Thursday, August 07, 2008
(updated below - Update II - Update III)
After obtaining a federal judge's approval to unseal the documents in the anthrax investigation, the FBI has released selected documents relating to its case against Bruce Ivins. Those documents can be viewed here.
I'm in the process of reviewing these documents and will post preliminary thoughts here as I do so, updating this post as I make my way through them, and then will undoubtedly have more to write after I am able to speak with some experts with regard to the FBI's scientific claims.
One critical caveat to keep at the forefront of one's mind is that when one side is in exclusive possession of all documents and can pick and choose which ones to release in full or in part in order to make their case, while leaving out the parts that undercut the picture they want to paint - which is exactly what the FBI is doing here -- then it is very easy to make things look however you want.
The first FBI listed document -- the October, 2007 Probable Cause Affidavit from Postal Inspector Thomas Dellafera (here -- .pdf), summarizes the Government's case against Ivins as of that time, and it is a good starting point. That document, standing alone, contains some persuasive circumstantial evidence against Ivins -- no doubt about it. But it also contains very little scientific evidence, and more to the point, circumstantial evidence is extremely easy to manipulate when you're the only one who has it.
One of the most notable aspects of that document is the motive attributed to Ivins, which is several-fold (much of which is grounded in its attribution to Ivins of a right-wing political agenda):
Ivins harbored animosity towards Catholic politicians who were pro-choice, particularly Sen. Daschle and Sen. Leahy, two of the targets of the most virulent anthrax strain that was sent;
particularly in the wake of 9/11, he was angry towards those who embraced the ACLU position that civil liberties must be safeguarded, and Sens. Daschle and Leahy, at the time, were widely perceived to have been holding up passage of the Patriot Act, and he also was furious at those who wanted to "coddle" or "excuse" terrorists;
he was angry at NBC News because one of its journalists, Gary Matsumoto (who subsequently was the producer of the ABC bentonite stories) was investigating the safety of the anthrax vaccine; and one of the anthrax letters was sent to Tom Brokaw at NBC; and,
he was afraid that Government support for the anthrax vaccine he helped develop, and funding for future research, would dissipate, and an anthrax attack would revitalize that support.
On the ABC/Iraq front, Media Bistro today conducted an interview with Brian Ross regarding the bentonite story, which is here. In an article examining these issues, The Columbia Journalism Review supports my position, and that of Professors Rosen and Gillmor's, that Ross should disclose the identity of his sources, and adds several more questions he and ABC should answer. I will undoubtedly have more on that issue and the rest of the issues raised by the DOJ documents shortly. The Accountability Now petition to key members of Congress for an investigation -- needed more than ever -- is here.
UPDATE: One of the pieces of circumstantial evidence which the FBI stressed most heavily and which has clearly impressed The New York Times is that Ivins, in a September 26, 2001 email to a colleague (which the FBI appears not to have released in full), wrote: "Osama bin Laden has just decreed death to all Jews and all Americans." After citing that email, the FBI then claims in each of its Search Warrant affidavits (emphasis in original) that this is "language similar to the text of the anthrax letters postmarked two weeks later warning 'DEATH TO AMERICA,' 'DEATH TO ISRAEL.'"
Everyone can decide for themselves how persuasive they find that, but "Death to America" and "Death to Israel" were hardly some exotic or unique phrases the use of which by both Ivins and the anthrax attacker would constitute anything incriminating. To the contrary, those phrases were very common, and routinely appeared in press reports, particularly around the time of 9/11, for obvious reasons:
- The Washington Post, 9/27/2001 -- Dateline: October 26, 2001:
Iran's top political and religious leader said today his country would not join a U.S.-led coalition against terrorism, dousing hopes that Iran's recent condemnations of terrorist attacks in the United States might lead to warming relations between the longtime antagonists. . . .
[Khamenei]'s speech, delivered to a group of war veterans and their families, was punctuated by chants from the crowd of "Death to America!" and "Death to Israel!" the traditional rallying cries of hard-liners in Iran.
- Chicago Tribune, 9/27/2001:
In his speech to families of victims of the 1980-88 war against Iraq, Khamenei ruled out Iran's participation in any attack on Afghanistan or in a wider U.S.-led battle against terrorism.
"Iran will not provide any help in an attack by the U.S. and its allies. You who have always hurt Iran's interests, how can you ask for our help in attacking an oppressed country?" the ayatollah asked. The gathering of several thousand shouted their approval with cries of "Death to America" and "Death to Israel."
- The Guardian, 12/28/2000:
Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told tens of thousands of worshippers gathered in and around a north Tehran mosque: "It is a human, religious, wise and historical duty for all the Muslim nations to support the oppressed Palestinian nation as much as possible."
Some hardliners responded with calls of "Death to Israel! Death to America!"
- The Journal of Counterterrorism & Security International, Winter, 1999:
"Death to America; death to Israel! Israel is the enemy of Islam, America is the Great Satan!"
- Hizballah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah leading mourners in an angry chant at the funeral of Ali Deeb, a slain officer of the group (August 1999).
For exactly the same reasons, in September, 2001, speculating about whether Osama bin Laden had anthrax was just as common -- for any Americans, let alone an anthrax vaccine researcher as Ivins was. As but one of countless examples, here's what Maureen Dowd wrote in The New York Times on September 26, 2001:
After all these finicky years of fighting everyday germs and inevitable mortality with fancy products, Americans are now confronted with the specter of terrorists in crop dusters and hazardous-waste trucks spreading really terrifying, deadly toxins like plague, smallpox, blister agents, nerve gas and botulism.I could spend the rest of the night listing all the examples of people in the media during that time talking about Osama bin Laden, bioterrorism, and anthrax specifically. The fact that Ivins was doing so -- with a colleague in the field -- is anything but surprising. It would be surprising if he hadn't been. I want to stress again that there does appear to be some convincing circumstantial evidence presented by the FBI (at least as of now, in its one-sided form), but I don't think that email remotely qualifies as such.
Women I know in New York and Washington debate whether to order Israeli vs. Marine Corps gas masks, half-hour lightweight gas masks vs. $400 eight-hour gas masks, baby gas masks and pet gas masks, with the same meticulous attention they gave to ordering no-foam-no-fat-no-whip lattes in more innocent days. They share information on which pharmacies still have Cipro, Zithromax and Doxycycline, all antibiotics that can be used for anthrax, the way they once traded tips on designer shoe bargains. They talk more now about real botulism than its trendy cosmetic derivative Botox.
UPDATE II: What is most conspicuously absent from these FBI documents is any real forensic evidence linking Ivins to the anthrax that was sent. That's particularly striking because the FBI took numerous swabs of Ivins' residence, his office space, his laboratory devices (presumably including the lyothilizer he used), his locker, his cars. If they had discovered any anthrax traces that genetically matched what was sent in 2001, they certainly would have said so. But they don't.
It's long been claimed that the property that rendered so dangerous the anthrax sent to Daschle and Leahy was that it was airborne. At times it was even claimed that the anthrax was aerosolized. Under all circumstances, in order for it to be inhalation anthrax, it would have to disperse rather easily. Wouldn't one expect that the FBI's swabs would reveal traces of anthrax somewhere on the clothes, in the home or other physical surroundings of the anthrax attacker? Yet apparently those multiple swabbing episodes turned up nothing, at least based on the documents that were released today.
Nor are there any real answers to the question of how Ivins would have manufactured, on his own and without being detected, anthrax grade of the type that was used in the attacks. The numerous hours he spent alone in the lab doesn't address what many of his colleagues said would have been his technological inability to produce anthrax of this type.
Rep. Rush Holt today received a briefing from the FBI Director and just said this:
I appreciate the preliminary briefing that FBI Director Mueller gave me today. I am pleased the FBI finally has begun to answer the questions that the families of the victims have had for nearly seven years. While the circumstantial evidence pointing to Dr. Ivins that the Department of Justice released today is compelling, a number of important questions remain unanswered, such as why investigators remained focused on Dr. Hatfill long after they had begun to suspect Dr. Ivins of the crime and why investigators are so certain that Ivins acted alone. In addition, there are important policy questions for handling any future incidents of bioterrorism. I will continue to conduct additional oversight on this issue over the course of the next several months.There are other questions besides those, too. And there will undoubtedly be more when and if the FBI releases the actual documents and data underlying their conclusions. It is critical to keep in mind that all they released is their own claims and summary about the evidence they have. The evidence itself continues to remain concealed, in their exclusive possession, examined by nobody.
What happened today with this selective document release is akin to a criminal trial where only the Prosecutor is allowed to see the relevant evidence, only the Prosecutor is allowed to select which evidence is presented, and only the Prosecutor speaks. Such a distorted, one-sided process doesn't even happen at Guantanamo, which should, by itself, indicate how much skepticism is warranted here until the FBI makes the actual evidence available so that its claims can be subjected to critical scrutiny.
UPDATE III: Long-time anthrax expert Dr. Meryl Nass (Curriculum Vitae here) uses crystal clear rationality to point out just some of the glaring flaws in what the FBI presented today. The fact that the FBI is plainly unable to place him near Princeton, New Jersey on either of the two dates on which the letters were sent -- and, worse, the fact that the FBI included several facts which cut against such a finding -- is, as Dr. Nass points out, by itself an enormous omission:
Put up or shut up: this is the most critical evidence in this case. If Ivins cannot be placed in New Jersey on those dates, he is not the attacker, or he did not act alone.I highly recommend that her analysis be read in its entirety, particularly by any journalists who are preparing to opine on what took place today.
And while NPR's reporting on this matter earlier in the week left much to be desired, kudos to them for their article today, weaving in substantial commentary from Ivins' lawyer, Paul Kemp, and thus including vigorous challenges to and criticisms of most of the FBI's claim.
Wednesday, August 06, 2008
It's becoming increasingly apparent that the Bush administration -- including the FBI, Homeland Security, and the Pentagon -- all want the anthrax-killer case to quietly die with the person of Bruce Ivins. Yep, case closed, move along, folks. Right?
Well, excuse us. If you don't mind, we still have a few questions:
-- Did Ivins -- if he really was the anthrax killer -- have any co-conspirators, as the evidence suggests?
-- Why was security at Fort Detrick, home of USAMRIID, probably the nation's most sensitive and secretive weapons laboratory, so lax as to allow this to happen?
-- And finally (and perhaps most significantly), was the mere fact of this kind of weaponized anthrax's existence at Fort Detrick another example of the Bush administration's flagrant violations of international law?
You see, the process used to create this anthrax was in flagrant violation of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (more here). The United States is not just a cosigner, it is one of the chief authors of this particular international law, which has been in effect since 1972. Chief among its tenets is the prohibition against developing new biological-weapons processes.
The FBI's self-evident conclusion that the anthrax was produced at Fort Detrick is manifest evidence that we are violating that law -- and have probably been doing so for some time, even preceding the Bush regime.
Indeed, we've known since this spring that the anthrax was almost certainly produced there, when a Fox News report on a possible breakthrough in the case disclosed that "scientists at Fort Detrick openly discussed how the anthrax powder they were asked to analyze after the attacks was nearly identical to that made by one of their colleagues."
So you'll have to excuse us if we are not quite ready to move along. In fact, as Jane says, it's time for a full-blown, front-page congressional investigation.Read more »
Tuesday, August 05, 2008
(updated below - Update II - Update III - Update IV)
It's certainly possible that once the FBI closes its investigation and then formally unveils its evidence -- which apparently will happen tomorrow -- a very convincing case will be made that Bruce Ivins perpetrated the anthrax attacks and did so alone. But what has been revealed thus far -- through the standard ritual of selected Government leaks which the establishment media, with some exceptions, just mindlessly re-prints no matter how frivolous -- is creating the opposite impression. The FBI's coordinated leaking is making their claim to have solved the anthrax case appear quite dubious, in some instances laughably so.
One glaring and important exception to the dynamic of uncritical media recitation is this morning's New York Times article by Scott Shane and Nicholas Wade, which evinces very strong skepticism over the FBI's case thus far and discloses facts that create more grounds for skepticism. Given everything that has happened over the last seven years -- not just with the anthrax attacks but with countless episodes of Government deceit and corruption -- it's astonishing (and more than a little disturbing) how many people are willing, even eager, to assume that the Government's accusations against Ivins are accurate even without seeing a shred of evidence to support those claims.
When you add on to that the magnitude of this case and the ample reasons for error and deceit -- it's the first lethal bioterrorism attack on the U.S., one which, according to the Government itself, originated at a U.S. Government facility, perpetrated by a U.S. Army scientist, that was then used by numerous factions inside the Government and out to ratchet up fear levels and falsely blame Iraq and/or Al Qaeda for the attacks and, thereafter, was blamed on someone who appears to have been completely innocent -- what minimally rational person would be willing to assume that the Government's uncorroborated, unexamined, untested claims are accurate? In today's Los Angeles Times, Gabriel Schoenfeld of Commentary wrote:
Whether Ivins is conclusively shown to be the perpetrator, or whether he was an innocent man hounded by intrusive surveillance and public humiliation into suicide, questions about the FBI's performance are piling up.This morning I interviewed Rep. Rush Holt, whose Central New Jersey district includes a mailbox where at least one of the anthrax letters was mailed, and who is also a trained physicist and Chairman of the Select Intelligence Oversight Panel (the audio of the interview is here). Rep. Holt said:
The bureau's horrific track record before 9/11, and its single-minded focus on Hatfill after the anthrax attacks, raises the suspicion that, in the dramatic events of last week, we are glimpsing yet another monumental screw-up, one fully worthy of the FBI's inglorious recent past.
Having watched how [the FBI] collected evidence, I don't have a lot of confidence, and I think the burden is on them to satisfy me, and other members of Congress, that they've done this right. . . . The case seems to me at this point to be circumstantial, and again, without briefings from the FBI, it would be presumptuous of me to say. And it would be presumptuous of people in Central New Jersey to breathe a sigh of relief and say: "They got the murderer. He is no longer at-large." The people deserve better re-assurances than what they've been given.Those re-assurances simply aren't possible without a full-scale Congressional hearing or even an external Commission of the type that investigated the 9/11 attacks -- endowed with full subpoena power -- to examine all of the unresolved issues here, including the ABC/bentonite angle, a proposal which Rep. Holt said today he supports.
* * * * *
Just to illustrate how utterly unreliable and often frivolous the Government-media leaking ritual has been, look at what happened yesterday. The AP's big, leaked scoop of the day to incriminate Ivins was this:
The top suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks was obsessed with a sorority that sat less than 100 yards away from a New Jersey mailbox where the toxin-laced letters were sent, authorities said today. . . .That's not exactly convincing evidence. Its primary purpose seems to be to make Ivins look creepy -- he harbored a decades-long obsession with a college sorority -- but at least one could argue it would be enough of a circumstantial link to be worth noting. But as it turns out, the leaked information wasn't even close to accurate. Shortly after that leak appeared, it transformed into this laughable claim in an updated AP story:
The bizarre link to the sorority may indirectly explain one of the biggest mysteries in the case: why the anthrax was mailed from Princeton, 195 miles from the Army biological weapons lab the anthrax is believed to have been smuggled out of.
The mailbox just off the campus of Princeton University where the letters were mailed sits about 100 yards away from where the college's Kappa Kappa Gamma chapter stores its rush materials, initiation robes and other property. Sorority members do not live there, and the Kappa chapter at Princeton does not provide a house for the women.That would be quite an unusual and bizarre way for such an obsessive interest to express itself -- he used a mailbox in proximity not to a sorority house, which doesn't even exist on that campus at all, but was merely near a storage room the sorority uses to store some material. And, as the updated AP article then disclosed, there was zero basis for believing Ivins had anything to do with the Princeton sorority at all:
[The Princeton chapter's Sorority adviser Katherine Breckinridge] Graham said there was nothing to indicate that any of the sorority members had anything to do with Ivins.But even that pitifully thin reed was then reduced further still when that ever-vanishing leak made this appearance in this morning's New York Times article:
"Nothing odd went on," said Graham, an attorney and Kappa alumna.
Years ago, he had visited Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority houses at universities in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, an obsession growing out of a romance with a sorority sister in his own college days at the University of Cincinnati -- although someone who knew him well said the last such visit was in 1981.Within less than 24 hours, we went from "a New Jersey mailbox used to send the anthrax was less than 100 yards away from a sorority for which Ivins harbored an intense life-long obsession" to "the mailbox was near a storage closet used by a sorority that Ivins used to frequent 27 years ago and by a specific chapter that Ivins appeared to have absolutely nothing to do with."
And then there is the Hatfill-like leaking of scurrilous information about Ivins, including the fact that he had -- as the NYT put it today -- "a history of alcohol abuse, had for years maintained a post office box under an assumed name that he used to receive pornographic pictures of blindfolded women." Leaving aside the fact that alcohol abuse and pornography consumption aren't exactly clues marking someone as the anthrax killer, how bad could his "alcohol abuse" have been if he continued to maintain Government clearance to work at a U.S. Army facility with the nation's most dangerous pathogens?
And what had originally been leaked as the sinister-sounding claim that Ivins maintained "a post office box under an assumed name" transformed into the much more innocuous revelation that he did so in order to surreptitiously receive porn -- behavior that isn't exactly unusual given that "revenues for the world pornography industry hit an estimated $97 billion in 2006, overshadowing the revenues of the top technology companies -- the likes of Microsoft, Google, Yahoo! and Apple -- combined." Bruce Ivins isn't the only American male surreptitiously using pornography, to understate the case drastically. The FBI's need to demonize Ivins as a creepy, porn-loving drunk suggests that their actual evidence is far from convincing.
* * * * *
The leaked "scientific" evidence is no better. If anything, it's worse. The Washington Post today reports -- all based on anonymous leaks -- that "key to the probe" is the fact that Ivins "borrowed from a bioweapons lab that fall freeze-drying equipment that allows scientists to quickly convert wet germ cultures into dry spores" and that "the drying device, known as a lyopholizer, could help investigators explain how he might have been able to send letters containing deadly anthrax spores to U.S. senators and news organizations." The article further claims that "the device was not commonly used by researchers at the Army's sprawling biodefense complex at Fort Detrick, Md."
But that appears to be completely false. Here is the abstract of a 1995 research report, for which Ivins was the lead scientist, reporting on discoveries made as part of their research into anthrax vaccines (h/t substantial). This is the method they described using:
The efficacy of several human anthrax vaccine candidates comprised of different adjuvants together with Bacillus anthracis protective antigen (PA) was evaluated in guinea pigs challenged by an aerosol of virulent B. anthracis spores. The most efficacious vaccines tested were formulated with PA plus monophosphoryl lipid A (MPL) in a squalenel lecithin/Tween 80 emulsion (SLT) and PA plus the saponin QS-21. The PA+MPL in SLT vaccine, which was lyophilized and then reconstituted before use, demonstrated strong protective immunogenicity, even after storage for 2 years at 4°C. The MPL component was required for maximum efficacy of the vaccine. Eliminating lyophilization of the vaccine did not diminish its protective efficacy. No significant alteration in efficacy was observed when PA was dialyzed against different buffers before preparation of vaccine. PA+MPL in SLT proved superior in efficacy to the licensed United States human anthrax vaccine in the guinea pig model.Clearly, Ivins' legitimate work researching anthrax vaccines entailed the use of a lyopholizer. As the commenter notes, "If you google 'lyophilize' and 'anthrax', most of the pages returned are about anthrax vaccines, which is what Dr. Ivins was working on at Ft. Detrick." Indeed, even the Post article -- while breathlessly touting the profound importance of Ivins' incriminating possession of a lyopholizer -- says this:
He did at least one project for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that would have given him reason to use the drying equipment, according to a former colleague in his lab.This morning I spoke with Dr. Luke D. Jasenosky of the Harvard School of Medicine's Immune Disease Institute. Dr. Jasenosky said that it is "very common" for someone engaged in the vaccine research of the type Ivins did to use a lyopholizer, and that he "would actually be surprised if they weren't using one."
The Post article goes to great lengths to stress how small and easily hidden this device is -- to imply that Ivins could have weaponized the anthrax without being detected -- but the FBI found out that Ivins had possession of a lyopholizer because of this:
Ivins had to go through a formal process to check out the lyopholizer, creating a record on which authorities are now relying.So he didn't exactly hide his acquisition and use of the device which, the FBI is now trying to suggest, he secretly used to convert wet spores into dry anthrax in order to perpetuate the anthrax attacks. Quite the opposite -- he obtained the device in exactly the way that regulations required, knowing that there would be a clear and easy paper trail reflecting that he obtained this device -- one which he obviously had legitimate reasons, on at least some occasions, to use in his work.
The FBI is presumably leaking its most convincing evidence. If sorority obsessions, porn collections and lyopholizer usage are its most convincing, one shudders to imagine what its less convincing evidence is.
* * * * *
All sorts of similar questions are raised by the onslaught of other FBI leaks. Dr. Jasenosky told me that he finds claims of some "ground-breaking" new DNA technique, or some "big breakthrough" to be "quite strange," given that what the news accounts have described is nothing more than an incremental extension of molecular analysis techniques that have existed for several years and which, at most, appear to have only enabled existing techniques to be conducted more rapidly. He further emphasized that even the most sophisticated DNA tests could never link anthrax to any particular scientist, and that no assessment of the FBI's assertions is possible without a thorough review of its underlying data. Dr. Meryl Nass said the same thing today: "Let me reiterate: No matter how good the microbial forensics may be, they can only, at best, link the anthrax to a particular strain and lab. They cannot link it to any individual."
And then there is the issue of Ivins' mental state. The New York Times reported today that part of the FBI investigation was so heavy-handed that it actually entailed showing gruesome photographs of the anthrax victims to Ivins' adult children, telling them that their father is the one who did that, while trying to entice them to turn on him with promises of a reward. As Rep. Holt indicated this morning, is it any wonder that any person -- guilty or not -- would experience severe psychological distress when targeted by the FBI that way? Moreover, this morning's Frederick News Post (doing some of the best reporting in the country on this case) reported that it was FBI agents who told Jean Duley to seek a protective order against Ivins -- the action that then created the record used by most media outlets to depict Ivins as a crazed psychopath.
No matter what the FBI says over the next week, or whenever it is that it finally gets around to stopping its manipulative leaks to its media friends and begins instead showing the public its evidence, a full-scale investigation is required here. Bruce Ivins may very well be the anthrax killer, having acted alone, but there is no rational basis for believing right now that he is.
UPDATE: The incomparably meticulous Marcy Wheeler has constructed a very helpful and typically well-documented timeline of key anthrax events, here.
One of the unanswered questions, even by the FBI's case, is why the targets of the anthrax attacks (Sen. Leahy, Sen. Daschle and Tom Brokaw, among others) were selected. Brad Friedman has obtained interesting evidence of Ivins' political leanings, including the fact that he was a registered Democrat who has voted in numerous Democratic primaries since 1996.
UPDATE II: The Boston Globe's Washington Bureau Chief, Peter Canellos, today examines the way in which the anthrax attacks were used to increase the nation's fear of Islamic radicals generally and Iraq specifically, and he writes:
When the anthrax attacks occurred, Iraq was immediately fingered by some experts and many neoconservative hawks as a possible source; ABC News quoted three unnamed government sources as saying the powder in the letters matched the type produced in Iraq.The Washington Post's Dan Froomkin notes that article and adds: "So who told ABC the powder looked Iraqi? Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald has been asking that question for days." How much longer will ABC News and Brian Ross be able to refuse to address these questions?
Even though most serious analysts were highly skeptical that the tainted letters came from Hussein, the mere possibility that Iraq could have maintained a stockpile of anthrax was enough to convince many people that it was a looming threat.
UPDATE III: If even the government-loving Time Magazine is now beginning tepidly to wonder "How Solid is the Anthrax Evidence?" -- and is even enumerating several important grounds for skepticism about the case against Ivins -- that's a very good indication of the that the FBI's claims are plagued by glaring holes.
UPDATE IV: One of the patents which Ivins (and others) obtained for an anthrax vaccine uses a lyophilizer in the final stages of preparation. Here's the patent -- filed in 2000 -- which, in several places, explains the patent holder's use of a lyophilizer ("The mixture was then lyophilized" -- "vials of lyophilized MPL/PA/emulsion were reconstituted in phosphate buffered saline (PBS)" -- "The concentrated sample was desalted again using the same buffer, frozen and finally lyophilized using a Speed-Vac").
Could The Washington Post's subservient, uncritical dissemination of the FBI's leak -- Ivins had a lyophilizer, which he had no reason to have! "The device was not commonly used by researchers at the Army's sprawling biodefense complex at Fort Detrick, Md" -- have been any shoddier? Do these "journalists" ever do anything other than go to Government sources, faithfully write down what they say, and then publish it in their articles without a single moment of thought or investigation? That's a rhetorical question.
August 5, 2008
Over the past week the media was gripped by the news that the FBI was about to charge Bruce Ivins, a leading anthrax expert, as the man responsible for the anthrax letter attacks in September/October 2001.
But despite the seemingly powerful narrative that Ivins committed suicide because investigators were closing in, this is still far from a shut case. The FBI needs to explain why it zeroed in on Ivins, how he could have made the anthrax mailed to lawmakers and the media, and how he (or anyone else) could have pulled off the attacks, acting alone.
I believe this is another mistake in the investigation.
Let's start with the anthrax in the letters to Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. The spores could not have been produced at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, where Ivins worked, without many other people being aware of it. Furthermore, the equipment to make such a product does not exist at the institute.
Information released by the FBI over the past seven years indicates a product of exceptional quality. The product contained essentially pure spores. The particle size was 1.5 to 3 microns in diameter. There are several methods used to produce anthrax that small. But most of them require milling the spores to a size small enough that it can be inhaled into the lower reaches of the lungs. In this case, however, the anthrax spores were not milled.
What's more, they were also tailored to make them potentially more dangerous. According to a FBI news release from November 2001, the particles were coated by a "product not seen previously to be used in this fashion before." Apparently, the spores were coated with a polyglass which tightly bound hydrophilic silica to each particle. That's what was briefed (according to one of my former weapons inspectors at the United Nations Special Commission) by the FBI to the German Foreign Ministry at the time.
Another FBI leak indicated that each particle was given a weak electric charge, thereby causing the particles to repel each other at the molecular level. This made it easier for the spores to float in the air, and increased their retention in the lungs.
In short, the potential lethality of anthrax in this case far exceeds that of any powdered product found in the now extinct U.S. Biological Warfare Program. In meetings held on the cleanup of the anthrax spores in Washington, the product was described by an official at the Department of Homeland Security as "according to the Russian recipes" -- apparently referring to the use of the weak electric charge.
The latest line of speculation asserts that the anthrax's DNA, obtained from some of the victims, initially led investigators to the laboratory where Ivins worked. But the FBI stated a few years ago that a complete DNA analysis was not helpful in identifying what laboratory might have made the product.
Furthermore, the anthrax in this case, the "Ames strain," is one of the most common strains in the world. Early in the investigations, the FBI said it was similar to strains found in Haiti and Sri Lanka. The strain at the institute was isolated originally from an animal in west Texas and can be found from Texas to Montana following the old cattle trails. Samples of the strain were also supplied to at least eight laboratories including three foreign laboratories. Four French government laboratories reported on studies with the Ames strain, citing the Pasteur Institute in Paris as the source of the strain they used. Organism DNA is not a very reliable way to make a case against a scientist.
The FBI has not officially released information on why it focused on Ivins, and whether he was about to be charged or arrested. And when the FBI does release this information, we should all remember that the case needs to be firmly based on solid information that would conclusively prove that a lone scientist could make such a sophisticated product.
From what we know so far, Bruce Ivins, although potentially a brilliant scientist, was not that man. The multiple disciplines and technologies required to make the anthrax in this case do not exist at Army's Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. Inhalation studies are conducted at the institute, but they are done using liquid preparations, not powdered products.
The FBI spent between 12 and 18 months trying "to reverse engineer" (make a replica of) the anthrax in the letters sent to Messrs. Daschle and Leahy without success, according to FBI news releases. So why should federal investigators or the news media or the American public believe that a lone scientist would be able to do so?
Mr. Spertzel, head of the biological-weapons section of Unscom from 1994-99, was a member of the Iraq Survey Group.
U.S. Government Behind Anthrax Attacks on it's own Citizens
The U.S. Government is Responsible for the Anthrax Attacks. In a coordinated effort, the U.S. Government sent spores of Anthrax to Democratic Senators and the "liberal media."
Could this have been a "lone gunman" who was behind it? No. There is no way one person could have weaponized the anthrax and sent it out to terrorize American Citizens and also have been behind the massive misinformation campaign designed to link the Anthrax to Iraq. ABC New's Brian Ross claims to have four (4) "well-placed" sources who claimed the Anthrax had Bentonite, meaning it came from Iraq.
Anthrax was used by the U.S. Government to further the terror climate after 9/11 and justify the U.S. Invasion of Iraq.
Why was the investigation so bungled that has taken 7 years? Why was the investigation so bungled that the U.S. Government paid $5.8 Million to a man who was falsely accused? Why is there such a concerted effort now to rap up the investigation and blame it on a man who just allegedly committed suicide?
Because the U.S. Government doesn't want you to know the truth. The Truth is that those who are responsible for the attack itself and the misinformation campaign that followed it are all working very hard to make sure that you never know who was behind the attacks.
Those responsible for the attacks propagated misinformation about who was responsible, they peddled false bentonite claims to point the finger at Iraq and Saddam Hussein. They peddled false information that it was Al-Qaeda who was responsible for the Anthrax when it was KNOWN within a few weeks of the attacks that there was NO WAY Al-Qaeda could have been responsible.
So who's responsible for the Anthrax Attacks?
The U.S. Government and the Media who has allowed those responsible to peddle misinformation under the guise of anonymity.
That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.
Hugs and Kisses,
So who was the Anthrax Terrorist? If you believe John McCain, it came from Iraq. If you believe the FBI it came from an American.
The evidence amassed by F.B.I. investigators against Dr. Bruce E. Ivins, the Army scientist who killed himself last week after learning that he was likely to be charged in the anthrax letter attacks of 2001, was largely circumstantial, and a grand jury in Washington was planning to hear several more weeks of testimony before issuing an indictment, a person who has been briefed on the investigation said on Sunday.
While genetic analysis had linked the anthrax letters to a supply of the deadly bacterium in Dr. Ivins’s laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md., at least 10 people had access to the flask containing that anthrax, said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly.
Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation also have no evidence proving that Dr. Ivins visited New Jersey on the dates in September and October 2001 when investigators believe the letters were sent from a Princeton mailbox, the source said.
The source acknowledged that there might be some elements of the evidence of which he was unaware. And while he characterized what he did know about as “damning,” he said that instead of irrefutable proof, investigators had an array of indirect evidence that they argue strongly implicates Dr. Ivins in the attacks, which killed 5 people and sickened 17 others.
That evidence includes tracing the prestamped envelopes used in the attacks to stock sold in three Maryland post offices, including one in Frederick, frequented by Dr. Ivins, who had long rented a post office box there under an assumed name, the source said. The evidence also includes records of the scientist’s extensive after-hours use of his lab at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases around the time the letters were mailed, the source said.
In an indication that investigators were still trying to strengthen their case, F.B.I. agents took two public computers from the downtown public library in Frederick last week, The Frederick News-Post reported.
One law enforcement official said on Sunday that evidence against Dr. Ivins might be made public as early as Wednesday, if the bureau could persuade a federal judge to unseal the evidence and if agents could brief survivors of the anthrax attacks and family members of those who died.
Paul F. Kemp, a lawyer for Dr. Ivins who maintains his client’s innocence, declined to comment for the record on Sunday on the alleged evidence.
The stakes for the beleaguered F.B.I. and its troubled investigation, now in its seventh year, could hardly be higher.
The bureau, having recently paid off one wrongly singled-out researcher, Dr. Steven J. Hatfill, now stands accused by Dr. Ivins’s lawyer and some of his colleagues of hounding an innocent man to suicide. Only by making public a powerful case that Dr. Ivins was behind the letters can the F.B.I. begin to redeem itself, members of Congress say and some bureau officials admit privately.
Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the former Democratic leader of the Senate and one target of the deadly letters, said on Sunday that he had long had grave doubts about the investigation.
“From the very beginning, I’ve had real concerns about the quality of the investigation,” Mr. Daschle said on Fox News Sunday.
“Given the fact that they already paid somebody else $5 million for the mistakes they must have made gives you some indication of the overall caliber and quality of the investigation,” Mr. Daschle added. He was referring to the government’s settlement in June with Dr. Hatfill, which pays him $2.825 million plus $150,000 a year for life to compensate him for what the F.B.I. now acknowledges was a devastating focus for years on the wrong man.
Mr. Daschle said he did not know whether the new focus on Dr. Ivins was “just another false track.” He added, “We don’t know, and they aren’t telling us.”
John Miller, an F.B.I. assistant director, declined on Sunday to address criticism of the investigation, one of the largest and most costly in bureau history.
“As soon as the legal constraints barring disclosure are removed, we will make public as much information as possible,” Mr. Miller said in a statement. “We will do that at one time, in one place. We will do that after those who were injured and the families of those who died are briefed, which is only appropriate.”
He added, “I don’t believe it will be helpful to respond piecemeal to any judgments made by anyone before they know a fuller set of facts.”
The unsealed evidence would likely include affidavits for search warrants laying out the bureau’s reasons for focusing on Dr. Ivins, including summaries of scientific evidence that investigators consider central to their case. Dr. Ivins’s house near the gates to Fort Detrick was the subject of an extensive search by F.B.I. agents last Nov. 1, and bureau surveillance vehicles openly followed the scientist for about a year, according to people who knew him.
Dr. Ivins, 62, had acted strangely in the weeks before his death, and he was hospitalized from about July 10 to July 23 after associates concluded that he might be a danger to himself or others. Jean C. Duley, a social worker who had treated him in group therapy, sought a restraining order against him. He had said he expected to be charged with “five capital murders,” she said, and had threatened to kill colleagues and himself.
Ms. Duley did not say that Dr. Ivins had confessed to the anthrax attacks, and the scientist left no suicide note, according to an official briefed on the investigation.
Critics say the Hatfill settlement was the culmination of a pattern of blunders in the investigation. The F.B.I. and the United States Postal Inspection Service have thrown a huge amount of resources into the hunt for the anthrax mailer, whose letters dislodged members of Congress and Supreme Court justices from contaminated buildings, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up.
Yet from the beginning, public glimpses of the investigators’ work prompted serious questions. “What has bothered me is the unscientific, bumbling approach of our investigators,” said Representative Rush D. Holt, a Democrat and physicist whose New Jersey district includes the contaminated Princeton mailbox.
Mr. Holt said in a recent interview that his first doubts came after anthrax was found in his Congressional office in October 2001 but investigators never returned to conduct systematic testing to trace the path of the anthrax spores.
After that, he said, when contamination at a New Jersey postal processing center indicated that the letters had been mailed on one of a limited number of routes, it took investigators seven months to test several hundred mailboxes and identify the source.
“Within two days they could have dispatched 50 people to wipe all those mailboxes,” Mr. Holt said. He wrote to Robert S. Mueller III, the F.B.I. director, on Friday to ask that he testify to Congress about the investigation as soon as it is closed.
When investigators questioned people around the Princeton mailbox about whether they had seen a suspect there, they showed passers-by photos of only Dr. Hatfill, according to local residents who were questioned. Criminologists said that only by showing photos of a number of people could investigators have confidence in an eyewitness identification of Dr. Hatfill or any other suspect.
Some experts also questioned the F.B.I.’s use of bloodhounds from local police departments to try to trace a scent from the recovered letters to suspects’ homes, including that of Dr. Hatfill.
Law enforcement sources at the time said the bloodhounds’ reactions at Dr. Hatfill’s apartment were one reason for the F.B.I.’s intense focus on him. But independent bloodhound handlers said it was highly unlikely that a useful scent could be obtained from letters that might have been handled by the perpetrator with gloves, had rubbed against thousands of other scents in the mail and then were irradiated to kill the dangerous spores.
Monday, August 04, 2008
It's perfectly possible that Bruce Ivins really is the anthrax attacker -- that he perpetrated the attacks and did so alone. Perhaps the FBI is in possession of mountains of conclusive evidence that, once revealed, will leave no doubt that Ivins is the guilty party. But no rational person could possibly assume that to be the case given the paltry amount of facts -- many which contradict one another -- that are now known. Several points to note:
(1) Two prominent journalism professors -- Jay Rosen of NYU and Dan Gillmor at the Center for Citizen Media, affiliated with the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication at Arizona State University and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University Law School -- have added their names to the list of people calling on ABC News and Brian Ross to reveal their sources for ABC's false bentonite story that was used to link the anthrax attacks to Iraq. Rosen and Gillmor both write that ABC and Ross should answer three questions which they jointly outline, and they both set forth the reasons, grounded in widely accepted principles of journalistic ethics, as to why ABC and Ross should do so.
(2) So much of the public reporting about Ivins has been devoted to depicting him as a highly unstable psychotic who had been issuing extremely violent threats and who had a violent past. But that depiction has been based almost exclusively on the uncorroborated claims of Jean Carol Duley, a social worker (not a psychiatrist or psychologist) who, as recently as last year, was apparently still in college at Hood's College in Frederick, Maryland. Duley's scrawled handwritten complaint against Ivins, seeking a Protective Order, has served as the basis for much of the reporting regarding Ivins' mental state, yet it is hardly the model of a competent or authoritative professional. Quite the opposite.
Just three months ago, Duley pled guilty and was sentenced to probation (and fined $1,000), as a result of having been stopped in December, while driving at 1:35 a.m., and charged with driving under the influence:
On April 21, 2006, Duley was also charged with "driving a vehicle while impaired by alcohol," driving "while impaired by drugs or alcohol," and reckless driving, and on October 13, 2006, she pled guilty to the charge of reckless driving and was fined $580. Back in 1992, Duley was criminally charged with battery against what appeared to be her now-ex-husband (and she filed a complaint against him as well). Later that same year, she was criminally charged with possession of drug paraphenalia with intent to use, charges which appear to have been ultimately dismissed.
Prior to the restraining order against Ivins which Duley obtained two weeks ago, Ivins had no criminal record at all, at least not in Frederick. A story in today's Frederick News-Post quotes Duley's fiancee as claiming: "She had to quit her job and is now unable to work, and we have spent our savings on attorneys." But she doesn't appear to have used an attorney for her complaint against Ivins. If anything, her savings were likely depleted from attorneys' fees, court costs, and fines and probation for her various criminal proceedings (Larisa Alexandrovna has more details on Duley).
None of this is to defend Ivins, nor is to suggest that this constitutes evidence that Duley is lying or is otherwise inaccurate in her claims. As I said, it's perfectly possible that Ivins is guilty of being the anthrax attacker. I have no opinion on whether he is. The point is that nobody should have any opinion on that question -- one way or the other -- until they see the FBI's evidence.
What is certain is that Jean Carol Duley is hardly some upstanding, authoritative source on Bruce Ivins' psychological state or his guilt, nor is she some accomplished and highly credible psychological professional, notwithstanding the fact that most media depictions of Ivins are based on uncritical recitations of her accusations. The fact that her depiction contradicts not only the claims of virtually everyone else who knew Ivins but also numerous facts about how Ivins was treated even by the FBI (see below), suggests a large amount of skepticism is warranted.
(3) The initial report from The Los Angeles Times' David Willman said that Ivins committed suicide "just as the Justice Department was about to file criminal charges against him for the attacks." But an article from The New York Times' Scott Shane this morning reported that the evidence against Ivins "was largely circumstantial" and that the "grand jury in Washington was planning to hear several more weeks of testimony before issuing an indictment."
According to The Washington Post, Ivins enjoyed full-scale clearance at Fort Detrick as late as July 10 -- hardly what one would expect if the FBI were so certain that he was the anthrax attacker. And judging from an article in today's local Frederick newspaper, The Frederick-News Post Online, the FBI is still searching for evidence against Ivins, as they removed two computers from a public library there.
Members of Congress with some personal stake in this case and who have been attempting to assert some oversight on the FBI's investigation over the last six years -- Tom Daschle, Pat Leahy, Rush Holt -- have been uniformly critical of how it has been handled. Numerous experts continue to raise serious doubts about whether Ivins even had the ability to access and handle anthrax of the type that was sent to Daschle and Leahy. Maybe the FBI's evidence demonstrates that he could and did. Maybe it doesn't. But under all circumstances, it's inconceivable that anyone would be content with having the FBI simply keep its alleged evidence to itself and not have a full public airing and accounting of what has happened here, an accounting that should include the news organizations -- led by ABC -- which are in possession of vital information that they continue to conceal.
UPDATE: The Democracy Now segment I did this morning included Dr. Meryl Nass, an anthrax expert and physician (curriculum vitae is here) who knew Bruce Ivins, and is strongly skeptical of the claim that he is the anthrax attacker. Dr. Nass made several excellent points, and I will post the link to the segment once it is available. She also has been raising many insightful points questioning the accusations against Ivins on her blog, which is here. It is worthwhile to begin at the start and scroll down.
Relating to ABC, a reader exchanged emails with Brian Ross this weekend, and Ross wrote this (the email was sent from Ross' ABC address; yesterday, I emailed both him and ABC's Jeffrey Schneider to request confirmation of its authenticity, and they didn't reply):
As we reported more than six years ago our information came from current and former government scientists. The report was discointed [sic] and denied by the White House which we reported. I believe now the scientists got it wrong although they insisted they were correct long after.Actually, this is the first time, to my knowledge, that Ross has ever acknowledged that his sources for the bentonite story were "current and former government scientists." Given that he previously described his sources as being "well-placed," that means, presumably, that they were scientists with extremely close proximity to Fort Detrick (where the anthrax tests were being conducted) if not Fort Detrick scientists themselves. That would mean, if the FBI's accusation against Ivins is true, that the same Government lab where the attacks originated was the source for falsely telling Ross that tests revealed evidence linking the attacks to Iraq. In light of that, how can Ross possibly continue to conceal which Government scientists disseminated this false story?
It is also worth noting that Ross, who was a key witness in the Steven Hatfill litigation (since he had published numerous incriminating leaks from the DOJ) badgered at least one of his government sources, FBI spokesman Edwin Cogswell, to provide Ross with a release authorizing Ross to disclose the source's identity (allowing Ross to avoid being held in contempt by the court). Has Ross sought a similar release from his bentonite sources? Clearly, at least in some instances, Ross is able to convince his sources to allow him to disclose their identity when he is properly motivated to do so. For the reasons Professors Rosen and Gillmor point out, no release should be necessary, since these sources fed him deliberate falsehoods, but one wonders if Ross has even tried to persuade them to give permission for Ross to disclose who they are.
UPDATE II: Pulitzer Prize winning reporter John McQuaid calls on ABC News and Brian Ross to provide a full account of how they ended up publishing the false bentonite story.
UPDATE III: The video for the aforementioned Democracy Now segment with me and Dr. Nass is now available here (the segment begins at roughly 13:00). The transcript will be posted shortly.
UPDATE IV: I was on Warren Olney's To the Point program today discussing the anthrax case, which can be heard here (segment begins at roughly 43:00).
Just as they did with Steven Hatfill (and Iraq before him), government sources continue to try to convict Bruce Ivins in the media of being the anthrax killer by anonymously leaking incriminating claims about him (all while insisting that they can't unveil their evidence against him because the case isn't yet closed). If this latest leak is indicative of the FBI's case against Ivins -- "The top suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks was obsessed with a sorority that sat less than 100 yards away from a New Jersey mailbox where the toxin-laced letters were sent, authorities said today" -- then it's no wonder they are reluctant to tell the public the basis for their accusations against him.
UPDATE V: This is simply pathetic. The original AP article linked above -- containing the Grand, Super-Incriminating Sorority Obsession Leak -- contained this paragraph:
The top suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks was obsessed with a sorority that sat less than 100 yards away from a New Jersey mailbox where the toxin-laced letters were sent, authorities said today.Wow. Incriminating. Now, the AP article has been "updated" to this (h/t Jim White):
The mailbox just off the campus of Princeton University where the letters were mailed sits about 100 yards away from where the college's Kappa Kappa Gamma chapter stores its rush materials, initiation robes and other property. Sorority members do not live there, and the Kappa chapter at Princeton does not provide a house for the women.So apparently, the Big Incriminating FBI Leak of the Day is that Ivins was so obsessed with this sorority that he used the mailbox near where it "stores its rush materials, initiation robes and other property," and used that mailbox to send anthrax to Pat Leahy, Tom Daschle and Tom Brokow. That's really convincing. Let's close the investigation. We clearly got the Anthrax Killer. The FBI looked through its bag of conclusive evidence and that is what they chose to leak today? And amazingly, the Keystone Cops in our Government and their Media allies can't even get a leak this laughable right the first time they convey it. Ask Steven Hatfill about that. As The Hartford Courant Editorial Page today wrote (h/t macgupta):
We're not weighing in on Mr. Ivins' innocence or guilt. In light of the FBI's handling of the case against Mr. Hatfill, however, we are concerned that Mr. Ivins may have been the victim of overzealous investigation.There is no denying that "Congress should press the Justice Department for a full and public accounting of this case," but between Congress' demonstrated impotence and the Justice Department's extreme lack of candor, that is much easier said than done.
Congress should press the Justice Department for a full and public accounting of this case. Forcing the FBI to lay out its evidence against Mr. Ivins is the only way the public can be sure the agency's methods were reasonable. It's only fair.
Sunday, August 03, 2008
The death of government scientist Bruce Ivins has generated far more questions about the anthrax attacks than it has answered. I want to return to the role the establishment media played in obfuscating the anthrax investigation for so long and, at times, aiding in what was clearly the deliberate deceit on the part of Government sources. This is yet another case where the establishment media possesses -- yet steadfastly conceals -- some of the most critical facts about what the Government has done, and insists on protecting the wrongdoers. Obtaining these answers from these media outlets is as important as obtaining them from the Government. Writing about ABC's dissemination of the false Iraq/anthrax story, The New Republic's Dayo Olopade wrote yesterday: "Pressure on ABC to out their sources should be swift and sustained."
The Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum argued yesterday that despite the need for journalists to use confidential sources, "the profession -- and the rest of us -- [are] better off if sources know that they run the risk of being unmasked if their mendacity is egregious enough to become newsworthy in its own right." Drum added: "I'd say that part of [Ross'] re-reporting ought to include a full explanation of exactly who was peddling the bentonite lie in the first place, and why they were doing it." Nonetheless, Drum said: "In practice, most journalists refuse to identify their sources under any circumstances at all, even when it's clear that those sources deliberately lied to them."
Drum is right that it is unusual for journalists to out their "sources" even when they are exploiting the confidentiality pledge to disseminate lies to the public, but such outing is by no means unprecedented. Last year, when I first wrote about ABC's broadcasting of this false Saddam/anthrax story, I spoke with numerous experts in "journalistic ethics," such as they are, and all of them -- journalists, Journalism Professors, and media critics alike -- agreed that while the obligation of source confidentiality is close to absolute, it does not extend to a source who deliberately exploits confidentiality to disseminate lies to the public. Under those circumstances, it's axiomatic in journalistic ethics that a reporter is not only permitted, but required, to disclose the identity of the source who purposely used the reporter to spread lies.
There are examples where even large media outlets have followed that principle. Back in 1987, Oliver North was justifying his having lied to Congress about the Iran-contra program by complaining that Congress couldn't be trusted with National Security secrets. When asked at a Senate hearing for an example, North cited what he claimed were Congressional leaks to Newsweek about key details of a U.S. military operation to intercept an Egyptian plane carrying the men believed to be the hijackers of the Achille Lauro cruise ship.
But North was lying. It was North himself -- not Congress -- who had leaked details of that operation to Newsweek. And Newsweek, knowing that North was blatantly lying to the public by blaming Congress for leaks for which North himself was actually responsible, outed North as its source. As this 1987 New York Times article reported:
In its latest issue, Newsweek noted that Colonel North testified at the Iran-contra hearings that "a number of members of Congress" made revelations about the Achille Lauro operation "that very seriously compromised our intelligence activities."The Newsweek reporter who outed North was Jonathan Alter, who at the time was that magazine's media critic. Here is what Alter wrote, in 2003, about why he did so:
"But the colonel did not mention," the Newsweek article continued, "that details of the interception, first published in a Newsweek cover story, were leaked by none other than Colonel North himself."
The year was 1987 and Oliver North was testifying before a congressional committee investigating the Iran-contra affair. As I sat listening to him in the Senate Caucus Room, I couldn't believe my ears. North was talking about the 1985 apprehension of Arab terrorists who had tossed an elderly Jewish man in a wheelchair, Leon Klinghoffer, over the side of the cruise ship Achille Lauro. The already famous Marine colonel was accusing members of Congress of being untrustworthy because they revealed the military details of that capture. I knew that North was shamelessly accusing other people of leaking something that he, in fact, had leaked himself -- not to me, but to other reporters. He was using confidentiality as a weapon. I decided to blow the whistle in NEWSWEEK and identify him as the source. This didn't exactly make me Mr. Popularity with my colleagues or with North, who threatened to sue. But I would do it all over again.Alter added: "The whole game of reporters and their confidential sources has gone so far in Washington that too many of us have forgotten our first obligation. It's not to the Oliver Norths of the world and the reporters protecting them. It's to readers and viewers and, yes, to the truth."
About that incident, Alter emphasized to me this morning in an email that he was not outing his own source, but another Newsweek reporter's source, but nonetheless told me: "Many other reporters were mad at me but some commentators rightly pointed out that some values -- the obligation of reporters to their readers -- superseded the reporter-source relationship, and that if you used that relationship as a cover for lying, you broke the implicit contract." That is exactly what ABC News' "bentonite" sources did in the anthrax case -- "used that relationship as a cover for lying" and thus "broke the implicit contract." ABC News is not only permitted, but obligated, to reveal to the public who did that.
In a 1987 article ambivalently discussing Alter's actions, Time's Laurence Zuckerman wrote:
But the widespread practice of granting sources anonymity has dangers of its own. It allows officials to manipulate the press without being held accountable. North's charge that Congress was responsible for leaks about the Libyan raid and the Achille Lauro had serious policy implications. It was also wrong; most stories about both events, including TIME's cover just before the Libyan raid, were based on Administration sources. Says Michael Gartner, editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal: "In this instance, where the source publicly accuses someone else of leaking a story for devious purposes, it's incumbent upon you to set the record straight."Whoever fed ABC News the false "bentonite" stories weren't "sources" in any meaningful sense; they used ABC to disseminate to the public highly significant, and very consequential, lies. What possible justification is there for ABC to continue to protect the identity of those who deliberately foisted on the public such a destructive fraud?
Everette Dennis, executive director of New York's Gannett Center for Media Studies, agrees. "The standard ought always to be the public interest," he says.
* * * * *
The North/Newsweek episode was 20 years ago. Does anyone doubt that the relationship between the establishment media and the Government has changed significantly, become far less adversarial and far more cooperative, so that the media now serves to advance the Government's interest far more than it checks or undermines it? That the media is now so frequently a tool used by Government wrongdoers, rather than a check against them, only heightens the need for the media to reveal the identity of those who use them to spread deliberate lies or to break the law.
There are certainly cases -- critically important cases -- where reporters protect the anonymity of sources who blow the whistle on Government wrongdoing -- those who told Dana Priest about the CIA's black sites, or who told Jim Risen and Eric Lichtblau about the illegal NSA spying program. With reporting of that kind, source confidentiality is indispensable, particularly in an age where so much of what our Government does is shrouded in total secrecy, Congress couldn't be more impotent in uncovering what has happened, and whistle-blowers who anonymously disclose Government wrongdoing to reporters have become one of our only means for uncovering serious Government misconduct.But at least as frequently, if not more so, source confidentiality is used by reporters -- as it was in the Plame case, and in the ABC anthrax reporting -- to protect and conceal the identity of Government wrongdoers, not to uncover Government wrongdoing. I defy anyone to go and read basic accounts of what the Government and media jointly did to destroy Steven Hatfill's life and then argue that such corrupt and dangerous Government-media cooperation is entitled to protection from exposure. Here's a summary of what the Government and media did from a brief filed by Hatfill in his lawsuit (.pdf) against the Government:
All of that leaking was illegal, and it destroyed the life of a completely innocent man. What possible rationale is there for protecting that process, allowing reporters to protect the government lawbreakers who used them?
Hatfill's lawyer, Mark Grannis, obviously and understandably quite disillusioned by how the establishment media works in light of its eager dissemination of government lies about his client, followed by vigorous efforts to protect -- rather than expose -- the responsible government officials, wrote an Op-Ed in the Wall St. Journal inveighing against the proposed new federal shield law as follows:
How can the arguments and behavior of journalists in a case such as this be reconciled with the profession's self-image as the public watchdog, bringing accountability to government? The public officials who leaked investigative information to [USA Today reporter Toni] Locy broke the law, ruined an innocent man, and violated the public trust. Shouldn't our watchdog bark or something?That is really the critical point here. Source confidentiality is premised on a model of journalism where the media is adversarial to the Government, and safeguarding the anonymity of sources is the only way to find out what the Government is doing. But these days, so frequently, the media serves as an arm of the Government -- the Government uses the establishment media to disseminate propaganda and outright lies to the public (Jessica Lynch, Pat Tillman, Saddam's aluminum tubes) or even uses leaks to the media to commit crimes (as it did in the Plame case). When the journalists who are used to spread these lies or commit these crimes then conceal who it is who has done such things, they are complicit in the Government wrongdoing, key enablers of it.
The leakers should be fired, prosecuted, or both -- and reporters who care about government accountability should be racing each other to tell us who these miscreants are. The fact that they shut their mouths tight and run the other way suggests that the image of reporter-as-watchdog does not reflect the current place of journalism in society, whatever may have been true in the past.
Third, if the law prevents courts from ordering reporters to identify anonymous sources, what will prevent government officials from using the private information they keep on us for personal or political score-settling? What will prevent them from simply lying? What will prevent reporters from inventing anonymous sources who don't actually exist?
Fourth, how is a senator who votes for a shield law to convince his constituents that it is anything but a special favor for an influential lobby? . . . . Similarly, when the Washington Post editorialized in favor of a shield law just days earlier, its readers heaped scorn on the idea. One wrote that "if a shield law is put in place, irresponsible journalists can print anything and get away with destroying lives. There has to be some sort of checks and balances here" . . . .
Ideally journalists would ask these questions themselves. But it's not an ideal world. That's why they occasionally need to be held accountable, too.
By endorsing the sanctity of that Government-media relationship through shield laws and the like (which I've always supported in the past), it's actually -- perversely -- bestowing the Government with yet another tool to shield its misconduct from the public. Because the establishment media so frequently now serves as a tool used by the Government to amplify its false claims and promote its agenda, rather than as a watchdog against it, increasing the Government and media's power to keep that relationship secret is to empower the Government even further -- the exact opposite of what source confidentiality is intended to achieve [and, indeed, proposed federal shield laws provide large exceptions for national security leaks, which means that such a law would still allow the Governments to try to invade, and courts to destroy, the good kind of confidentiality (e.g., the CIA black sites and NSA leaks) while protecting the bad kind (where the Government uses the media to spread lies and other disinformation)].
* * * * *
The unanswered questions in the anthrax case are literally too numerous to chronicle. It is so vital to emphasize that not a shred of evidence has yet been presented that the now-deceased Bruce Ivins played any role in the anthrax attacks, let alone that he was the sole or even primary culprit. Nonetheless, just as they did with Steven Hatfill, the media (with some notable and important exceptions) are reporting this case as though the matter is resolved.
Given the significance of the anthrax attacks, it would be unconscionable for there to be anything other than a full-scale Congressional or independent investigation -- with a full airing of all the facts -- regarding everything that happened here. Those issues should include exploration of the following questions, many of which might well have perfectly reasonable and benign explanations, and some of which may not, but until there is a full airing, it will necessarily be the case -- and it should be the case -- that this episode will only serve to further erode whatever lingering trust there is in media and government institutions:
- Why were White House aides given cipro weeks before the anthrax attacks, and why "on the night of the Sept. 11 attacks, [did] the White House Medical Office dispense Cipro to staff accompanying Vice President Dick Cheney as he was secreted off to the safety of Camp David"? [Washington Post, 10/23/2001];
- Why, if Cheney was given cipro on the night of the 9/11 attacks, was he allegedly "convinced that he had been subjected to a lethal dose of anthrax" on October 18, and that this fear is what led him to seek refuge in "undisclosed locations" and thereafter support an array of hard-line tactics against suspected terrorists? [Jane Mayer, The Dark Side, 2008];
- Which "high government official" told Richard Cohen to take cipro prior to the anthrax attacks (it wasn't a "source" who did so, since Cohen didn't write about it and apparently never intended to; it was just someone high up in Government passing along a helpful tip to a media friend) [Richard Cohen, Slate, March 18, 2008];
- Did the FBI meaningfully investigate who sent an anonymous letter to the FBI after the anthrax letters were sent, but before they were made public, accusing a former Fort Detrick scientist -- the Arab-American Ayaad Assaad -- of being a "potential biological terrorist," after Assaad was forced out of Fort Detrick by a group of USAMRIID bioweapons researchers who had exhibited extreme anti-Arab animus? [Laura Rozen, Salon, 1/26/2002];
- Why did the FBI gives its consent in October, 2001 for the remaining samples of the Ames anthrax strain to be destroyed, thereby losing crucial "genetic clues valuable to the criminal inquiry"? [San Francisco Chronicle, 11/9/2001];
- If -- as was publicly disclosed as early as 2004 -- Bruce Ivins' behavior in 2001 and 2002 in conducting unauthorized tests on anthrax residue was so suspicious, why was he allowed to remain with access to the nation's most dangerous toxins for many years after, and why wasn't he a top suspect much earlier? [USA Today, 10/13/2004];
- If it's really the case -- as principal Ivins antagonist Jean Duley claims -- that Ivins, as far back as 2000, had "actually attempted to murder several other people, [including] through poisoning" and had threatened to kill his co-workers at his Fort Detrick lab, then why did he continue to maintain clearance to work on biological weapons, and why are his co-workers and friends, with virtual unanimity, insisting that he never displayed any behavior suggestive of being the anthrax attacker? [Washington Post, August 3, 2008];
- What was John McCain referencing when he went on national television in October, 2001 and claimed "there is some indication, and I don't have the conclusions, but some of this anthrax may -- and I emphasize may -- have come from Iraq"? [Late Show with David Letterman, 10/18/2001];
- What was Joe Lieberman's basis for stating on national television, three days after McCain's Letterman appearance and in the midst of advocating a U.S. attack on Iraq, that the anthrax was so complex and potent that "there's either a significant amount of money behind this, or this is state-sponsored, or this is stuff that was stolen from the former Soviet program"? [Meet the Press, 10/21/2001];
- What did Pat Leahy mean when he said the following in a September, 2007 interview:
Leahy: What I want to know -- I have a theory. But what I want to know is why me, why Tom Daschle, why Tom Brokaw?[Vermont Daily Briefing, 9/5/2007];
VDB: Right. That all fits into the profile of a kind of hard-core and obviously insane ideologue on the far Right, somebody who would fixate on especially Tom Daschle, who at that point was the target of daily, vitriolic attacks on Right-wing talk radio.
Leahy: [Slowly, with a little shake of the head] I don't think it’s somebody insane. I'd accept everything else you said. But I don’t think it's somebody insane. And I think there are people within our government -- certainly from the source of it -- who know where it came from. [Taps the table to let that settle in] And these people may not have had anything to do with it, but they certainly know where it came from.
- Who were the "four separate and well-placed sources" who told ABC News, falsely, that tests conducted at Fort Detrick had found the presence of bentonite in the anthrax sent to Tom Daschle, causing ABC News to aggressively link the attacks to Iraq for five straight days in October, 2001? [Salon, 4/9/2007];
- Who was responsible for the numerous leaks even before the ABC News bentonite reports linking the anthrax attacks to Iraq? [The Guardian; 10/14/2001; Wall St. Journal Editorial, 10/15/2001 ("Is Iraq unleashing biological weapons on America?"); CNN, 10/15/2001].
Congressman Rush Holt, whose Central New Jersey district contained the mail box where at least some of the anthrax letters were mailed, issued a statement on Friday pointing out that "[w]hat we learn will not change the fact that this has been a poorly-handled investigation that has lasted six years and already has resulted in a trail of embarrassment and personal tragedy." On the same day, Rep. Holt wrote to FBI Director Robert Mueller requesting that if the FBI closes the investigation, then Mueller appear at a hearing before the House Committee on Appropriations' Select Intelligence Oversight Panel, which Holt chairs, in order to answer questions about the FBI's investigation.
Perhaps that is the appropriate venue for full-scale hearings into these questions. Any investigative body ought to be endowed with far-reaching subpoena power and should use it, and should further be committed to full public disclosure of all the facts. The anthrax attacks were the first lethal biological attack on the United States. The attacker(s) sought falsely to link the anthrax to Muslim extremists, as did numerous "sources" who fed the media with such claims. The U.S. Government itself claims that the attacks came from a U.S. Army research facility, perpetrated by a U.S. Government scientist. Excluding (arguably) only the 9/11 attack itself, the consequences of the anthrax attacks were as significant as anything that has happened in this country in the last decade. Full disclosure of all key facts -- and we have nothing of the kind right now -- is indisputably vital.
UPDATE: In comments, Jestaplero, a New York state prosecutor, argues that it's highly likely that Brian Ross' "bentonite" sources are material witnesses who committed obstruction of justice (since the false Iraq story came from the same lab where the attacks originated and thus was designed to distract investigators away from the true culprits), and Ross could easily be compelled to disclose those sources for that reason alone (just as Judy Miller was compelled to disclose her sources in the Plame case).
UPDATE II: See this very persuasive statement from Dr. Alan Pearson, Director of the Biological and Chemical Weapons Control Program at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, as to all the unanswered questions that remain, and why it is so imperative that the investigation into the anthrax attacks continue (h/t Plutonium Page).
UPDATE III: I'll be on Democracy Now with Amy Goodman tomorrow at 8:10 a.m. EST to discuss these anthrax issues. Local listings and live audio/video feed are here.
UPDATE IV: The New Republic's John Judis reports that he was present at a two-day CIA conference for reporters in 2003, shortly before the attack on Iraq, and learned that various factions in the CIA were still, even as of that time, pushing the claim that Iraq was responsible for the anthrax attacks. Judis notes -- and several people have distorted this point with regard to my broader argument about ABC's Iraq/anthrax story -- that this doesn't mean that "the Bush administration" as a collective, coordinated entity was pushing the false anthrax/Iraq link, but rather, "that there was a network [of] people who were promoting a theory about anthrax that helped make the case for war." Precisely. Judis says of the Iraq/anthrax claim that "there are too many echoes of Niger and uranium," and for that reason, he "join[s] those who believe that some kind of Congressional investigation is in order."