Queda was quickly ruled out, if only because that organization did not have the technical know-how or resources to grow the deadly Ames strain of the anthrax bacillus. This had to come from a highly sophisticated laboratory, of which there were only fifteen world-wide. That number was soon whittled down, for scientific reasons, to one or two labs in the USA.

One of those labs was Amrid, a top-secret U.S. government biological-warfare organization. The first suspect there was Dr. Stephen Hatfill, a scientist who was trying to develop an anthrax vaccine. The FBI, led at the time by Robert Mueller, went all out to try and make a case against Hatfill, subjecting him to endless interrogations, surveillance and harassment. No evidence would be found to convict him, though, and eventually he was exonerated, but by then the tormented Hatfill had suffered a nervous breakdown and committed suicide.

The next suspect was another anthrax expert, Dr. Bruce Ivens. He too was deemed “a person of interest” and was grilled and investigated for the next seven years as the FBI tried to build a case against him. Ivens kept insisting that he was innocent, but the Fbi kept after him. Just when they finally were ready to go to trial, Ivens died, leaving the question of his guilt up in the air.

“Circumstantially, I know he’s guilty,” said agent Lisa. “Technically, though, his guilt hasn’t been proven, so we will never be absolutely sure that he was responsible for the anthrax attacks.”
(Netflix films)


There is still time to catch the final days of the 18th annual South Eastern European Film Festival. Click on SEEFEST.ORG to find an ambitious program of films, videos, shorts, lectures and panel discussions.