Did Bush manipulate the anthrax scare?
ABC News should reveal its ‘anonymous sources’ and clear up the scare that led to war on Iraq
Just five weeks shy of the seventh anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the Trade Towers and the Pentagon, a mystery linked to those attacks has burst once again into active life, prompting a hail of speculation about just how far Bush and Cheney were prepared to go in inflaming public fears, as part of their master plan to justify the attack on Iraq in the spring of 2003.
The mystery concerns the envelopes of white powder containing anthrax spores that were mailed out to prominent Americans, starting on September 18, 2001. They went to US Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle, to US Senator Pat Leahy, to NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw. Directly inhaled into the lungs, the spores can be deadly. In the post-September 11 mailings five died.
Back in the autumn of 2001 the anthrax envelopes convinced millions of Americans reeling from the collapse of the Trade Towers that Yes, this was war and Islam was the enemy. The crudely written notes accompanying the spores said "Death to America, Death to Israel, Allah is Great."
Within hours the Bush administration was leaking stories to the effect that analysis of the anthrax in the envelopes disclosed the presence of bentonite and this chemical footprint - so the anonymous sources insisted to their favoured outlet, Brian Ross of ABC News - was characteristic of products from the bio-terror labs of Saddam Hussein.
Oddly enough, the mention of bentonite had a soothing effect on me. If this was the spoor of al-Qaeda, then California's wine industry had been taken over by Osama bin Laden. Bentonite is a derivative of lava and has many homely applications, from sealing leaky ponds to purging wine of unsightly protein haze. I use it myself to clarify my home-made cider.
But ABC's stories about bentonite-laced anthrax spores carried the day and were hugely effective in helping prepare public sentiment for the attack on Iraq. Subsequent memoirs such as those of Bush's first Treasury Secretary, Paul O'Neill have disclosed that Bush was working on this even before September 11.
Soon politicians such as Senator John McCain were gravely confiding to TV network interviewers that if, as seemed likely, Saddam's anthrax was in the envelopes, then this cemented excited suspicions of an Osama-Saddam terror connection already inflamed by a long and totally inaccurate report in the New Yorker magazine.
The lead government agency investigating the anthrax envelopes was the FBI and the Bureau was under huge pressure to come up with a suspect. The White House leaned on FBI chief Robert Muller to say that the trail pointed to Baghdad. But the Bureau's trail led in a very different direction. Soon a fresh tide of leaks to the New York Times and a few other sources fingered Steven Hatfill, who had worked at the end of the 1990s as a civilian researcher at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), the US Department of Defense's medical research institute for biological warfare defense at Fort Detrick, Maryland.
By 2004 Iraq had been invaded and Hatfill was suing his detractors in the New York Times and other publications for destroying his career. The US Department of Justice disclosed that in March of this year it had taken Hatfill off the suspects list and was compensating him for false allegations, giving the 54-year old $5.8m, with a down payment of $2.825m in cash and $150,000 a year for 20 years.
But the FBI had another suspect, one it had identified but cleared in its initial investigation. This was Bruce E. Ivins a career anthrax researcher at Ft. Detrick, on the team at the US Army Medical Research Institute. With Hatfill out of the picture, the heat was on Ifill and he buckled. On July 29 of this year he died from a mix of Tylenol and codeine, diagnosed as a suicide.
Exactly like Hatfill when the FBI had him in its sights, Ivins has been the target of a torrent of disobliging stories in the aftermath of his death, many of them apparently inspired by the FBI. A social worker who counselled him claims he was a drunk and a time-bomb of resentments. A practising Catholic, he wrote letters to a local newspaper which called Jews the chosen people and which were hostile to Islam. The Bureau's charge, as with Hatfill, is that with his alleged dispatch of the anthrax-filled envelopes Ivins was setting up Muslims as the originators of the anthrax attacks.
Ivins's suicide has reignited deep suspicions among a handful of journalists, most consistently voiced down the years by Glen Greenwald (a lawyer and blogger on the Salon site), that the US government certainly used, and perhaps even sponsored, the anthrax attacks as a way of ratcheting up national panic after 9/11 to a level where the public would gladly endorse special emergency powers sought by the White House, accepting a Saddam-Osama linkage into the bargain.
Those - I count myself among them - who most emphatically do not believe that George Bush and Dick Cheney masterminded the 9/11/2001 attacks on the Trade Towers and Pentagon - have much less difficulty in agreeing with these dark surmises. Greenwald, who has written powerfully for a number of years on the dictatorial powers sought and mostly won by the Bush administration, is now calling on Ross (left) and ABC to identify their "four separate sources" who promoted what turned out to have been an entirely bogus discovery of bentonite in the anthrax, and an equally bogus suggestion that anthrax plus bentonite equals Saddam's terror labs in Baghdad.
As Greenwald writes this week, ABC News is not protecting sources. "The people who fed them the bentonite story aren't 'sources'. They're fabricators and liars who purposely used ABC News to disseminate to the American public an extremely consequential and damaging falsehood."
True enough. ABC News is clearly embarrassed by Greenwald's soundly-based charges. Will Ross 'fess up to who fed him the stories? I doubt it. He's been a useful conduit for government leaks on matters such as the utility of water-boarding as a vital weapon in the war on terror. He'll keep his mouth shut, even as public cynicism about Bush and Cheney, and the press, soar to new highs. ·
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