Ron Rosenbaum

The Anthrax Attack, Vanity Fair and The Shakespeare Connection

I was going to write about it earlier this year when the news emerged that the government had paid off the former chief anthrax “person of interest”, Steven Hatfill, $5.8 million dollars for subjecting him to what they admitted was wrongful suspicion. I was going to write about the “Shakespeare Connection”.

But I wasn’t sure if would be beating a dead horse: said metaphorical horse being the pseudo-science of “forensic linguistics” promoted by so called “Shakespeare Super Sleuth” Don Foster, the Vassar professor who gave us the “The Great Shakespeare ‘Funeral Elegy’ Fiasco” as I called it in The Shakespeare Wars. Foster used the fame from his later-discredited claim that he had identified a previously unrecognized long poem–a barely readable 600 line snoozathon–as a lost work of Shakespeare’ it became a foundation for a self-promoting career as a “super sleuth”, in high-profile criminal cases which featured Foster claiming his “science” of “foresnic linguisitcs” couild identify the lingusitic “fingerprints” of potential suspects, and nail them for a crime they might otherwise have gotten away with.

One problem. He was often wrong. He was wrong about the wretched poem he claimed he found Shakespeare’s fingerprints in. He was wrong in the Jon Benet case, wrong in somehow convincing Vanity Fair that he could shed light on the anthrax case. Poor gullible VF (disclosure: I wrote for them regularly and feel bad theyapparently allowed Foster to convince them he had any particular crime solving skills).

Especially with the revelation in today’s Times about VF and their “super sleuth”.

It turns out Foster had been forced to retract his Shakespearean claim, thus pulling the rug out of the inflated self-image he ‘d built upon it. And now it turns out that he has retracted his Vanity Fair story and that he and VF have had to apologize for Foster’s article.

According to today’s (August 2, 2008)’s Times :

Dr. Hatfill also sued Vanity Fair for publishing along with Reader’s Digest which published a condensed version. As part of a 2007 settlement, other terms of which were confidential, the defendants issued a statement retracting any implication that Dr. Hatfill had been behind the attacks.”

Amazing! Why haven’t we heard about this latest Don Foster retraction? (I published excerpts from the first one in my book).* What is the text of the retraction? “Confidential terms:” suggests money was aid too. How much responsibility did Foster take? Didn’t anybody at least Google his past failures?

A question better asked about whoever, if any, anthrax investigators cooperated with Foster and took his “forensic linguistics” seriously. For all we know it could be the endorsement of Foster’s “science” that kept the government on the trail of the wrong suspect. Old fashioned investigators always seem to be intimidated by those who used computers and Foster frquently claimed computer basis for his “forensic lingusitics” claims.

But there may be more to it. I found myself fascinated by this Glenn Greenwald article. which makes a pretty persuasive case that the pre-suicide scientist, Bruce Ivins was at the very least involved in spinning the investigation, spreading false information that would link the genomic “fingerprints” of the anthrax to Iraq. (The “bentonite clue” for those of you who have read the Greenwald piece.) Greenwald wants to know if the sources who fed ABC News (lead Hatfill accuser in the media, were part of a disinformation conspiracy. Could Ivins have been a part? Could Ivins have been a source for the Foster/VF piece. If not then who? Foster and VF could help solve the crime and reveal if there were people in the government invovled in spreading deliberate disinformation that added its weight to the false intelligence about Iraqi WMD that helped to lead us into war.

I found Greenwald’s insistence that the ABC news investigative team give up its sources if it turns out they were deliberate liars, persuasive but problematic, since I’m against reporters being forced to reveal sources by the government</em. But looked at another way they may be sitting on a big news story and that voluntary disclosure that they’d been tricked might be valuable to closing the case, especially if Ivins was a source.

it seems to me that VF should, at the very least, question Foster about whether Ivins was a source and then consider voluntary disclosure if he was. Better for them to quiz Foster before the Feds decide to quiz them about his sources.

It’s too bad because I’ve come to feel a kind of fondness for Foster who gave me such a great character, and chapter, for my book. Perfectly illustrated the perils of Shakeseare intoxication.

Was Foster merely misled by vanity, as he appeared to be with Shakespeare and Jon Benet (bet you never thought you ‘d hear those two in the same sentence). Or was he the vicitim of sinister forces.

Frankly, I think the “sinister force” may be the vengeful ghost of Shakespeare who put a curse on all future Foster endeavors because Foster tried to pin that wretched poem on him.

*UPDATE: (8/4): I see that Richard Fernandez in his thoughtful post on the subject has a link to a New York Sun story from February 2007, which quotes from the settlement Conde Nast agreed to on behalf of Foster and VF. According to The Sun this is the key portion:

“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.