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The Anthrax Attacks: Inside the bioterrorism events that tormented the US shortly after 9/11

Netflix’s love affair with ‘docutainment’ began long ago—with the platform currently boasting an eclectic catalogue of binge-worthy documentaries and docu-series, all poised and ready for your viewing pleasure. From Abducted in Plain Sight to Cyber Hell: Exposing an Internet Horror, there are few stories that have slipped through the cracks and avoided the streaming giant’s eagle-eyed production team. Its most recent venture, however, is none other than a thrilling documentary dissecting the 2001 US Anthrax Attacks that shook the nation, killing five people and infecting 17 others.

The Anthrax Attacks is a feature-length documentary, commissioned by Netflix, that investigates one of the worst biological attacks in US history. Through a combination of interviews and dramatic scenes, the documentary re-examines a series of Anthrax assails that took place one week after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks.

Directed by oscar-nominated Dan Krauss and created by the BBC studios Science Unit, the documentary provides a chilling portrayal of the FBI investigation that took place following the first horrific attack on 4 October 2001.

Krauss, when speaking to the BBC, said: “This was a sprawling and massively complex story, one that required an adventurous approach in our filmmaking. The team at BBC Studios was fearless in meeting the challenge head-on, attacking every obstacle with impressive skill and care.”

The highly anticipated documentary was released on the streaming platform on 8 September 2022. But before we proceed any further, here’s all the background info worth noting.

What is Anthrax?

For those of you who may not be aware, Anthrax is a serious infectious disease caused by gram-positive, rod-shaped bacteria known as ‘Bacillus anthracis’. According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Anthrax can also be used as a biological weapon. If a human is exposed to the deadly bacteria, the Anthrax can become “activated”—causing it to multiply, produce toxins and result in severe illnesses.

What is ‘Amerithrax’?

For several weeks following the 9/11 attacks, anonymous letters laced with deadly Anthrax spores began to arrive at media companies and congressional offices across the US. From September to October 2001, a total of four letters were delivered—resulting in the deaths of five individuals, and the infection of 17 others.

Shortly after the attacks began, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) launched a search that soon became codenamed ‘Amerithrax’. The investigation lasted for almost a decade, officially concluding in 2010.

Inside ‘The Anthrax Attacks’ documentary

The Anthrax Attacks provides audiences with a detailed account of the days, and years, following the initial Anthrax assails. They reaffirm this information with eyewitness accounts from former FBI agents, Anthrax experts and members of the public—such as postal workers, scientific academics and victims’ families—who had been directly involved with the highly-publicised case.

After the first letter was discovered on 4 October 2001, public representatives immediately deemed it “an isolated incident.” It soon became apparent that this was not the case as, soon after, more letters began to arrive at both the offices of media companies and at the houses of government officials.

One individual, who had first-hand experience with an Anthrax contaminated letter, was Casey Chamberlain, an NBC news assistant from 2001 to 2007. During the documentary, Chamberlain described the moment in which she opened one of these fateful letters.

The former news assistant recalled, “I saw this letter, when I opened [it] I got chills all over. It said ‘09.011.01, Death to America, Death to Israel, Allah is great’ and inside was, what appeared to be to me, a combination of brown sugar and sand.”

Chamberlain continued: “I took the substance and I dumped it in the trash. I just was incredibly sick. I felt like there was something running through my whole body and my veins. I could’ve died easily, if I’d decided to smell the substance—I’d be dead.”

Anthrax scientist Dr Paul Keim also went on to recall the moment they realised that the anonymous letters could not have been delivered by a foreign terror group associated with the 9/11 attacks—as had been previously suspected.

Dr Keim stated, “We got the data in, and we started comparing it to our databases and it matched up with this strain we call the ‘Ames strain’. Everyone was silent, because at that point the only examples of the ‘Ames strain’, even to this day, originate in American laboratories. The person that we were pursuing was one of us.”

Now, all of this information is provided before the opening credits have even begun to roll, so you know that you’re in for a treat.

Meet Dr Bruce Edward Ivins

The documentary team then swiftly introduces viewers to our ‘leading man’: Dr Bruce Edward Ivins, who was a Department of Defence researcher at The United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID). In the drama-doc, Dr Ivins is reprised by Clark Gregg—an actor most famous for playing the lovable-yet-hard-working agent Phil Coulson in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

Throughout the documentary, we’re encouraged to watch Dr Ivins and his experience when he becomes the FBI’s number one suspect. Director Krauss combines words from Dr Ivins’ personal emails alongside FBI field notes to paint a very clear picture of the shocking events in question.

A number of former FBI agents also express throughout the programme their reasoning as to why Dr Ivins appeared as the prime culprit. Both Brad Garrett, FBI agent between 1985 and 2006, and Vince Lisi, who held the post from 1989 to 2015, explained how there was a serious distrust between the bureau and the academic Anthrax experts.

Lisi explained: “One of the challenges we had was relying on the scientific community to help us in the investigation, how do we know they were not being helpful. Bruce was definitely somebody that needed to be looked at.”

After extensive testing, it was revealed that the specific strain and ‘morphs’ of Anthrax found in the anonymous letters did in fact originate from USAMRIID—the organisation where Dr Ivins worked. Morphs are the visual or behavioural differences that occur between organisms.

“Under subpoena, all of the scientists at USAMRIID, including Bruce, would have had to have gone into their collection, sampled each of their tubes, and then the FBI would send that to my laboratory for DNA analysis,” Dr Kleim explained.

“None of the scientist’s tubes had the morphs—Bruce was in the clear.”

The story of Dr Steven Hatfill

Dr Steven Hatfill is an American pathologist and biological weapons expert who quickly became the FBI’s primary suspect in 2002. His previous employment history—having been fired in 1999 for violating lab procedures and then losing a government contractor job on 23 August 2001—led officials to believe that his distrust for the government confirmed he was the Anthrax-by-mail perpetrator.

Dr Hatfill was quickly labelled as a “Person of Interest” by multiple news sources and public figures, leading to extreme media surveillance, also known as “in-your-face harassment.”

Tom Connolly, Dr Hatfill’s attorney, expressed in the documentary: “The FBI engaged in a campaign with their friends in the press to continue suggesting to the American public that Dr Hatfill had committed this offence. They did so without any evidence because they were happy to have a patsy to suggest to the public that ‘we’re making progress’.”

Dr Hatfill was ultimately ruled out of the investigation and, as reported by The New York Times, in 2008 he received a $4.6 million payout from the Justice Department in order to settle a lawsuit the expert had filed in 2003 after he claimed that the irresponsible news coverage based on government leaks had ruined his scientific and personal reputation.

The big reveal

Now is your chance to tune out if you’re planning on watching The Anthrax Attacks—spoilers ahead.

September 2006 rolls around, and—as explored in the documentary—the investigation is given a new lease of life, and thanks to an “incredibly aggressive development of the science,” new discoveries were made into where the original Anthrax spores had originated from. These new scientific methods however, were costly and Dr Keim and both of the FBI agents involved in the documentary process revealed that this was the most expensive FBI investigation ever pursued in the bureau’s history.

Through the means of further scientific testing, and extortionate quantities of funding, the team of scientists were able to trace the mailed spores back to one individual… Dr Bruce Ivins. Dun dun duuun! Naturally, this discovery—while helping the investigation—failed to provide enough concrete evidence to convict Dr Ivins of the biochemical attack.

The remainder of the documentary delves deeper into the psychology of Dr Ivins, his idiosyncrasies and his personal relationships with a number of women or, as he would call them, “secret sharers.” Specifically, we get a closer glimpse into Dr Ivin’s online, shall we say, correspondents.

“Crazy Bruce” had a number of obsessions, one of which was Kappa Kappa Gamma (KKG) sorority. Having developed an interest in the 1960s during his college years, Dr Ivins was rejected by a girl from KKG and subsequently became consumed with the group of women. Later on in life, Dr Ivins would invent multiple personas and pose as a KKG sorority sister online.

In one particularly-alarming dramatic recreation, Dr Ivins is sat with one of his “secret sharers”—who is wearing a wire so as to cooperate with the FBI—and they discuss his state of mind.

When asked by the woman if he did indeed send those poisonous letters, Dr Ivins responded, “I can’t recall doing anything like that. The only thing I know for sure, is that in my right mind I would never hurt anyone.” That doesn’t sound too convincing, Bruce.

Following this, Dr Ivins, having suspected that he was going to be arrested for the bioterrorism attack, began withdrawing from his friends and family.

In his personal emails, Dr Ivins expressed feelings of depression. “I have this terrible dreaded feeling that I have been selected for the blood sacrifice. The FBI can take the most innocent moment or incident and turn it into something that looks as if it came from the devil himself,” he stated. “I don’t have a killer bone in my body but it doesn’t make a difference.”

The USAMRIID researcher continued: “I miss the days where I felt we were doing what was worthy and honest. Our paths shape our futures, and mine was built with lies and craziness and depression. Go down low, low, low as you can go and then dig forever, there is where you’ll find me.”

On 29 July 2008, Dr Ivins died following a drug overdose.

Looking back

A number of the interviewees featured in the documentary were conflicted over whether or not they believed Dr Ivins was 100 per cent guilty of the Anthrax attack murders—and whether or not the FBI was to blame for contributing to his depression and subsequent suicide. Despite all of this, the investigation was formally closed on 19 February 2010.

The most crucial takeaways from The Anthrax Attacks is the testimony given from the postal workers about their personal experiences after being exposed to the infectious disease at work. A number of the workers expressed their frustration with their managers being so haphazard and negligent in regards to employee safety.

Terrell Worrell, a former postal worker from Washington DC, told the filmmakers: “They say there were five deaths, 17 people got sick. No, they don’t know how many people—my X-rays show that my lungs look like I’ve been a heavy smoker, or I have a lung disease. I’ve never smoked a day in my life.”

In 2002, the Brentwood Processing Distribution centre was renamed as the “Joseph P. Curseen Junior and Thomas Morris Junior Processing and Distribution facility” in tribute to two of the postal workers who lost their lives to Anthrax inhalation.

Worrell signed off the documentary by stating: “I think different people walk away from this with different things, and I think we’re still learning from the experience.”

Contaminated water, sexual assault and anarchy: A deep dive into the dark side of Woodstock 99

The summer of 1969 is encapsulated as a time of peace, love, counterculture revolution and cheap drugs. It was also the year the first-ever Woodstock Music & Art Festival took place—an iconic weekend-long celebration that’s been regarded as a pivotal moment in global music history. What you might not know is that Woodstock 69 has an even more memorable twin sibling. Netflix’s newest docu-series Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99 tells the story of how, over the course of one weekend, greed, violence and toxic masculinity spread like wildfire—quite literally.

The Woodstock concept began as the brain-child of concert promoter and music producer Michael Lang, who had long hoped to host a festival rooted within the ideals of peace, community and, of course, the celebration of music. After the global success of Woodstock 69, Lang decided to revive the festival, with plans to hold the event in both 1994 and 1999.

The 1969 event took umbrage with the Vietnam War and allowed concert-goers to get together, air their frustrations and ultimately amassed a youth movement advocating against the American government and its problematic war politics. Woodstock 94 was then held to commemorate 25 years since the original festival.

As for 1999, America had just witnessed the Columbine High School massacre—hence Lang decided to hold the year’s edition as a direct call to action in regards to gun control. In Trainwreck: Woodstock ‘99, he explained that “the idea was to engage people in the issue and to give that generation an idea of what Woodstock was about. Which is counterculture—no violence.” The reality, however, was far from peaceful.

“Their goal was to make money”

One of the first major problems with Woodstock 99 was its location. In order to cut costs, the festival’s production team decided to host it on an air base. The entirety of the site was covered in hot tarmac and cement, not making for a very comfortable landing post-rave.

According to The Independent, over the course of the weekend, temperatures rose to a stifling 40°C. Over 400,000 people were left scavenging for shade as they battled heatstroke. Oh, and there wasn’t any clean water at their disposal.

Heather, who attended the festival and was featured in the documentary, spilled all of the dirty details concerning the water, or lack thereof. “We were supposed to have places to refill our water bottles, but either the water was gross and running brown, or they were broken,” she revealed.

Public health inspector Joe Patterson recalled travelling to the festival and taking water samples from the site. Even before the lab confirmed that all the samples he had collected were contaminated, Patterson himself distinctly remembers the awful smell they gave off.

On day three of the nightmarish event, Sara—another young kid who had high expectations for her first Woodstock experience—woke up in serious pain. “I had ulcers all over my tongue and my gums and in my mouth. I found out that I had something called trench-mouth, basically from drinking unsanitary water. We packed up our stuff, and I think, by like 1:00 in the afternoon, we were out of there.”

While many attendees decided to accept defeat and simply leave when faced with so many worrying signs, others took the decision to retaliate—against anything and anyone.

“The whole weekend, there was a lack of respect”

In 2021, Rolling Stone published a review of the 99 festival in a listicle format summing up some of the most troublesome takeaways from the weekend. The most notable being the disgusting amount of sexual assault that took place there. Stories of women being groped, violated and verbally harassed during the long weekend were large in number. Out of the 44 individuals who were arrested, only one was charged with sexual assault.

Among the many heartbreaking stories told in the docu-series, one particularly horrifying account stands out. On the second night of the festival, British DJ Norman Cook, otherwise known as Fatboy Slim, was invited to headline the main midnight set held in the ‘rave hangar’.

Cook recalled being fully immersed in the crowd’s energy when all of a sudden, he spotted a set of car lights coasting straight into the middle of the crowd facing him. The van, having been commandeered by drunk festival-goers, quickly became a makeshift dance platform, with dozens of people clambering onto the top of the roof. In order to ensure that no one in the crowd got injured, the vehicle was quickly removed by members of staff.

To the staff’s dismay, when they entered the van they found a young girl, no older than 16, on the floor of the back compartment. The mystery girl was discovered lying unconscious with her shirt pulled up over her breasts and her pants rolled down to her ankles. Crouched behind her was an older male pulling his shorts back up. The young girl was immediately escorted backstage and driven away from the site in an ambulance. Once Cook was made aware of the gravity of the situation, he was visibly shaken and remarked how “that is just hideous to think that in the midst of all those people having fun, and me wanting to make everyone love each other, that was going on literally under our noses.”

The three-part documentary series has understandably had an emotional impact on a number of female viewers. One woman took to Twitter to warn others of the graphic nature of the content, writing: “PSA: if you have any discomfort surrounding sexual situations/discussion, or if you have any triggers involving sexual assault, DO NOT watch Trainwreck: Woodstock ‘99 on Netflix. I started it with my [boyfriend] and had very visceral reactions/trauma responses. It’s not worth it.”

Woodstock promoter John Scher was questioned by Netflix about his opinion on the sexual harassment that had taken place both within the campsites and among the festival’s crowds and mosh pits. His poor excuse was that “there were a lot of women who voluntarily had their tops off—could somebody have touched their breasts? Yes, I’m sure they did. What could I have done about it?”

There was an overwhelming sentiment, from both Lang and Scher, that these assaults were perpetrated by a small group of “assholes” who committed these crimes “in secret” away from security and festival staff. What has become evident from this retrospective is how dominant societal attitudes of ‘not all men’ continue to be. This skewed perspective persists in misdirecting focus from the issue at hand—the fact that there is a crucial systemic problem within male culture.

According to The Washington Post, shortly after the events of 99, the New York Police department investigated four reports of rape that had taken place during the festival. Rosemary Vennero, crisis services director of the YWCA Mohawk Valley, recounted that her organisation’s rape crisis centre had indeed counseled four sexual assault victims.

“This angry mob mentality… it just spread like wildfire”

The planned finale for the weekend was an epic performance from global rockstars, The Red Hot Chilli Peppers. As expected, their set was full of stunts, X-rated language and a naked bass player. The evening was going smoothly and was set to come to a close with a candle lit vigil organised by anti-gun violence organisation PAX, now recognised as Brady. The vigil was intended to memorialise victims of both the Columbine High School shooting, as well as anyone who’d lost their lives to gun violence.

However, what started as a moment of quiet reflection quickly escalated into unruly and aggressive behaviour. Three consecutive days of contaminated water, mudslides and overpriced food—coupled with an overwhelming desire for trouble—resulted in a cascade of anarchy. Fires began to appear throughout the campsite as attendees started to incinerate anything they could get their hands on. TV camera crews fled while festival staff barricaded themselves in their offices.

When recounting the events of that fateful night, production team member Colin Speir told Netflix: “At that point, anything that was Woodstock-related was on these people’s destroy list.”

The damage caused that night left a serious stain, both in Rome, New York where the event was held, and in the minds of those who had witnessed the campsite burn. In the closing summary for Trainwreck: Woodstock 99, the interviewees were asked to offer their final thoughts. Assistant site manager Lee Rossenblatt ultimately assigned blame on one thing, “greed. The user experience was totally thrown out the window. I mean those kids were taken advantage of.”

Woodstock 99’s music festival failed for a number of reasons, most salient was the organisers’ blatant refusal to act when things began to spiral out of control or to take accountability for their obvious negligence. Lang and Scher watched from the sidelines while, down in the trenches, people got hurt.