October 14, 2001
Fear Hits Newsroom in a Cloud of Powder
By JUDITH MILLER
It looked like baby powder. A cloud of hospital white, sweet- smelling powder rose from the letter — dusting my
face, sweater and hands. The heavier particles dropped to the floor, falling on my pants and shoes. An anthrax hoax, I thought.
My mind had been on something else. At my desk at The New York Times, I was already focused on what I thought was going
to be the story of the day: the Bush administration's effort to seize the assets of more people and groups it said supported
terrorism. It was after 9:15 a.m. on Friday, and Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill would soon begin discussing the list of
39 additions to his agency's roster of rogue financiers of terror. I was on the phone, talking to Jeff Gerth, my colleague
and friend, about the article we were planning to write. As we spoke, I was picking my way through the pile of unopened mail
beside my computer.
I had been getting many letters since Sept. 11. Some were complimentary; others were angry about the government's failure
to protect Americans from terrorism. But most writers wanted to know how they could protect themselves and their families
from bioterrorism, having seen two colleagues and me on television discussing our book, "Germs: Biological Weapons and America's
Had I not been distracted, I probably would not have opened the stamped letter in the plain white envelope with no return
address and a postmark from St. Petersburg, Fla. My sources and I had been discussing the threat of anthrax attacks ever since
the death of a man this month who contracted an inhaled form of the disease at a newspaper office in Boca Raton, Fla. —
not far from where one of the hijackers of the Sept. 11 attacks had done his flight training.
But I wasn't thinking. I was rushed, absorbed in my work, and only half paying attention to the mail.
The powder got my full attention. I immediately asked the reporters and editors around me to call security. I didn't
want to touch the phone.
They looked alarmed. It's O.K., I told them. It's probably just a hoax.
Just then the phone rang. Instinctively, I pressed the headphone button. It was a source. Had I heard, he asked, about
Tom Brokaw's assistant? She had contracted anthrax from powder in a letter she opened in late September.
The envelope, he said, had a Florida postmark.
Calm down, I thought. It's still probably a hoax. But when The Times security officials arrived — promptly —
I was relieved to see that they were carrying a plastic garbage bag and wearing gloves. As I moved away from the desk, they
gingerly placed the letter and envelope in the bag, and sealed it, along with the glove that had touched them. Perfect, I
As I washed my hands and tried to dust off the powder that clung to my pants and shoes, I thought about what Bill Patrick,
my friend and bio-weapons mentor, had told me: anthrax was hard to weaponize. To produce a spore small enough to infect the
lungs took great skill. Bill knew that firsthand. He had struggled to manufacture such spores for the United States in the
1950's and 60's as a senior scientist in America's own germ weapons program, which President Richard M. Nixon had unilaterally
ended in 1969.
Growing anthrax that would penetrate the skin — cutaneous infection, it was called — was less difficult,
though still not easy.
That's why Bill had been very concerned when he heard about the Florida case. Whoever had done this had been able to
produce the tiny spore of roughly one to five microns that could enter the lungs.
The other cases, Bill told me, could well have involved a larger spore that was cut with baby powder or another substance
to mask the deadly pathogen with a smell that was reassuringly familiar. Anthrax itself had no smell. And it was almost never
By now, I was no stranger to this deadly agent. My education had started with Bill Patrick's demonstration of how easily
anthrax could be slipped past airport security. Bill had shown me how the fine powder in the small vial he kept on his desk
dissolved like magic into the air when the vial was shaken and poured. Since 1998, I had been touring the laboratories and
plants that had been part of the Soviet Union's vast germ empire. I had visited the decaying laboratories in once secret cities
and interviewed some of the tens of thousands of Soviet scientists who had worked to perfect mankind's most vicious, efficient
killers. I was now familiar with the stench of such places — the haunting mix of bleach, dust, animal waste —
the smell of death.
The research had terrified me at first. Not even the terrorism I had covered as a Times correspondent in the Middle East
in the 1980's had so unnerved me. But I had remained, through it all, detached from the reality of my often awful subjects.
To do our work, journalists had to be. We were trained to be the cool, professional observers that our business requires and
Yet now I was no longer covering a story. I was the story.
Returning to my desk, I was determined to remain calm. Or at least appear calm. If my exquisitely observant colleagues
felt that one of their in-house experts was frightened, they, too, might lose their professional cool.
Had The Times planned for such an emergency, I would have been isolated from my colleagues and the potentially deadly
letter. But like most organizations, we had not conducted drills for a biological or chemical attack. So a senior editor and
friend put his arm around me and went with me to the medical department on another floor. When I returned, concerned colleagues
and editors also rushed to my side. Someone brought a cup of tea for me. They, too, are now taking Cipro.
Within 20 minutes of the incident, almost a dozen law enforcement officials from almost as many agencies had arrived
in the building, each with its own idea of what to do. While the newsroom floor was evacuated, photographs were made and tests
conducted at my desk by police officers, many of them in tan head-to-toe bio- suits with gas masks. I stayed with them to
show them where the powder had fallen and where I went after I had opened the letter. I shall never forget the sight of these
moon men moving through our normally bustling, now empty newsroom, silent save for the ringing of unanswered phones.
They began questioning me almost immediately. Whom did I know in Florida?
Had I been there recently? Did I usually open my own mail? Was there a reason for someone to want to send me such a letter?
Could I describe the powder; where and how had it fallen? I knew they were checking to verify the particle size. The joint
terrorism task force officers, dressed in civilian clothes, were polite, professional and clearly concerned. So was Don Weiss,
the doctor who headed a surveillance unit of New York City's Department of Health Communicable Disease Program.
Calm, reasoned and well informed, he answered questions from reporters and editors, many of whom had by then drifted
back into the newsroom. He and his team stayed with us most of the day, taking swab samples from our noses, dispensing Cipro
to those who were at risk and answering the questions all of us had about the situation in New York.
Several times, he was called away to the phone.
At 6 p.m., I started writing my part of the Treasury Department article for the Saturday paper.
By Saturday evening, it was still unclear whether the powder contained anthrax. Two preliminary tests had come back negative
and a third definitive test seemed to suggest that the powder was benign.
But I was sure of one thing: similar letters had been sent to a nationally distributed supermarket tabloid published
in Florida and to NBC, and now one had been sent to The New York Times. Maybe there was anthrax in my letter, or maybe there
It almost didn't matter. What did matter was that this was a relatively inexpensive way to spread maximum terror without
having to solve the technical challenges of spreading the disease widely. Whoever did this had spread panic with only a few
anthrax spores, or perhaps only baby powder, and the price of a few stamps.