Serious punishment is promised for making phony anthrax threats

War On Terrorism

The Nation

October 17, 2001|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

Proclaiming that "bioterrorism is no joking matter," federal officials said yesterday that they plan to impose jail sentences and possible fines amounting to millions of dollars for those who take advantage of heightened national fear by making phony anthrax threats.

"A few isolated individuals have seen fit to compound the concerns of America and of Americans by perpetrating false threats of anthrax attacks," U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said. "These acts are serious violations of the law and grotesque transgressions of the public trust."

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said the bureau has received more than 2,300 reports of anthrax or dangerous substances since Oct. 1, with many turning out to be false alarms or practical jokes.

But in every case, federal officials had to respond as though the threats were real, meaning time and money were lost, Mueller said.

The law enforcement officials announced that charges were filed yesterday against an employee of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection suspected of making false statements to a federal agent in connection with an anthrax hoax.

Ashcroft said a powdery substance was found Thursday on a sheet of paper with the misspelled word anthrax next to Joseph Faryniarz's workstation.

A federal complaint charges that Faryniarz stood by silently as 800 co-workers were evacuated, even though he knew the incident was a hoax.

The two-day evacuation cost taxpayers $1.5 million. As a result, Faryniarz, if convicted, will face up to five years in prison and a fine of up to twice the gross loss to victims - meaning $3 million, the attorney general said.

Jason Pate, a senior research associate at the Monterey Institute in California, said there is nothing new about anthrax hoaxes in the United States. He began tracking the phenomenon in 1998 as part of the institute's Weapons of Mass Destruction Project.

Pate estimated there have been more than 300 anthrax hoaxes since 1998 that required a response from public authorities. He has studied 171 of them.

"About a third of them were targeting abortion-related facilities," he said.

Of the remaining two-thirds, he said, investigators identified 40 perpetrators. Twelve were middle-school or high-school students.

Of the adults, Pate said, some had histories of mental illness or substance abuse. Others were trying to avoid going to work or making a court appearance.

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