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In October 2001, a month after the September 11 attacks, a series of letters filled with a deadly powdered bacteria called anthrax landed on the desks of prominent journalists and politicians in New York City and Washington, DC. The anthrax in those letters killed five people. 17 others were infected. It was the worst act of bioterrorism in american history, and the weeks and months around those attacks unsettled american society in a truly profound way. I was living in New York City at the time of the anthrax attacks, working in media for a major magazine publisher in the same zip code as NBC News, Fox News, and what was then known as Time, Inc. Publisher of giant titles like Time, Sports Illustrated, and people and the fear those letters spread. The idea that you could die just by opening the mail is one of my most visceral memories of that time. The days after 911, when it seemed like the whole world had been turned upside down.


I remember talking to friends I had back in Indiana four or five days after 911, and how you guys doing out there? And they go, what are you talking about? We went back to normal the next day. It didn't impact them directly.


Jim Rice was head of the FBI's domestic response team in DC at the time. This was the bureau's quick reaction squad, made up of expert biologists, hackers, bomb diffusers, divers, you name it. Whatever the crisis was, Jim was ready to respond.


This was different because it involved the mail system, the postal system. Everybody's got a mailbox. Everybody gets mail. This brought the threat of terrorism home to, I think, the american public in a way that 911 even could not. People who lived in slippery Rock, Arkansas, were not concerned that terrorists were going to fly a plane into the local civic center. However, they were really concerned that they might get something in the mail.


Most people these days remember the anthrax attacks and all the finger pointing that followed.


Mr. Ben Laden is an evil man. We're making sure that we're connecting any dots that we have to find out who's doing this. The gravity of this moment is matched by the gravity of the threat that.


Iraq's weapons of mass destruction pose to the world.


But fewer people remember the FBI's investigation into the attacks in all its costly rabbit holes, damaging leaks, and embarrassing mistakes.


If the FBI does not have me as a person of interest, then what does it have? What it has is a stalled investigation.


I needed to prove I was innocent. Not that they needed to prove I was guilty, but I needed to prove I was innocent.


If there was a PTSD, it's not from the raid. It's from those events.


And almost no one remembers this press conference in 2008, seven years after the mailings.


As the department indicated last week, and has been widely reported, substantial progress has been made in the Amerithrax investigation in recent years.


When the FBI announced on national television that they had finally caught the killer, an american scientist named Bruce Ivans. Dr. Bruce Ivans was a scientist at A-U-S. Army biowarfare lab and one of the world's foremost anthrax experts. For years, he'd worked with the FBI on the case, but now they were claiming that Dr. Ivans, the very person who'd once helped them investigate the attacks, was actually responsible for them.


We are confident that Dr. Ivans was the only person responsible for these attacks. We are now beginning the process of concluding this investigation. Once this process is complete, we will formally close the case.


But Dr. Ivans was never charged with the crime, and that's because a week before the announcement, he killed himself.


Dr. Ivans died of an overdose on July 29, 2008, and at the time of his death, was the sole suspect in the case.


Publicly naming a suspect after his death was highly unusual for the FBI. They never had to try their case in court, and Dr. Ivans would never be able to defend himself. A fundamental civil right and a pillar of the american criminal justice system, innocent until proven guilty.


And yet we had been in conversations with his attorneys regarding the direction of the investigation because we believed that based on the evidence we had collected, we could prove his guilt to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.


The FBI claimed that if Bruce Ivans had lived, their case against him would have been a slam dunk. They thought closing the case posthumously would put a period at the end of one of the longest, most complex cases in FBI history. But instead, it left a question mark that's lingered ever since. From campsite media and Sony Music Entertainment, I'm Josh Deen, and this is cover up the anthrax threat, a story about how a few letters changed America and about what happens when the FBI believes you're a terrorist. Basically, you're completely screwed. You should not know his name.


Think about it. They can lie about. Yeah, they can lie about you.


Who will give me my name back? Who will clear me?


We're happy to take some questions.


Welcome to True Spies, the podcast that takes you deep inside the greatest secret missions of all time.


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You'll meet the people who live life undercover. What do they know? What are their skills, and what would you do in their position?


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True spies from Spysgate Studios, wherever you get your podcasts, if you're looking for.


A smoking gun, I can absolutely guarantee.


You you will not find it. In October 2001, a series of letters filled with a deadly powder called anthrax were dropped into the US mail system. What started as an unprecedented case turned into an unsettling mystery. Who sent these deadly letters, and why? From campsite media and Sony music Entertainment, I'm Josh Dean, and this is cover up season four, the anthrax threat, available now. Our story begins with the FBI's most tragic existential crisis.


The night of 911. I got home about midnight, and I remember pulling into the garage and just having this tremendous kind of emotional release. Became very teary eyed just with the realization of the profound failure.


Rick Lambert was an agent in the bureau's San Diego field office. At the time. He was one of the few people working in counterterrorism operations.


Our job, our job number one, was to protect the american people from terrorist attack. And we didn't do know. The numbers weren't in yet, but I knew that thousands of people had know. I think that's the only time in my FBI career that just emotionally overcome to the point of being dysfunctional. I had to sit there for a few minutes to regain my composure.


The FBI had just faced its most devastating failure. Its job was to keep Americans safe. And now 3000 people were dead. Buildings were burning in New York and DC. This put the Bush administration's focus squarely on the FBI and its director, Robert Mueller, who'd only been on the job for a week when the towers were hit.


I want to start by saying that the men and women of the FBI joined the nation in expressing our deep sympathies for the victims of these horrific tragedies. Let me turn, if I could for a moment to the effort that we have undertaken at the FBI to investigate these tragedies.


For nearly a century, the FBI focused on mostly white collar and violent crime like bank robberies, fraud, and homicides. Suddenly, pretty much overnight, the bureau had a new priority. Thousands of agents across the country were reassigned to prevent one specific kind of crime. Terrorism. That's crazy, though, that everybody was diverted. That's one of our producers, Ben Robbins.


Yeah. Every single agent was. Whatever cases they were working on, they stopped because we had hundreds of leads coming in to the office that had to be run out to determine, is this really a threat? And it took every agent in the office to do that. If I'd known, I would have robbed.


A bank in October of 2001.


You would have had a really good chance of getting away with it. You really would have. The biggest concern in the immediate aftermath of 911 was, what's the next attack? What are they going to do next?


But when the next attack came, it didn't look anything like we.


I was like, God, I'm a kid. I'm psyched. I'm opening Tom Brokaw's mail. This is the cooler.


Casey Chamberlain was fresh out of college, working in NBC Nightly News in New York. One of her jobs was opening the mail. So any letter addressed to news anchor Tom Brokaw went through Casey first. She was used to reading a lot of weird know.


There are people that were like, God, your tie is so ugly. Why did you talk about this story? You're such an idiot. Or, you're so amazing. Or they ran the gambit of, like, love, hate, everything.


But there's weird mail and then there's scary mail. About a week after 911, something came across Casey's desk that spooked her.


I opened this letter that looked like it had been either written by a child or somebody know was very inept at writing. It was kind of a small envelope, and it had this substance in it which looked like it was a cross between brown sugar and sand and powder. I took the substance that was in it. I didn't even think, or I wasn't thinking what it might actually be in terms of being something super dangerous. And I shook it into the trash can. It was really disturbing. Like, it's either something really just meant to instill fear, know, create that illusion, or it really is something really dangerous.


Not long after Casey woke up with a fever and a cough, I could.


Feel something literally running through my entire body, like top to bottom, all my veins. I felt like total crap. My throat and my glands were huge. It was like I was a football player with no neck. And I thought, oh, my God, what the hell is wrong with me?


Casey called in sick. She saw two doctors, but neither one could diagnose what was wrong, so they sent her home. Around the same time, ER doctors in Florida were standing over a man who had the same symptoms, only he was in even worse shape, in a coma and on a ventilator, unable to breathe on his own. He was dying quickly, and doctors had no idea what was killing him. At the end of September 2001, a guy named Bob Stevens took some time off work so he and his wife could visit their daughter in North Carolina. They took hikes in the Smoky mountains and spent days fishing in streams and ponds. On the drive back to Florida, his wife noticed that he had a bit of a cough. He told her not to worry, but.


Around 01:00 in the morning, she found him awake, confused, in the bathroom, leaning over the toilet bowl, actually vomiting. So she got him up and brought him to JFK Medical center, which is in their vicinity, and he walked into the emergency room.


That's Dr. Larry Bush. He was head of infectious disease at JFK Medical center in West Palm beach and an expert in rare pathogens. The ER doctors called him in when they couldn't figure out what was wrong with Stevens. He had a high fever, his lungs were full of fluid, and he was drifting in and out of consciousness. Pretty soon, Stevens had to be put on a ventilator. Doctors ordered a spinal tap. Whatever was making Stevens sick, they'd see traces of it in his spinal fluid. In a healthy patient, it's crystal clear. But Steven's spinal fluid, his was wall to wall organism. What Dr. Bush saw scared him. The density of bacteria in Stephen's spinal fluid meant it was replicating at a massive scale throughout the body, much faster than you'd see with common infections like staph or E. Coli. By now, it had made its way into his liver, spleen, kidneys, and his brain. Under a microscope, the bacteria had a distinct rod shape. Dr. Bush had only seen this in textbooks, never in the field. It was bacillus anthraxis, a tiny and terrifying little organism that most of us know by its more common name, anthrax.


If you get anthrax on the outside of your body, you get these ugly black lesions wherever it touches your skin. It's alarming, but it's almost always treatable. But if you inhale this stuff, you may as well start saying your goodbyes, because by the time you even realize you're sick, it's probably too late. Your organs will shut down, your lymph nodes will swell up, and the lining of your brain fills with blood. There's almost nothing modern medicine can do for you. Dr. Bush immediately alerted public health officials. The next day, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You know it as the CDC sent investigators to determine exactly how Bob Stevens got infected. It didn't take long for the news to break.


One Florida man is in the hospital with anthrax. They say the case is isolated, and there's no evidence the illness is linked to terrorism. Anthrax bacteria are not spread from person to person.


There are a few ways you can get infected with anthrax. The first is exposure to a natural source. Anthrax lives in the dirt and normally only infects animals like sheep and cattle. It rarely infects humans, but when it does, it's usually ranchers and leather tanners, people who come into contact with infected animals. The last case in Florida before Bob Stevens was back in the 1970s, when someone came back from Haiti with a drum made from an infected goat skin. There's another way to get anthrax that doesn't involve livestock or animal skins, and that's if the anthrax has been dried, purified, and packaged into a bioweapon, like a bomb packed with powder, a crop dusting airplane, or a sealed envelope. Anthrax had never been used as a bioweapon on us soil, but it was a threat Americans were familiar with in the had gone to war against Iraq for the first time. There was evidence back then that Saddam Hussein had stockpiled anthrax, weapons that he was prepared to use on american troops. It never happened, but the threat was in the news. So much for so long that the word anthrax was basically seared into the minds of Americans back home.


And since Bob Stevens was infected just weeks after the worst attack on american soil since Pearl harbor, during a period of extreme paranoia, when many Americans were sure additional attacks were imminent, the White House worried that the public would panic. So they had Tommy Thompson, the secretary of health and human services, hold a press conference.


Good afternoon.


The Centers for Disease Control has just confirmed the diagnosis of anthrax in a patient in a Florida hospital. Based on what we know at this point, it appears that it's an isolated case. I want to make sure that everybody understands that anthrax is not contagious. If it is caught early enough, it can be prevented and treated with antibiotics.


Given what you know, is there any reason to believe this is a result of terrorism?


It appears that this is just an isolated case. There's no evidence of terrorism.


Stevens was just a middle aged dad in Florida, not an obvious target for a bioweapon. But the FBI got on the case right away. There was no way the bureau was going to let another potential terror attack go undetected. So they sent agents from the Miami field office to collect samples of Steven's spinal fluid and sent those samples off to Paul Kim, a genetic scientist at the University of Arizona, by private jet.


The next day, I get this voice message. The sample is in the air. It'll be there, like, in 4 hours. It was like, whoa.


Paul met the plane on the tarmac.


And the stairway comes down, and this woman gets off, kind of a blonde woman carrying a box. She comes down and goes, well, here's the anthrax.


Paul needed to figure out what specific strain of anthrax was killing Bob Stevens. Even though bacillus anthracis is considered a single species, there are hundreds of different genetic variants of it. If you can figure out what strain you're dealing with, it can tell you a lot about where it came from and the sort of damage it can do. The first step is to essentially generate a fingerprint of the sample. So Paul spent two full nights in the lab running assays and genomic tests until he had an id.


And once we get that, we take the fingerprint and go back into the computer and see if it matches anything. So we compared that pattern from Stevens to the database, and it came up matching this laboratory strain called the Ames strain. And that was chilling.


Ames, one of the deadliest strains scientists had ever seen. Derived from a cow that had died of anthrax in Texas in 1981, the Ames strain had been duplicated and shared between labs again and again over the last three decades, becoming a centerpiece of scientific and biodefense research into anthrax. Paul understood the implications immediately.


If it had just been an OD natural strain out there, it would have been one thing. But when it came up to be one of the most widely used in the know, all of our kind of suspicions that this was a terrorism attack were really reinforced.


The Ames discovery undermined the possibility that Stevens had been exposed to anthrax by some natural source. It sure seemed like someone had intentionally targeted Stevens. But sadly, nothing about the Ames revelation could save him. On October 5, 2001, four days after his wife noticed a cough, after his lymph system had carried the deadly bacteria throughout his body, causing massive internal bleeding, toxic shock, pneumonia, a coma, and nearly 35 hours of severe respiratory distress, it.


Is truly with a saddened heart that I tell you that as of 04:00 p.m. This afternoon, Mr. Robert Stevens, the individual who was afflicted with anthrax, has passed away.


The anthrax had so decimated Stephen's body that the autopsy would reveal his entire chest cavity was just one big pool of blood. Stevens'death really intensified the pressure. The FBI had only half the puzzle so far. They knew Stevens had been deliberately infected, but they still didn't know how until the CDC got another call.


Later on that night, they get a call from Cedarse Hospital, which is 60 miles south of us, where Ernesto Blanco is hospitalized on a ventilator with a severe respiratory disease and multisystem failure. Turns out he's the male delivering person at the AMI building.


AMI, or American media Incorporated, was the South Florida based publisher of the National Enquirer and a bunch of other famous tabloids. Stevens had worked for AMI as a photo editor in their headquarters outside Miami. He'd been there for years and was perhaps best known for the National Enquirer's famous cover photo of Elvis lying in his coffin. As soon as the CDC made the connection between Stevens and Ernesto Blanco, they shut down the AMI building and swabbed it from top to bottom. The mailroom, Blanco's mail cart, and Stevens'desk all tested red hot for anthrax. This much was clear. The anthrax had come through the mail. Except they couldn't find the letter that carried the spores. Mail is a big deal for AMI. With headlines like Clinton's love child and JFK crash cover up, it's only natural that readers are going to write and write and write. In fact, AMI got so much mail that the building had its own zip code, 33464. And to keep people from dumpster diving in their parking lot, AMI incinerated its mail, which meant there were no trash bags for investigators to dig through. In other words, it was too late.


The FBI had no chance of recovering the letter that presumably killed Bob Stevens. Eventually, everything in the AMI building would be destroyed out of fear of contamination. Lunchboxes, flowers, family photos, even the original print of Elvis in his casket, valued at more than a million dollars. Ernesto Blanco recovered after three weeks in the hospital, but he couldn't offer any additional clues. For investigators, it seemed like Blanco was collateral damage. Inhaling anthrax was simply an occupational hazard of working in the mailroom. So the FBI was still baffled. Why would someone send anthrax to a tabloid photo editor like Bob Stevens?


At that point, we really didn't know why Bob Stevens was a victim, and so that had to be pursued. Was this something personal? Where know sending a letter directly to him to try to hurt him individually as Bob Stevens? Or is this some sort of a.


Terrorist attack without a murder weapon or any physical evidence, the FBI had no way to answer that question. But then investigators caught wind of a mysterious case more than a thousand miles away. A staffer working for Tom Brokaw at NBC Nightly News in New York.


Good evening. Tonight we find ourselves in the unusual and unhappy position of reporting on one of our beloved colleagues, a member of my personal staff who has contracted a cutaneous anthrax infection. The source of this infection remains a mystery. The FBI is now investigating it as a criminal know, one day I woke.


Up and I'm like, I just don't feel right. And then when I looked in the mirror at my throat and my chin and my neck, I'm like, God, they're enormous. And I just kind of knew that there was something wrong with my body.


Casey Chamberlain was lucky. After three days, her swollen glands, sore throat, and fever all cleared up. She shook it off, went back into the office, and didn't think much of it until weeks later when her boss called and said, the FBI wants to talk to you, and there's a black.


Car waiting for us. Nobody even knew. We just hopped in the back. And at the meantime, the ticker on the Today show know, like, anthrax NBC. And I'm like, what the hell?


Casey wasn't the only person at NBC who'd been sick. Tom Brokaw's assistant had come down with similar symptoms and tested positive for anthrax exposure. So when the FBI heard about Casey, they brought her in for questioning. On the hunch that there might be a connection, they asked if she'd gone camping recently or visited a farm or if there was any way she might have been exposed to anthrax.


It was scary. They weren't purposely accusatory, obviously, but they're agents. Their job is to let me just bang this out and get this person to talk and figure this out. So, yeah. Did I feel like I had done something wrong? Yes, but I don't think that was their intention.


Casey had no idea what to say. Then she remembered the letter that had come across her desk weeks earlier, which.


Nobody remembered and nobody knew about. I told them, well, you know, I opened this letter, like, a week after 911, and it's in a stack of mail on Tom's assistant's desk.


Thanks to Casey, agents were able to track that letter down in the NBC offices. It was dated September 11, 2001, in shaky handwriting. In all caps, it said, this is next take penicillin. Now death to America. Death to Israel. Allah is great. Just days after NBC employees were infected, workers at CBS and the New York Post were also diagnosed with anthrax. The whole country, and especially the media, was on alert. Dan rather went on David Letterman's late night show and broke down in tears. The New York Post ran one of its infamous tabloid covers, a picture of the editorial assistant who opened the anthrax letter, holding up her infected middle finger. The headline was anthrax this. With the entire nation still reeling from September 11, New York was under attack again. And if history was going to repeat itself, Washington, DC could be next. This season on cover up the anthrax.


Threat, they tell us, oh, you're heroes. You're heroes.




A hero walks down the street, sees a burning building, and says, I have a choice. Let me run in there and save that child that's looking out the window. That's what a hero does. But what they did, they put us in the building that was on fire and said, you guys are heroes.




A hero has a choice. They didn't give us a choice.


Don't want to wait for that next episode. You don't have to unlock all episodes of COVID up the anthrax threat ad free right now by subscribing to the Binge podcast channel. Just click subscribe at the top of the COVID up show page on Apple Podcasts or visit to get access wherever you get your podcasts. As a subscriber, you'll get binge access to new stories on the first of every month. Check out the Binge Channel page on Apple Podcasts or to learn more. Cover up the anthrax threat is hosted by me, Josh Dean. The series was created and produced by Ben Robbins. It was written by Rajiv Gola and Ben Robbins. Our senior producer is Emile Klein, additional production by Abukar Adon and Natalia Winkleman. Emily Martinez is our story editor and executive producer. Our theme song was created by Ira Wolf Tooten. Sound designed by Ewan Leitremuan and Bart Warshaw with support from Emile Klein. The series was fact checked by Jordan Reed and Callie Hitchcock. Special thanks to David Shin and Sue Zizza at Radio Wave studios and also to our operations team, Doug Slaywin, Ashley Warren, and Destiny Dingell. Campsite's executive producers are me, Josh Dean, Vanessa Gregoriatus, Adam Hoff, and Matt Scherr.


If you're enjoying the show, please rate and review it on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. It helps other listeners find the show and maybe recommend it to a friend while you're at it. Thanks for listening. See you next time.


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