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Anthrax Attacks and America's Rush to Judgment

By Carl M. Cannon - June 9, 2011

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By Carl M. Cannon

Nearly a decade ago, as Americans were reeling from the shock of September 11, the nation was besieged by a crafty and concealed killer who murdered five people, sickened 17 others, shut down the U.S. Capitol, and helped coalesce the Bush administration's focus on invading Iraq, which it suspected of being responsible for dispatching anthrax through the U.S. mail.

The killer masqueraded as an Islamic terrorist. "We have this anthrax," proclaimed the notes containing the lethal spores sent to numerous offices, including those of Democratic Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy (pictured with FBI Director Robert Mueller). All of the mailed letters contained the date "09/11/01" and the lines: "DEATH TO AMERICA. DEATH TO ISRAEL. ALLAH IS GREAT."

The FBI took charge of the investigation, and within days the bureau had strong scientific grounds to presume that no rogue jihadist had obtained these spores. This was either state-sponsored terrorism -- and the White House was focused on only one sovereign state, Iraq -- or it was the work of a highly intelligent lunatic with experience handling anthrax, a security clearance, and access to U.S. bio-weapons research labs.

The probe that ensued was a comedy of errors, except there was nothing funny about it. The resources of the world's most powerful nation were brought to bear on two individuals for this crime: Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and, later, Steven J. Hatfill, a scientist who had worked for two years at the U.S. Army's bio-warfare research center at Fort Detrick, Md.

Neither man had anything whatsoever to do with it. Nonetheless, Hussein's nation was invaded, his regime overthrown, and he and his sons killed. Steven Hatfill was hounded, literally, by the feds, who put dogs on his trail, searched his apartment with media trucks in tow, ran over his foot with a car, leaked erroneous information about him to the media, and forced a university to rescind a job offer. Hatfill later recovered money in a lawsuit, but his career was effectively destroyed.

Meanwhile, the actual murderer, Bruce Ivins, continued to work for years at Fort Detrick, where he misled investigators and covered up his tracks. Ivins took his own life as the FBI finally closed in on him in July of 2008, after wasting the better part of a decade and untold thousands of man-hours on a wild goose chase. The Amerithrax investigation is one of the most embarrassing chapters in the history of the storied agency. But why did it happen?

The answer to that question is unraveled, in a meticulous and authoritative fashion, in "The Mirage Man," arriving in bookstores this week. Author David Willman is one of the most accomplished investigative journalists of our time, and his book will make many prominent people in his profession uncomfortable, as it should. There are few heroes in the story, and some villains, too. But mostly there are lessons -- lessons are about the danger of jumping to conclusions, lessons about sensationalizing the news, and lessons about the dangers of politicizing science or the criminal justice system.

"The Mirage Man" should be required reading in every journalism school, and law school, in this country. It should be the textbook of a case study at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va. -- and police academies everywhere. It should be taught in college government classes, and handed out to freshman members of Congress when they arrive in Washington, and to staffers assigned to the Capitol Hill committees and the White House National Security Council.

The anthrax attacks were a deadly tragedy for the families of those hurt by them. But the rush to judgment inside the White House, the misleading media coverage of the event, and the politically tinged FBI investigation were a national disgrace. The Bush administration used the attacks as part of its litany of provocations against Iraq. Later, liberal ideologues zeroed in on an innocent man, forever tarnishing his reputation.

And all this time later, no one has so much as apologized. As I said, there are lessons for us all.

"Weaponized" Anthrax

In the immediate days after the anthrax mailings, confusion and high emotions reigned at Fort Detrick. One senior scientist, John Ezzell, examined the batch of anthrax sent to Daschle's office and proclaimed to his superiors, "This is like seeing the face of Satan. This is the closest thing I've seen to weaponized anthrax."

As Willman shows, this would prove an unfortunate choice of words -- "weaponized" anthrax. It's not really a technical phrase, but what it conveyed in scientific terms was that the anthrax spores were coated with a chemical additive designed to prevent clumping and therefore make them dissipate more easily into the air -- and into a victim's lungs. Meanwhile, various other Fort Detrick scientists -- some of whom had never worked with bacteria at all, let alone anthrax -- openly speculated that the toxin had come from a foreign laboratory. They weren't shy about sharing their suspicions with members of Congress and the media. ABC News, in particular, couldn't get enough of this angle.

Brian Ross, the network's star investigative reporter, quoting unnamed sources, maintained that the spores found in Daschle's office were "almost identical in appearance to those recovered in Iraq in 1994." In other broadcasts, Ross expounded on the "weaponized" angle, adding a crucial detail: the anthrax, he claimed, had been laced with bentonite, a clay-like substance that was "a trademark of Saddam Hussein's weapons program."

None of this turned out to be true. The anthrax sent through the U.S. mail in 2001 had already been identified by the nation's top geneticists as coming from the so-called "Ames strain" of the toxin, which Iraq had never had access to. Nor was any bentonite ever found. But by the time that knowledge became public, the United States had invaded Iraq, impulsive U.S. senators had all but commandeered the Amerithrax investigation, and the USA Patriot Act had passed that self-same U.S. Senate on a vote of 98-1. The anthrax attacks -- and the mistaken notion that they originated abroad -- was very much part of the debate that led to these results. And then, as if none of that had taken place, the official attention all turned to Steven Hatfill.

FBI "Dragging Its Feet"

After it became clear that the killer was not in Iraq, the FBI operated on the assumption that whoever did this most likely had accomplices; and if not accomplices, then at least people whose suspicions had been aroused -- because the process of making anthrax and sending it through the mail was enormously difficult technically, and the pool of people with access to the toxin was finite.

"It is very likely that one or more of you know this individual," Van A. Harp, the FBI official put in charge of the Amerithrax investigation wrote in a Jan. 29, 2002 mailing to the members of the American Society of Microbiology. "This person is experienced working in a laboratory."

And so the bureau started soliciting tips. The tips flowed in, too, good ones and bad ones. But the best tip was never acted upon. It came from Nancy Haigwood, a scientist who had worked alongside Bruce Ivins at Fort Detrick and had first-hand experience with this warped man's strange sense of entitlement and penchant for seeking surreptitious revenge against colleagues and acquaintances. Willman documents a pattern of behavior: "One-on-one, he was the smiling, devout colleague who exuded empathy. Behind people's backs, he was prone to bizarre, secretive acts of vengeance, for the most obscure of slights."

The married Ivins became obsessed with various female colleagues, including Haigwood, and he stalked them, played vicious tricks on them involving stealth, burglary and anonymous letters. He had homicidal thoughts about some of these colleagues, which he discussed with his psychiatrists -- he told his therapists that he fantasized about poisoning them. In one case, Ivins actually followed a younger woman to an out-of-town soccer game, planning to drug her with "lethal poisons." Ivins had only recently told the same woman, his former lab technician, that he'd been diagnosed with "paranoid personality disorder."

This last part was true -- Ivins was prescribed the anti-depressant Celex and the anti-psychotic drug Zyprexa. To his psychiatrists, Bruce Ivins was "creepy" and "spooky" or the "scariest" patient they'd seen in their careers.

He also was one of the nation's foremost experts on anthrax. In fact, he was listed on two patents for a genetically engineered anthrax vaccine, and stood to personally profit from the government's accelerated vaccination program that came in response to the anthrax mailings. Ivins had long, unexplained sessions in his lab -- alone -- at the time of the anthrax mailings and, despite frantic attempts to cover his tracks, he couldn't help but give himself away in small ways: In an email to another female colleague he had also quietly contemplated killing, Ivins wrote, "I certainly don't want to see any headlines in the National Enquirer, ‘PARANOID MAN WORKS WITH DEADLY ANTHRAX!!!' ''

This message was sent a year before the attacks -- and the first anthrax letter was sent to the Florida offices of the National Enquirer, where Robert Stevens, who worked there for the tabloid's parent company, became his first victim. Ivins also suddenly renewed his email relationship with Nancy Haigwood, who was struck by the fact that Ivins predicted trouble at Fort Detrick just three days after the first anthrax letters were mailed -- and before they were known publicly.

"Oh, my God," Haigwood said when she received the FBI mass mailing asking for help finding the killer. "I know him." She phoned the bureau to report what she knew, a tip that was dutifully filed away. It turned out that actual first-hand knowledge of an obvious suspect was not the right way to get the FBI's attention in 2002.

The Strange Case of "Mr. Z"

When the anthrax story broke, a political activist and college professor from New York named Barbara Hatch Rosenberg began insisting publicly that the anthrax used in the attacks "was derived, almost certainly, from a U.S. defense laboratory." If Rosenberg, a former cancer researcher trained as a molecular biologist, had left it at that, she'd have been prescient.

But she went much further. Her thinking ran to sinister government conspiracy theories (a secret CIA caper "gone badly awry," she postulated) and her actions spilled over into casting suspicion on a scientist she'd heard gossip about: Steven Hatfill. Unlike Nancy Haigwood, who knew Bruce Ivins in all his chilling weirdness, Barbara Hatch Rosenberg had never met Hatfill. But that didn't stop her from accusing him of mass murder.

Rosenberg found a ready audience in New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and, in turn, Sen. Patrick Leahy and his staff. In a series of six pieces Kristof wrote after conferring with Rosenberg, The Times' columnist, first referring to Hatfill as "Mr. Z," and later by his actual name, asserted that Hatfill had "up-to-date" anthrax vaccinations, "unquestionably had the ability to make first-rate anthrax," was upset at the government, had access to an isolated residence that might be a CIA safe house, was once caught naked with a girlfriend in a biohazard suite at Fort Detrick, and may have helped launch a genocidal anthrax and cholera attack against blacks during Zimbabwe's war for independence.

No evidence was ever offered for any of these claims, all leveled anonymously, and none ever surfaced, either. Kristof, who asserted openly in his column that he was trying to "prod" the FBI into following up on his hunch, was considered a ridiculous diversion by the agents assigned to the Amerithrax investigation. Inside the Washington field office, an FBI supervisor named Robert Roth began putting Kristof's more outlandish statements on the wall in large letters. To buck up his besieged agents, Roth added a statement of his own: "One of the best things that can happen to you is to have this type of person criticize you."

But Democratic staff members were less inclined than FBI special agents to dismiss the fulminations of the New York Times, and Barbara Hatch Rosenberg's theories found a ready audience among Leahy and Daschle staff members. In June of 2002, Van Harp and three other bureau officials were summoned to the office of Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, only to find their meeting turned over to Rosenberg. "For the better part of an hour she presented her views about the letter attacks and the culpability of Hatfill, without ever naming him," Willman writes. "When Harp tried to press Rosenberg for concrete details, Leahy's staff cut him off."

Instead of resisting this political pressure, the FBI knuckled under.

With no evidence against Hatfill -- after all, he was innocent -- the bureau essentially turned the fact-finding mission over to two bloodhounds from California who could supposedly sniff the scent on the anthrax-tainted letters. The dogs were then introduced to Hatfill, who -- not realizing how desperate the FBI had become -- simply petted them. The pooches' animated response, the dog handlers assured the FBI, pointed to Hatfill's guilt.

This junk science, ludicrous on its face, had already been exposed for what it was in several courtrooms in Southern California. There, prosecutors had used the same bloodhounds in criminal trials -- based on the same nebulous description from the handlers about what the dogs could properly ascertain. In one 1999 case, the dog wranglers testified that the bloodhounds "alerted" on a suspect who was charged with -- and later found to be innocent of -- several sexual assaults in Long Beach. Two years earlier, another judge threw out a murder conviction based in part on the bloodhounds' supposed reaction, and called the dog's handler who testified for the prosecution "as biased as any witness that this court has ever seen."

None of this was secret. The cases unfolded in open court and were covered in the media, including David Willman's newspaper, the Los Angeles Times. Yet ABC News, Newsweek, and, yes, The New York Times all went hard for the bloodhound angle. And on March 31, 2003, FBI Director Robert Mueller and Richard Lambert, the man Mueller picked to replace Van Harp as the head of the Amerithrax investigation, assured Attorney General John Ashcroft that the bloodhounds that had "associated" Hatfill with the anthrax letters had "extensive track records." Mueller had made some of the same representations to President Bush in August 2002.

President Obama has recently asked Mueller to stay on the job past the legal term limit of 10 years. Proceeding this way will take special legislation, but it will avoid a Senate confirmation fight. This is too bad. I wouldn't expect Patrick Leahy, who still chairs Senate Judiciary, to ask tough questions of Mueller about the Amerithrax investigation, but surely someone on that committee would be so inclined.


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Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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