The Anthrax Mystery

by , February 26, 2004

Amid all the current recriminations, investigations, and political circumlocutions surrounding those missing “weapons of mass destruction,” another sort of WMD – one far closer to home – still casts its sinister shadow over an uncertain future. The anthrax attacks, that terrorized the nation for weeks in the wake of 9/11, remain unsolved to this day. But there are new developments in the case that throw some light on the mystery, and lead in a direction that can only be called ominous….

Days before the anthrax story broke, but after the poisoned missives had been mailed, a very strange letter arrived at military police headquarters in Quantico, Virginia, accusing Dr. Ayaad Assaad, who formerly worked at Ft. Detrick’s bio-warfare lab, of planning a terrorist attack. The author of the letter, clearly possessed of a detailed knowledge of Dr. Assaad’s career and routine at USAMRIID, claimed to have once worked with the Egyptian-born scientist.

Shortly after the anthrax letters were opened by the first unlucky recipients, the FBI paid a visit to Dr. Assaad, who was quickly cleared of any connection with the attacks. But his fascinating story – of his harassment by a cabal of viciously anti-Arab scientists at Ft. Detrick, who called themselves the “Camel Club” – provided law enforcement with the first significant clues. Now, three years later – after targeting the unlucky Steven J. Hatfill, publicly branding him as a “person of interest,” and making his life a living hell – they are finally following up and seem to be hot on the trail of the anthrax killer(s).

The Hartford Courant, which ran a series of articles on the anthrax investigation, the travails of Dr. Assaad, and the weird situation at USAMRIID, recently reported that the FBI has brought in for questioning a scientist currently working for the Environmental Protection Agency, specifically asking him about the Quantico letter:

“The FBI recently interviewed at least one scientist from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in connection with the deadly anthrax mailings to government and media offices in the fall of 2001, a document obtained by The Courant indicates.

“Federal agents summoned the EPA scientist to their Washington field office last week and asked whether he wrote an anonymous letter to the FBI days before the first anthrax death, warning that another EPA researcher was a potential bio-terrorist. The scientist told federal investigators Wednesday that he had nothing to do with the anonymous letter, but the document indicated that he might be subjected to a lie-detector test.”

It is surely not implausible to suggest that whoever sent the letter had foreknowledge of or some connection to the anthrax attacks, and was trying to set up Dr. Assaad as the scapegoat. The Courant article goes on to note that this mysterious missive, “which has intrigued federal agents and amateur sleuths on the Internet for years,” has nonetheless been officially discounted by the authorities:

“Federal investigators have always maintained that the letter – while a startling coincidence – has no bearing on their hunt for the anthrax killer.”

As I wrote on the second anniversary of this grisly event:

“In tracking down the real culprit in the anthrax attacks, it would seem that an attempt to frame someone as the anthrax terrorist just as the attacks commenced would be a clue of some significance.”

It only took our Keystone Kops at the FBI three years to figure this out. The reason for their sudden turnaround is not clear – although perhaps the complete and costly failure of their investigation so far has something to do with it. The Courant speculates that possibly “agents have been quietly hunting for the source of the anonymous letter for years,” but in that case they would have discovered the likeliest suspects early on: the “Camel Club” that had been persecuting Dr. Assaad and others, as detailed in this comprehensive story in Salon. Reported in the Hartford Courant, and reprinted in the Seattle Times [December 19, 2001], the story of the “Camel Club” conveys a distinct ideological flavor to the harassment suffered by Dr. Assaad and other Arab scientists at the facility:

Assaad said he was working on the Saturday before Easter 1991, just after the Persian Gulf War had ended, when he discovered an eight-page poem in his mailbox. The poem, which became a court exhibit, is 47 stanzas – 235 lines in all, many of them lewd, mocking Assaad. The poem also refers to another creation of the scientists who wrote it – a rubber camel outfitted with all manner of sexually explicit appendages.

“The poem reads: ‘In [Assaad's] honor we created this beast; it represents life lower than yeast.’ The camel, it notes, each week will be given ‘to who did the least.’

“The poem also doubles as an ode to each of the participants who adorned the camel, who number at least six and referred to themselves as ‘the camel club.’ Two – Dr. Philip M. Zack and Dr. Marian K. Rippy – voluntarily left Fort Detrick soon after Assaad brought the poem to the attention of supervisors.”

The Ft. Detrick bio-warfare facility in the early 1990s seems to have been a bizarre place: imagine a workplace dominated by denizens of Little Green Footballs, rightly deemed a hate site by an MSNBC reviewer. Added to that kind of poisonous atmosphere, security was lax to the point of absurdity.

If the FBI was really investigating this case, they would have long since discovered Ft. Detrick’s complete lack of adequate security at the time, with anthrax specimens – and other, far worse toxins – gone missing, as divulged in this chilling report in the Courant by Jack Dolan and Dave Altimari.

According to Lt. Col. Michael Langford, someone had been tampering with the records in order to perform secret research, and “it turned out that there was quite a bit of stuff that was unaccounted for”: 27 sets of specimens, including anthrax, hanta virus, simian AIDS virus “and two that were labeled ‘unknown’ – an Army euphemism for classified research whose subject was secret.” One set of specimens has since been found: the rest are still missing….

According to an internal investigation, some specimens may never have been entered in lab records. But the most shocking evidence that something sinister was afoot at Ft. Detrick is a surveillance camera tape showing the entry of an unauthorized person into the lab.

The tape shows that, at 8:40 pm, on January 23, 1992, Lt Col. Philip Zack was let in by Dr. Marian Rippy, lab pathologist. Zack, a former employee, had no legitimate business being in that lab. As the Courant reports:

“Zack left Fort Detrick in December 1991, after a controversy over allegations of unprofessional behavior by Zack, Rippy, [lab technician Charles] Brown and others who worked in the pathology division. They had formed a clique that was accused of harassing the Egyptian-born Assaad, who later sued the Army, claiming discrimination.”

If the FBI is now interested in who sent the Quantico letter, then wouldn’t Zack, Rippy, and the other members of the “Camel Club” be prime suspects? And if the letter’s author had foreknowledge of the anthrax attacks, then wouldn’t the “Camel Club” fall under considerable suspicion? You would think so, but the Washington Times reports that law enforcement is still “stumped,” and cites Assistant Director Michael A. Mason as saying:

“Despite our very, very, very best efforts, we still might not be able to bring it home. This would not be the first case in the FBI’s history that remained unsolved. It simply happens to be the first case that has received this level of publicity that has not yet been solved.”

Oh well, sorry guys, but you can’t win ‘em all. It’s a strangely casual way to treat the investigation of an attempted mass poisoning – one that occurred, you’ll remember, weeks after the worst terrorist attacks in American history – but Mason’s pessimism is merely the capstone of an inquiry that has to set an all-time record for lethargy.

As for the new angle in the case, the FBI is not commenting: “We have strict instructions as far as what not to talk about as far as anthrax goes,” says Mason, and the Quantico letter is apparently included.

Absurdly dubbed the “Amerithrax” investigation by law enforcement officials – as if it were a new brand of laundry soap, or some Orwellian “patriotic” campaign – this whole effort has been oddly wrongheaded from the start. It’s almost as if they don’t want to solve it….

A vicious anti-Arab campaign of harassment at Ft. Detrick lab, conducted by a clique with an obsessive grudge that was as much ideological as personal. Add to this an anonymous letter to authorities warning of an Arab scientist’s plot to commit bio-terrorism – timed to coincide with the arrival of the anthrax letters, but mailed before their existence was made public. What it all adds up to is an attempt to set up an Arab “terrorist” as a scapegoat in the volatile atmosphere of the post-9/11 era: a 21st century bio-warfare version of the Reichstag fire.

Consider the context: The smoke had yet to clear from lower Manhattan, and the World Trade Center was still smoldering. So was hatred of all things Arab. If the author (or authors) of the Quantico letter had succeeded in their apparent objective, the backlash against all Arabs (citizens as well as non-citizens) would conceivably have been much harsher. As it is, the War Party is still riding the wave of anti-Arab/anti-Muslim hysteria that pushed us into the Afghan war and then into Iraq: the tide of hate would have been far higher, and stronger, if the attempted framing of Dr. Assaad had succeeded.

Motive is an important element in tracking down criminals of every description, and in this case it takes on extra importance because of the political implications of the anthrax mystery. Who would benefit from the kind of panic induced by the anthrax letters: in whose interest was it to keep the population in a constant state of paralyzing fear?

The political fallout from the anthrax attacks created the kind of atmosphere in which it was easy to push through the PATRIOT Act, without a single member of Congress having read it. The attacks helped amplify the anger and horror generated by the events of 9/11, and this in turn gave added impetus to the War Party, which was already busy agitating for the invasion of Iraq.

It seems clear, at this juncture, that the anthrax attacks were an organized covert action designed to whip up popular hatred of Arabs. The text of the letters accompanying the anthrax made that clear enough, and the attempted framing of Dr. Assaad confirms this intent. As for who, or what, conducted this operation, the list of anti-Arab groups and other entities is fairly short. It should be easy enough to investigate the matter, given the resources at the FBI’s disposal. So why did they take this long to get this far?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I have a very hard time believing that not a single member of Congress wants to know the answer. At a time when the Democrats are trying to make an issue of this administration’s cluelessness when it comes to the “war on terrorism,” why they haven’t made the “Amerithrax” disaster a campaign issue is beyond me.

Who cares whether or not George W. Bush served in the National Guard – when bio-terrorists may be loose in our midst, armed with worse horrors than anthrax, while law enforcement flails around helplessly, making excuses of unsurpassed lameness?

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

Antiwar.com is in the news again – in Japan! Last year the Antiwar.com staff was interviewed by Hiro Aida, of the Kyodo News Washington Bureau, and his extensive piece on libertarianism, antiwar conservatives, and Antiwar.com, appeared in about 20 Japanese local newspapers, along with an interview with the Cato Institute’s David Boaz. The piece discusses the libertarian roots of this website, talks about the Old Right, describes the rising opposition to the neoconservatives, and characterizes me as a cigarette-smoking “bad boy” (illustrated by an accompanying photograph) – and even has a little map of the West Coast pointing to our Atherton headquarters. This confirms it: we’re a landmark!

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