Who Killed Kathy Nguyen?

The doctors in the Intensive Care Unit at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York see a lot of very sick patients, but there was something particularly ominous about the bloody fluid that was fast filling the woman's chest cavity. She had come to the emergency room on Sunday, feverish, short of breath, complaining of aching muscles. Doctors quickly put her on a respirator. By Monday, preliminary test results had confirmed suspicions. "Holy s---, this looks like anthrax," a young surgeon was overheard to exclaim as he burst into an office on the ninth floor of the hospital, one floor above the bed where Kathy Nguyen lay dying. Scores of FBI agents and New York police detectives were soon retracing the steps of the kindly 61-year-old Vietnamese woman who lived alone in the Bronx. But when lab tests failed to find any traces of anthrax in her modest one-bedroom apartment or the hospital storeroom where she worked, top investigators in New York became increasingly uneasy. They wondered: was Nguyen the first casualty in a mass biowarfare attack on Manhattan?

An urgent call was placed to the Pentagon. Could terrorists have dumped anthrax on New York City by plane or somehow sprayed the deadly agent in the subway? Very unlikely, argued the Pentagon's bio-terrorism experts, and as the hours passed and no new cases cropped up, the New York investigators began to calm down a bit. Still, the case of Kathy Nguyen remained a mystery. Just how had she gotten sick? Had some microscopic anthrax spores somehow jumped off a piece of passing mail and lodged in her lungs?

The learning curve on anthrax, it appears, remains steep. But then America has a lot to learn about a terrorist threat that seems at once shadowy and elusive, yet frightening and imminent. After two centuries of freedom from foreign attack, the U.S. government is now feeling its way across unfamiliar and treacherous terrain. Stumbles and falls are to be expected. Even so, the performance of various top government officials last week did not inspire confidence.

George W. Bush and his team are trying to rally Americans with better slogans. In the Old Executive Office Building, residential adviser Karl Rove has hung a poster of Winston Churchill declaring LET US GO FORWARD TOGETHER! An expert political spinmeister and amateur historian, Rove has been reaching out to Hollywood directors for ideas and boning up on old tracts from the Office of War Information, the propaganda arm of Franklin Roosevelt's war cabinet during World War II. Post September 11, the Bush administration's mantra is "the New Normalcy." Citizens are told: go about your routine daily lives--but at the same time, be prepared for the next terrorist attack. Pundits and many Capitol Hill lawmakers have scoffed that the message is a contradictory muddle. Administration officials counter that regular Americans understand the twin imperatives of calm and vigilance, even if the chattering classes do not.

As a practical matter, President Bush's show of stiff-upper-lip resolve has been compromised, or at least complicated, by the natural propensity of politicians to cover their own posteriors. First, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced last Monday a new alert--that America and its interests abroad could come under attack any time in the next week, although he couldn't say where or how or exactly when, or what anyone was supposed to do about it. (At the end of the week, the alert was extended "indefinitely.") "I'm already on my tiptoes," said Rep. Chris Shays of Connecticut. "I'm ready. What more can I do?" Then California Gov. Gray Davis warned that his state's six biggest bridges might be blown up by terrorists during rush hour sometime between Nov. 2 and Nov. 7. But, he added, somewhat unhelpfully, that citizens should feel free to cross at their own risk. State and federal officials took turns blaming each other for ensuing jitters and confusion. In the end, Davis's rationale for issuing the alert seemed to boil down to: if federal officials can play C.Y.A., why shouldn't a governor? Around San Francisco Bay, commuters for the most part soldiered on, though the pre-rush-hour volume on the Bay Bridge ticked up a little as some drivers presumably tried to beat the bomb as well as the traffic.

In order to make sense of the government's warnings from last week, it is necessary to understand the U.S. intelligence community's own method for assessing threats. The process is anything but precise or scientific. Every week hundreds of tips, from electronic eavesdropping and informants of varying degrees of reliability, are compiled in a thick document. Twice a day, at 3 a.m. and 3 p.m., FBI and CIA officials prepare the Threat Matrix Index, a highly classified report that documents the latest and most credible terrorist threats from around the globe. Some days as many as 100 threats will be listed; some days as few as 40. The 3 a.m. report on Monday, Oct. 23, was disturbing--at least to White House and Justice officials. It seemed to indicate that Al Qaeda would try to top the September 11 attack, possibly very soon. The threat, a senior Justice Department official told Newsweek, "was the most serious we've seen." But a knowledgeable top intelligence official told NEWSWEEK that published accounts of the report, tying the intelligence to members of the Qaeda network, were "hyped." According to this official, the tip included a report from Canadian intelligence that referred to a rather cryptic warning--"be careful down South"--from men suspected of terrorist ties, as well as another intercept of a conversation between two other suspects in Middle Eastern countries predicting a "bigger event" in a couple of weeks. Whether these sources are credible is open to debate, according to this official, who added that the information was both thin and not corroborated. "There is no assessment, zero assessment" of the actual risk posed by these tips, this official complained to News-week. The rule for Ashcroft and his White House higher-ups, he said, appears to be "anything you hear, you put out." He bitterly observed that the debate among Bush's top law-enforcement and intelligence deputies came down to: "If we don't share the information and something happened and there was a catastrophe, people could say, 'Why didn't you warn us?' "

The indiscriminate publicizing of every threat could have dire consequences, the official warned. Public officials say that warnings can serve to "disrupt" future attacks. But bin Laden and his network may use the warnings to plug leaks. "If I were them, I'd be saying, 'Do we think somebody's a source? Let's feed him something and see what happens'." Warns the official: "We're going to get a source killed, and our method of collection is going to get compromised. We don't have that many sources now. This is a good way to figure them out." A senior Justice official said the administration had carefully weighed such factors, but acknowledged it was hard for anyone to know where precisely to draw the line. "We're all feeling our way in this process," he said.

The FBI was especially miffed at Governor Davis. On Wednesday, the U.S. Customs Service picked up an uncorroborated tip from a well-established source in Europe about threats by unspecified groups against suspension bridges in eight Western states. The information was passed along to 18,000 state and local police through the National Law Enforcement Telecommunication System (NLETS). Davis happened to be announcing a new antiterror czar for the state of California at a press conference, so--without checking with the FBI, as he was supposed to--he let drop the threat, with a few embellishments. The governor claimed that the report came from three different agencies. In fact, the agencies were all citing the same report. A Davis aide later conceded that the governor had gone a little overboard by listing specific bridges (the threat did not). "If I failed to share that information and God forbid something went wrong, I'd be kicking myself," said the governor, who perhaps not coincidentally filed for re-election the next day.

The FBI has been widely criticized for not sharing information with local law enforcement. But "once you tell the locals, these guys [the politicians] can't stop running to cameras," said another top U.S. official. Last month the FBI received a stray threat of a chemical attack on Baltimore at 1:15 in the afternoon. The mayor of Baltimore, Martin O'Malley, called the FBI, demanding to know what else the gumshoes had. That was it, he was told. The mayor held a press conference, alerted hospitals to be prepared for victims, advised downtown businesses to close ventilation systems and watch for suspicious characters. The fatal hour passed without incident. "He'll probably send us a bill," the government official observed. FBI officials also complain that the leaking and posturing could jeopardize future prosecutions. Amid the turmoil, a couple of top FBI officials exited; Director Robert Mueller is said to have a significant reorganization in the works.

Officials can only guess where the next attack will come, if it comes. Last week they began beefing up security around the nation's 103 nuclear power plants. The Air Force was ordered to step up patrols, and private aircraft flying lower than 18,000 feet were banned from passing within 11 miles of most nuclear reactors. Governors ordered the National Guard to protect 38 of the plants.

Some law-enforcement officials worry that by crying wolf, the government will diminish the public's alertness over time. Bush's new Homeland Security chief, former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, told senators last week that he hoped eventually to be able to grade alerts--like smog in the summer. Such precision is a pipe dream to most law-enforcement officials, who know how difficult it is to measure raw tips from unreliable sources. The anthrax investigation is a case in point. The FBI does have a few leads, say informed sources. Nonetheless, the FBI's Mueller was reduced last week to asking the public to help analyze the handwriting samples on the three anthrax letters they know about. The mystery of Kathy Nguyen's death from anthrax is particularly chilling. "This wasn't Tom Brokaw or Senator Daschle," said Dr. Shane Dawson, the surgery resident who was on call at Lenox Hill Hospital that Sunday night. "She was just a lady who goes home and buys her groceries. When I realized she somehow contracted it going about her daily life, that's when it hit home. Everyone's scared. No one knows," he said. On both counts, all too true.