Belmont Club

The Lone Stranger

Who knows what evil lurksThe suicide of Bruce E. Ivins, a biodefense researcher at Fort Detrick who was suspected of masterminding the 2001 anthrax attacks will raise more questions than it answers. Despite the dark hints that the Bush Administration used the anthrax attacks to “frame” Saddam Hussein and inflame public opinion for the War on Terror, from the very beginning the FBI was hunting for a “lone American”.

An April 29, 2002 Weekly Standard article by David Tell laid out the FBI profile of the man they were looking for. It had been their working profile for the previous six months. In other words, the profile had been their guide from the time the anthrax attacks had occured.

Over the past six months, have federal authorities altered their working theory of last fall’s anthrax murders?

No, not much. On November 9 last year, even before the anthrax outbreak’s fifth and final fatality had been recorded, the FBI called a press conference to unveil its “linguistic and behavioral assessment” of “the person” purportedly responsible. It was “highly probable, bordering on certainty,” the Bureau announced, that a single “adult male” had prepared and mailed all the contaminated letters at issue. This man “probably has a scientific background,” “may work in a laboratory,” and is familiar with the area around Trenton, New Jersey–where the envelopes were postmarked. He suffers a pronounced psycho-social deformity: “He lacks the personal skills necessary to confront others” and “if he is involved in a personal relationship, it will likely be of a self-serving nature.” Moreover, crucially, the suspect appears to be an American. “We’re certainly looking in that direction right now, as far as someone being domestic,” said James R. Fitzgerald, head of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit.

But what were the politics of this lone American psycho, if indeed that described the probable suspect? Was he a Democrat or a Republican? Although media sources often mention attacks on Dan Rather and Tom Daschle in connection with the attacks, implying that liberals were targeted, the reality was more complicated.

The anthrax attacks came in two waves. … Five letters are believed to have been mailed at this time, to ABC News, CBS News, NBC News and the New York Post, all located in New York City; and to the National Enquirer at American Media, Inc. Only the New York Post and NBC News letters were actually found; the existence of the other three letters is inferred because individuals at ABC, CBS and AMI became infected with anthrax. … Two more anthrax letters, bearing the same Trenton postmark, were dated October 9, three weeks after the first mailing. The letters were addressed to two Democratic Senators, Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

The New York Post and the National Enquirer notwithstanding, the first suspicion fell on a man who might be called the Richard Jewell of the anthrax case: Steven Hatfill. Hatfill had it all. If a screenwriter had to make up the perfect stock character for a right-wing bad guy a fevered imagination could hardly provide a more suggestive background than Hatfill’s. He had served in the US Army, settled in Rhodesia, claimed connections with the Selous Scouts, worked in South Africa and forged his diploma. There was only one problem. Hatfill was innocent.

The media knew from the start that the FBI was pursuing a “lone American” type of suspect. 60 Minutes did a feature on Hatfield. The New York Times investigated him and the FBI raided his house. “FBI raids on his home were well-attended by journalists and, consequently, several news outlets speculated that Hatfill was at one time the likely suspect for the attacks. He later sued the government for ruining his reputation, a case which the government settled for US$5.8 million.” Nor was the media spared embarassment. Hatfill sued the New York Times and settled a $10 million libel suit against Vanity Fair and the Reader’s Digest. The NY Sun reported on the outcomes:

“Neither Condé Nast Publications nor the article’s author intended to imply that they had concluded that Steven J. Hatfill, M.D., perpetrated the anthrax attacks that occurred in the United States in the fall of 2001. To the extent any statements contained in the article might be read to convey that Condé Nast and Prof. Foster were accusing Dr. Hatfill of perpetrating these attacks, Condé Nast and Prof. Foster retract any such implication,” the statement said. The statement from Reader’s Digest was essentially identical.

Last month, a federal judge in Virginia threw out a separate libel lawsuit Dr. Hatfill filed against the New York Times over a series of columns about the anthrax case. Judge Claude Hilton said Dr. Hatfill was a public figure and that there was insufficient evidence that the Times printed the columns knowing or strongly suspecting that they were false. Dr. Hatfill has appealed.

It was time to fall back on Plan B. The FBI turned to another loner whose politics did not fit so neatly with attacks on Dan Rather and Tom Daschle: Bruce Ivins. Readers may draw their own inferences from the Associated Press report on Ivin’s suicide:

Ivins had several letters to the editor published in The Frederick News-Post over the last decade. He denounced taxpayer funding for assisted suicide, pointed readers to a study that suggested a genetic component for homosexuality and said he had stopped listening to local radio station WFMD because he was offended by the language and racially charged commentary of its hosts. He also commented on the growing political influence of conservative Christians, and he was willing to criticize his church. “The Roman Catholic Church should learn from other equally worthy Christian denominations and eagerly welcome female clergy as well as married clergy,” Ivins wrote.

It would be dangerous to jump to any conclusions because in the end a “lone American” may not have been the source of the attacks. From the beginning there were rival theories to the “lone American” hypothesis. Wikipedia quotes former CIA director George Tenet’s 2006 book as implying that for a while there were worries the attacks may have come from al-Qaeda. Tenet, writing after the lone American theory had been in vogue for some years said:

The most startling revelation from this intelligence success story was that the anthrax program had been developed in parallel to 9/11 planning. As best as we could determine, al-Zawahiri’s project had been wrapped up in the summer of 2001, when the al-Qaida deputy, along with Hambali, were briefed over a week by Sufaat on the progress he had made to isolate anthrax. The entire operation had been managed at the top of al-Qai’da with strict compartmentalization. Having completed this phase of his work, Sufaat fled Afghanistan in December 2001 and was captured by authorities trying to sneak back into Malaysia. Rauf Ahmad was detained by Pakistani authorities in December 2001. Our hope was that these and our many other actions had neutralized the anthrax threat, at least temporarily.

The other group which doubted the “lone American” explanation was the Left. Glenn Greenwald strongly implies that the anthrax attacks were part of a conspiracy to stampede the American people into retaliating for September 11. Aside from emphasizing the Dasche attack angle, Greenwald quotes Richard Cohen’s article of March 2008 revealing he had been told soon after the Twin Tower attacks to take CIPRO.

The attacks were not entirely unexpected. I had been told soon after Sept. 11 to secure Cipro, the antidote to anthrax. The tip had come in a roundabout way from a high government official, and I immediately acted on it. I was carrying Cipro way before most people had ever heard of it. For this and other reasons, the anthrax letters appeared linked to the awful events of Sept. 11.

Why did Administration officials worry about the anthrax attacks before they came? The implication is that it was because they were going to launch the attacks themselves. But since we know from Tenet’s book that the CIA believed al-Qaeda was preparing an anthrax weapon, the more straightforward explanation is that Washington insiders, reeling from September 11, were panicked at the idea and the buzz went round to take Cipro. Richard Cohen picked up on this. But when the anthrax attack did come the remarkable thing was that it was never spun as a WMD attack on America, an assertion which in the heated atmosphere following the attacks, might actually have gained currency. Instead the FBI went almost direct to the “lone American” theory rather than impute the attacks on al-Qaeda. If the Bush administration had in fact planned to use the anthrax attacks to frame someone, the “lone American” theory was precisely the wrong way to go about it.

So who did it? Ivins? He’s dead and can’t defend himself. And besides, he was never charged. Like the Ripper attacks, the anthrax mailings have stopped. That is suggestive. But we only know about the Hatfill and Ivins threads. Post hoc ergo propter hoc can only take us so far because we don’t know what else happened in the days right after September 11. Like the Lost in Space Robot we must bleat, “insufficient data, that does not compute”. There’s enough ambiguity in what we have to raise all kinds of theories. My own questions, and I should emphasize they are only questions are 1) was there a biological warfare equivalent of the AQ Khan nuclear mart? Anthrax is in many ways far easier to manufacture than an atomic bomb? Why should there be one and not the other? 2) Was someone or some group trying to panic the US into thinking it was under a WMD attack?

Will we ever know, or will the anthrax attacks forever remain in the same temple of mysteries as the JFK assassination?

Tip Jar.