What is anthrax and could have the largest bioterrorism event in United States history been avoided? Many are not quite sure what anthrax is and what the 2001 attacks speculatively committed by Army scientist Bruce E. Ivins before he committed suicide were really about. Most importantly, could they have been prevented by better psychological monitoring?

First, what exactly is anthrax? Anthrax is an acute disease caused by the bacterium bacillus anthracis. Most forms of the disease are lethal, and it affects both humans and other animals. There are effective vaccines against anthrax, and some forms of the disease respond well to antibiotic treatment.

Anthrax spores can be produced in vitro and used as a biological weapon. Anthrax does not spread directly from one infected animal or person to another; it is spread by spores. These spores can be transported by clothing or shoes. The dead body of an animal that died of anthrax can also be a source of anthrax spores.

The virulent Ames strain, which had been used in the 2001 anthrax attacks has received the most news coverage of any anthrax outbreak. The Ames strain contains two virulence plasmids, which separately encode for a three-protein toxin, called anthrax toxin, and a poly-glutamic acid capsule.

Could have the 2001 attacks been avoided? The Army scientist believed responsible for the 2001 anthrax letter attacks that killed five people and crippled mail delivery in parts of the country had exhibited alarming mental problems that military officials should have noticed and acted on long before he had a chance to strike, a panel of behavioral analysts has found as reported by the Los Angeles Times.

The panel continues:

"(The anthrax attacks) could have been anticipated and prevented. Ivins was psychologically disposed to undertake the mailings; his behavioral history demonstrated his potential for carrying them out; and he had the motivation and means."

Ivins, 62, a microbiologist with expertise in cultivating anthrax, died July 29, 2008. He had taken an overdose of Tylenol PM as federal prosecutors prepared to seek his indictment for murder.

The anonymous, anthrax-laced letters, sent to news organizations and two U.S. senators in October and November 2001, raised fears of a second wave of terrorism after the Sept. 11 hijackings. Anthrax that leaked from one of the letters forced the closure of a Senate office building for three months. Fear of further contamination prompted a six-day shutdown of the House of Representatives and disrupted operations of the Supreme Court.

The panel faulted Army officials for making no effort to debrief any of the psychiatrists or counselors who met with Ivins before the fall of 2001 or thereafter. Nor did the Army pursue questions raised by Ivins' annual disclosures of aspects of his medical treatment.

Looking into Ivins' history, Ivins supposedly became obsessed with Kappa Kappa Gamma in the 1960s, when a member of the sorority turned him down for a date. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Ivins twice burglarized houses affiliated with the sorority.

The panel continues:

"Information regarding his disqualifying behaviors was readily available in the medical record and accessible to personnel had it been pursued under mechanisms that existed prior to and after 2001."

Among the circumstantial evidence against Ivins was his eagerness to bring to market a new anthrax vaccine, of which he was a co-inventor, and his decades long fixation with the college sorority Kappa Kappa Gamma, whose office in Princeton, N.J., was adjacent to a mailbox where Ivins is believed to have deposited anthrax-laced letters. The mailbox was the only one where investigators found anthrax spores that matched the attack material.

Again, according to the LA Times, the panel concluded:

"Despite criminal behavior and sabotage of his colleague's research. Dr. Ivins was hired by The United States Army Medical Research Institute and received a security clearance, allowing him to work with potential weapons of mass destruction."

For a complete description of the United States' Military Disqualifications, click HERE.

Written By Sy Kraft, B.A.