Four years ago today, letters containing anthrax were postmarked from Trenton, N.J., to five major American media outlets, including ABC News, NBC News, CBS News, the New York Post, and AMI Media, a publisher of supermarket tabloids. Thus began a series of attacks over several weeks that terrorized the nation, infected 22 people, killed five and played a key role in amplifying the post-9/11 hysteria and paranoia that took the nation on a course set for war.
Three weeks after the first mailings, two letters containing highly weaponized anthrax far more deadly than the relatively crude concoction contained in the first letters showed up in the offices of two Democratic senators, Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. The Capitol emptied, most members of Congress fled Washington, and the country already jumpy as a result of the 9/11 terrorist attacks was practically prostrate with fear.
“At this point, it seems to me that a refusal to extend the war to Iraq is not even an option. We have to extend it to Iraq. It is by far the most likely source of this weapon; it is clearly willing to use such weapons in the future; and no war against terrorism of this kind can be won without dealing decisively with the Iraqi threat. We no longer have any choice in the matter. Slowly, incrementally, a Rubicon has been crossed. The terrorists have launched a biological weapon against the United States. They have therefore made biological warfare thinkable and thus repeatable. We once had a doctrine that such a Rubicon would be answered with a nuclear response. We backed down on that threat in the Gulf War but Saddam didn’t dare use biological weapons then. Someone has dared to use them now. Our response must be as grave as this new threat.“
Nuke ’em!, said Andy without a single iota of evidence that Iraq was involved. But who needs evidence? That’s soooo September 10th. Everything’s changed, we were told: we don’t require evidence, not anymore. All we need are vaguely portentous phrases, such as “a Rubicon has been crossed.” We can make up the rest as we go along
Over at the Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol was gleefully rubbing his hands together and cackling that the administration seemed finally to have signed on to the neocon prescription for taking the “war on terrorism” beyond Afghanistan, to Iraq:
“Has the administration come around thanks to repeated efforts at persuasion by The Weekly Standard (and a few other hawks)? Perhaps. But a likelier explanation is that they have come to believe we’ll have to take the war beyond Afghanistan to Iraq and other state sponsors of terror because they’ve found evidence of support by ‘other states’ for very recent and sinister bin Laden-related activities.
“What if the anthrax cases in Florida are an act of terrorism? What if the presence of the anthrax spores there is connected to the fact that a few of the September 11 terrorists, led by Mohammed Atta, lived within a few miles? What if Atta or some other bin Laden operative had access to anthrax from the terrorist-sponsoring country that we know has a long record of developing anthrax as a biological weapon, Iraq?”
Unlike the more emotive Sullivan for whom evidence of an Iraq connection would only be an unnecessary drag on his breathy imprecations the cool-headed Kristol came up with a scenario meant to convince the reader that such a connection was at least possible. It involved the now famous and decidedly disproved meeting between Mohammed Atta and an alleged Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague. Although the Czech police denied it, the myth persisted, and grew: not only did Atta plan the 9/11 terrorist attacks in collaboration with Iraqi intelligence on his trip to Prague, he also according to Kristol and James “World War IV” Woolsey hatched the anthrax plot. However, given that this mythical meeting, conducted in the course of six busy hours, was alleged to have taken place at the Prague airport, and was conducted within range of security cameras, one wonders if passing vials of anthrax under such circumstances might have proven somewhat problematic.
Oh well, the War Party didn’t need especially logical arguments in stoking the fires of American rage: the smoke had yet to lift from downtown Manhattan, and the victims of the Twin Towers and Pentagon attacks were still being counted. As anthrax panic gripped the nation, the White House was preparing to extend the war to “other countries” a prospect Kristol & Co. found thrilling. If the administration wouldn’t bow to the bellicose blandishments of the Weekly Standard, then perhaps they would bend before the amplified fear of terrorism raised by the anthrax attacks.
And so they did.
In retrospect, outrage and fear generated by the anthrax attacks were essential elements of the propaganda campaign designed to link Iraq to terrorism in the U.S. and drag us into war. The attacks were so propitious in this regard that one might be forgiven for wondering if the perpetrators had this as their intention. Certainly they took great pains to convey the impression that the postal pestilence was authored by angry Arabs of one sort or another.
Also, in retrospect, the investigation into the anthrax mystery seems remarkably botched, a kind of pre-Katrina premonition of a dangerous even criminal incompetence. The authorities quickly seized on one Steven J. Hatfill, a government scientist and a somewhat hapless figure, against whom not a single shred of solid evidence could be marshaled. Yet Hatfill was branded a “person of interest” and relentlessly harassed by government agents, who in collaboration with a certain New York Times columnist destroyed his reputation. U.S. government agents followed him everywhere, made his life a misery, and refuse to this day to either apologize or offer some small compensation to a man whose life they have ruined.
It is interesting that the U.S. government was all too eager to follow the path suggested by journalists such as Nicholas Kristof, one of Hatfill’s earliest and most relentless nemeses, while studiously ignoring the clues provided by others. The Hartford Courant ran a series of articles by Dave Altimari, Lynne Tuohy, and Jack Dolan that not only pointed in the direction of the possible perpetrators, but named names and implied a political-ideological motive behind the crime.
The anthrax strain has been positively identified as being of the Ames variety, of the sort stored at USAMRIID, the U.S. government biological weapons facility at Fort Detrick, Md., and a few other such labs. Soon after the anthrax attacks, the Courant exposed the weird problems besetting the Ft. Detrick facility, which had apparently been missing large quantities of biological toxins, including not only anthrax but also hanta virus, Ebola virus, and other lethal pathogens. These mysterious disappearances apparently occurred:
“During a turbulent period of labor complaints and recriminations among rival scientists there, documents from an internal Army inquiry show. The 1992 inquiry also found evidence that someone was secretly entering a lab late at night to conduct unauthorized research, apparently involving anthrax. A numerical counter on a piece of lab equipment had been rolled back to hide work done by the mystery researcher, who left the misspelled label ‘antrax’ in the machine’s electronic memory, according to the documents obtained by The Courant.”
This “mystery researcher” may have been someone at the very center of that “turbulent period,” one Philip Zack. Zack and a group of personnel at Ft. Detrick had been systematically harassing an Egyptian co-worker, Dr. Ayaad Assaad. The Courant reports:
“Documents from the inquiry show that one unauthorized person who was observed entering the lab building at night was Langford’s predecessor, Lt. Col. Philip Zack, who at the time no longer worked at Fort Detrick. A surveillance camera recorded Zack being let in at 8:40 p.m. on Jan. 23, 1992, apparently by Dr. Marian Rippy, a lab pathologist and close friend of Zack’s, according to a report filed by a security guard.”
The harassment of Assaad, detailed here, took on bizarrely juvenile forms: an obscene poem, a rubber camel delivered to his mailbox, a constant stream of racist anti-Arab remarks such as one might find posted these days on Little Green Footballs. Court documents reveal a harrowing experience of cruel and relentless persecution carried out by a small clique, including Zack, who called themselves the “camel club.”
While the anthrax letters received enormous publicity, one mailed missive that might provide a key clue to the identity of the perpetrators has received very little: an anonymous letter, sent in late September before the anthrax drama unfolded, to the military police at the Marine base in Quantico, Va., accused Dr. Assaad of being behind a terrorist plot to unleash biological horrors in American cities. The author revealed a detailed knowledge of Dr. Assaad’s career at USAMRIID and claimed to have formerly worked with him.
Assaad was interrogated by the FBI on Oct. 3, then let go after the letter was determined to be a hoax. When the effects of the anthrax attacks began to make themselves known, the full horror of what had happened began to dawn on Assaad but not, apparently, on the authorities. Says Assaad: “My theory is, whoever this person is knew in advance what was going to happen (and created) a suitable, well-fitted scapegoat for this action.” The odd timing of the letter sent after the anthrax letters were mailed, but before their deadly contents were known certainly seems to point in this direction. The Courant reports FBI spokesman Chris Murray saying “the FBI is not tracking the source of the anonymous letter, despite its curious timing, coming a matter of days before the existence of anthrax-laced mail became known.” Instead of following the trail of this important clue, investigators went off on a tangent with the Hatfill angle, which proved [.pdf] to be a dead end.
An Egyptian scientist, albeit one who is an American citizen and had lived in this country for quite some time, had been set up as the scapegoat for the crime before knowledge of the mailed anthrax was generally known. This same scientist had been the object of a hate campaign generated by virulently anti-Arab co-workers at Ft. Detrick, at least one of whom was videotaped surreptitiously entering the lab at night (after he had been dismissed from his position and was not authorized to enter in any event).
Whoever wrote the poison pen letter denouncing Dr. Assaad as a potential terrorist in all likelihood knows something about the origins of the anthrax attack. In this context, the crudeness of the messages accompanying the anthrax “death to America” and “death to Israel” seems like an obvious effort to divert attention away from the real authors of a crime that goes unsolved to this day.
Just as the Bush administration was looking for an excuse any excuse to take out after Iraq, the anthrax horror reared its head and silenced any remaining opposition to the war plans of this administration, at least momentarily. It all seems like such a terribly convenient coincidence. In retrospect, it was as much a part of the vortex of fearmongering that sucked us into war as tales of Iraqi WMD palmed off by Ahmed Chalabi‘s “heroes in error” and the extravagant effusions of Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice. No, I am not suggesting that the U.S. government or the Bush administration carried out these attacks: yet whoever did surely had in mind making it easier for the War Party to unleash mass death and destruction in the Middle East, a veritable wave of hate that would carry us to Baghdad and beyond.
Why isn’t Congress investigating this? Where is the probe into the “intelligence failure” that managed to target and destroy an innocent person while pulling investigators away from evidence pointing in a more plausible direction? Whoever pulled off the anthrax attacks is still out there, waiting for the right moment to strike. This is a case that must be solved because there’s more where that came from.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
The Huffington Post reports Dr. Zalmay Khalilzad, our ambassador to Iraq, predicted U.S. troops will enter Syria ostensibly in “pursuit” of “terrorists” in private remarks at Republican tycoon Teddy Forstmann‘s annual “off the record” Aspen conclave of Movers and Shakers. Just remember, you read it here first.
UN conferences are usually quite boring, which is why many who may otherwise lack admiration for Hugo Chavez found considerable entertainment value in the Venezuelan Bolivar’s remarks, to wit:
“The only place where a person can ask for another head of state to be assassinated is the United States, which is what happened recently with the Reverend Pat Robertson, a very close friend of the White House. He publicly asked for my assassination and he’s still walking the streets.”
While I can’t agree that the Rev. Robertson should be cooling his heels and his evangelical fervor behind bars, I have to say that these distinctly un-Christian sentiments seem to reflect a general trend on the right side of the political spectrum toward outright thuggery. A good example is the recent death threat against myself, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, and other opponents of the war published by David Horowitz’s Frontpagemag.com (whole story detailed here). To follow up: my column on this subject generated a wave of protest directed at the author of the threat, one Michael Lopez-Calderon, a high school teacher of history at Rockville High School in Maryland. He recently sent out this appeal (now behind a “privacy screen”), which reads in part:
“Subject: Calderon urgently needs your help!
“Because of a deluge of emails, phones, and faxes from around the country, the School Board is running scared. I was placed on paid leave Thursday, September 8, 2005 at 12:25 PM.
“I am under investigation by the Board. What will they find? Nothing to substantiate any claims that I have been anything but an exemplary teacher with superb evaluations, with not a single parental or student complaint levelled [sic] against me; you guys know who I am.
“Guys this is not bullshit my career, my reputation, and my health are ON THE LINE. PLEASE HELP ME!”
Pathetic, sad, and funny all at once. Pathetic because an adult human being and one who is furthermore charged with instructing and serving as a role model for children is refusing to recognize that rash actions often have unfortunate and costly consequences. Sad because, from the contents of Calderon’s own weblog, it is clear that he regarded his job, and the subsequent uptick in his income, as a source of pride and satisfaction. Funny if you like your humor dark because there is not one mention of Calderon’s plight on Frontpage.
David Horowitz, the great defender of “free speech” for conservatives in academia, is refusing to defend one of his own crazed minions: he hasn’t even published Calderon’s appeal, and I have seen no new blog items from the man who fantasized that one day “leftist professors will be strung up.” Perhaps Horowitz is unwilling to defend someone who makes the Horowitzian action plan so vividly explicit. In any case, Horowitz has left poor deluded Calderon twisting in the wind and isn’t that just like a neocon?
Calderon wails that I’m violating his First Amendment rights, but I plead not guilty to the charge. I have no desire to prevent him from exercising his right to engage in free speech he can issue death threats till the cows come home, for all I care but I have the same First Amendment right, which I choose to exercise by calling attention to his incitements. It works both ways. Let the red-state fascists bellow and posture to their heart’s content, because the louder their unseemly threats, the more they discredit themselves and their cause. That Horowitz, who has the biggest, loudest mouth of them all, is beginning to appreciate this, however dimly, is evidenced perhaps by his deafening silence on the Calderon matter.
I also have to say that Calderon has issued an apology, of sorts, albeit one that goes on to assert his loyalty to the red-state fascist mindset that unconsciously plagiarized the spirit if not the letter of The Turner Diaries:
“That said, let me state that I will stick to my position which holds those that Americans, e.g., the convicted radical lawyer Lynne Stewart, who openly aid and abet our enemies during a time when our home and hearth have been attacked and face additional attacks, should suffer the wrath of a Federal Government empowered under a revived and robust Sedition Act. That revived Sedition Act should be used only under the most extreme set of circumstances, and an America devastated by a WMD delivered by terrorists fits that description.”
Oh, I see: he doesn’t want to kill me and the other devil-figures in his demonology of prominent “seditionists.” He just wants to jail us. To the red-state fascists who have taken over the official “conservative” movement, this really is an “apology”!
These people are scary, but Horowitz’s behavior has been particularly reprehensible. Unlike Calderon, he has not apologized for publishing the death threat. Worse yet, to date he has so far failed to publicly defend one of his own writers from serious charges. Calderon may be fired from his job and suffer a significant financial and career setback as a result of remarks posted on Horowitz’s own Web site, and presumably authorized by Horowitz himself or one of his employees. Horowitz, however, takes no responsibility, offers no apology, and goes about his business of smearing the antiwar movement and anyone who opposes the Regime as if nothing is amiss. On this matter we get from him something we don’t often get to enjoy: complete silence. A true rarity, to be sure. But how long can it last?