How to Botch a Crisis
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 23, 2001; 9:23 AM
You hate to start pointing fingers in the midst of tragedy.
But what on Earth were these people thinking?
Two more dead, and a lot more questions than answers.
All anyone in Washington is talking about these days is anthrax – and, in light of the latest fiascos, it's hard to blame them.
An anthrax-stricken postal worker from the Brentwood postal facility shows up in an emergency room at Southern Maryland Hospital – and he's sent home with what's diagnosed as the flu. The next day, he's dead.
The Senate receives an anthrax-tainted letter that affects more than two dozen staffers. Such a letter, presumably, had to pass through the post office. So what do authorities do? They hold a press conference at the Brentwood postal facility that serves the Hill, drawing all manner of big cheeses and hotshot reporters. Then they shut down the building, discover it's contaminated and direct everyone who was at the session to get tested for anthrax. A second postal worker from the Brentwood facility also dies.
Thanks a lot, guys.
It's not like this anthrax thing hasn't been in the news, you know.
While part of the country is overreacting (flights being grounded because of powdered coffee creamer), some folks are clearly underreacting.
You have to wonder at this point about the future of mail delivery, a massive, decentralized operation that suddenly seems so vulnerable to terrorist attack.
We move 680 million pieces of mail a day – how do you protect all the people who handle the stuff? E-mail suddenly seems so much easier and safer, if you're not waiting for magazines or the occasional check.
The New York Times delivers the depressing postal news: "Officials said today that two Washington postal workers had died under 'highly suspicious' circumstances, and while they did not immediately attribute the deaths to anthrax, they left no doubt that they thought it was the cause.
"The deaths of the two workers, who were not identified, were announced this afternoon by Mayor Anthony Williams and Dr. Ivan C. A. Walks, the chief health officer of the District of Columbia. . . . Surgeon General David Satcher said it was 'highly probable' that the deaths were from anthrax.
"The two who died saw their doctors on Sunday and died not long afterward following difficulty breathing, Tom Ridge, the director of homeland security, said at a briefing this afternoon. . . .
"The postmaster general, John Potter, who appeared at the briefing with Mr. Ridge, left no doubt about his feelings. 'Our postal family is deeply saddened by today's news and shaken by the thought of terrorists using the U.S. mail as a tool for their evil,' Mr. Potter said."
The Washington Post examines the series of screwups: "When a letter containing anthrax spores turned up in the offices of Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) on Oct. 15, workers at a Northeast Washington postal facility grew worried. Because the Brentwood Road center processes letters destined for Congress, the workers wondered whether they should take antibiotics and other precautions.
"Their bosses told them that the risk of exposure to the bacteria was minimal and that there was no need for antibiotics. Underscoring the point, the nation's postmaster general held a news conference at the facility Thursday and said there was little chance that spores had escaped from the Daschle letter.
"'That letter was extremely well-sealed, and there is only a minute chance that anthrax spores escaped from it into this facility,' Postmaster General John E. 'Jack' Potter said at the time.
"But in the end, the workers' fears were justified. Yesterday, two Brentwood postal workers were dead, probably because they had inhaled anthrax spores. At least nine other Brentwood employees are infected or have shown symptoms. More than 2,000 workers were offered screening and antibiotics, and the facility was closed for environmental testing and cleanup.
"The problems in assessing the threat at Brentwood – and at a mail processing facility near Trenton, N.J. – show how health officials' assumptions about anthrax have been shaken by events."
Some media outlets try to calm people in a crisis, while others. . . .well, here's the New York Post:
"The terrorist behind the murderous anthrax epidemic will strike again – and the next round of attacks could be even deadlier, a former top FBI profiler told The Post.
"Clint Van Zandt, who helped crack the Unabomber case, predicts the anthrax killer 'has a message to get out' and will not disappear. That's the case, he said, whether the anthrax is being mailed by a lone domestic terrorist piggybacking on the World Trade Center tragedy – which he said is likely – or by a state-sponsored international terror group.
"'I don't think this person will quit,' Van Zandt said. 'He enjoys this. He is making a statement. He has a message. He enjoys hearing himself, and he enjoys being heard.' Worse yet, the method used to deliver the anthrax will probably become more direct and dangerous, exposing victims to deadlier amounts of the virus, said Van Zandt, a former member of the FBI's crack 'Silence of the Lambs' serial-killer unit."
People are upset, all right – in part with the media, USA Today finds: "Most Americans are edgy, but not panicky, as anthrax scares ripple across the country, a new USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll shows.
"Meanwhile, public support for President Bush and his prosecution of the war against terrorism, even as ground troops move into the fray, remains high [88 percent]. Moreover, increased reports of civilian casualties in Afghanistan show no sign of eroding that support: 85% say the casualties are an unavoidable aspect of war; 13% say the casualties could be avoided. . . .
"More than half of those polled, or 52%, believe the recent U.S. incidents of anthrax-laden letters signal the beginning of a sustained anthrax campaign against the country. But 60% think that the media are overreacting to the threat, possibly giving terrorists what they want."
Only 60 percent?
As for that other war, the state of U.S. progress remains unclear. On the one hand, says the Wall Street Journal, "Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld signaled that the U.S. is prepared to have Northern Alliance rebels take Kabul, as U.S. forces pounded Taliban strongholds outside Afghanistan's capital city.
"At the same time, a senior defense official said U.S. special-operations commandos have begun operating with Northern Alliance troops to spot Taliban fighters outside Kabul and the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif and call in airstrikes on their positions.
"With little chance of a broader post-Taliban government being organized quickly and no international force prepared to take on the job, another senior official said the U.S. has decided it has little choice but to allow the Alliance to advance on Kabul. Because the Alliance represents only a small minority of Afghanistan's people, though, such a move could cause serious problems later."
But the Boston Globe finds a very different situation on the ground: "General Abdul Samat, commander of 3,500 troops of the rebel Northern Alliance, would like nothing better than to march his men 25 miles south and capture the northern Afghan city of Taloqan from the Taliban. He's delighted that the United States is cheering him on, and well aware that much of the world is watching, waiting for his victory.
"But a closer look at Samat's position reveals not a battle-ready force waiting for the order to attack but a bedraggled outfit that, if challenged, would be hard-pressed just to defend the territory it stands on. Indeed, it appears the Northern Alliance troops as they now exist may not be capable of dislodging the Taliban on the ground – no matter how much the United States helps by dropping bombs on the Taliban's front lines, as it did yesterday. . . .
"Samat's outfit appears to be typical of the Northern Alliance's army. It consists of poorly trained, poorly armed fighters stretched out over a front 35 miles long. Of his rickety collection of Soviet-built tanks, only 15 are in fighting condition. And those tanks are on the wrong side of the rapids of the Kokcha River. To advance, his men would first have to build a bridge – if only they had material with which to build one."
The New Republic's Michael Crowley defends House leaders accused of wimpiness:
"Given the choice between exposure to anthrax and being declared a 'wimp' on the front page of a major newspaper, a lot of politicians might find themselves torn. Anthrax, after all, can be treated and cured. A public-relations debacle can become a chronic condition that haunts you for the rest of your career. And sadly, House Speaker Dennis Hastert and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt are now battling a severe case of humiliation.
"After shutting down the House of Representatives this week while the Senate remained open, the two men were rewarded with a Thursday New York Post cover displaying their faces above the headline 'WIMPS: THE LEADERS WHO RAN AWAY FROM ANTHRAX.'
"That assessment was as unfair as it was brutal. It's true that in their public comments during those uncertain hours on Wednesday, Hastert and Gephardt sounded less than fully informed. Hastert in particular made a fool of himself by flatly stating that 'this stuff has gotten into the ventilation system, it's going through the tunnels.' But he also made the incredibly reckless observation that he is 'not somebody who's qualified in the areas of communicable diseases or contagious diseases' – clearly, since anthrax is not a contagious disease and the distinction is enormously important for keeping the public calm and informed about the proper threat. . . .
"Still, it seems fair to say that Hastert and Gephardt were sucker-punched. Gephardt had first learned about the anthrax when a shaken Daschle called him at home Tuesday night telling him there were 'serious reasons to believe [anthrax] might be in the Capitol' – not just in the Hart Senate Office building where a Daschle staffer opened the letter that touched off this week's chaos. At a security briefing the next morning – attended by Congressional leaders, President Bush, and Vice President Cheney – the Capitol Police recommended that both the House and Senate be shut down for a thorough security sweep. Gephardt, Hastert, and Daschle agreed. So did Bush, according to one congressional source. Only Lott resisted. But Hastert and Gephardt left with the distinct impression that everyone had ultimately agreed to play it safe."
Salon's Laura Miller sounds disgusted: "I hadn't questioned our gumption, until about two weeks ago. In the days following the body blow of Sept. 11, my faith in our nation's ability to behave with grace under pressure seemed to be borne out. It wasn't just the firefighters and police officers; it was the volunteer rescue workers, the people standing in line for four hours to give blood at the hospital on my block, the citizens from other states who got in their cars and drove day and night to reach us here in New York so they could offer their help in any way. The corresponding slogans – 'United We Stand,' etc. – were cheesy, but they didn't seem outright delusional.
"All it took to explode that dream were a couple dozen contaminated letters. Now, doctors are besieged with requests for Cipro prescriptions by patients who have no reason to think they've been exposed to anthrax. The government is planning to blow a huge chunk of the public health budget on this probably unnecessary drug. The House of Representatives closed up shop in a paroxysm of what the media politely called 'jitters' – the New York Post was alone in calling them 'wimps' – after Senate majority leader Tom Daschle's office received an anthrax-laced letter.
"Columnists like the New York Times' Maureen Dowd and the Washington Post's Sally Quinn write of frenzy among the chattering classes (make that the teeth-chattering classes), leading to runs on gas masks, canned goods and of course, more Cipro. Paranoid Americans who think they've been exposed to bioterror are threatening to cripple the healthcare infrastructure that would be our first line of defense in the event of a serious attack. The thin, high whine of panic is in the air.
"It's worth reiterating right now that exactly one person – the first person diagnosed, before we even realized his infection was intentional – has died of anthrax so far [the death toll is now two]. . . . Salmonella has probably killed more people in the past two weeks than anthrax has, and I'm sure that more have died in automobile accidents. So why don't we all stop eating, and resolve to walk everywhere we go?
"It's depressing and demoralizing to see a nation that two weeks ago was congratulating itself on its 'unity' dissolve into a collection of gibbering hypochondriacs."
War is taking its toll on all of us. Here's an observation by Joshua Micah Marshall: "One of the persistently interesting aspects of the war on terrorism story is how much information ends up getting published in the British or other foreign press, but never seems to see the light of day in the United States. Here's one example from The Times of London about the FBI considering tactics that border on torture to get a few key suspects to talk. Sounds grizzly; but the moral stakes involved are quite complex, and tricky."
Marshall links to the Times of London piece:
"American investigators are considering resorting to harsher interrogation techniques, including torture, after facing a wall of silence from jailed suspected members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, according to a report yesterday."
But – get this – the British article is attributed, right there in black and white, to a story in Sunday's Washington Post.