Who Planned the Anthrax Attacks?

by , July 05, 2008

You remember the anthrax attacks – or do you? It often seems, to me at least, that this important catalyst for the invasion of Iraq and our supremely wrong-headed post-9/11 foreign policy has been flushed down the collective memory hole. For all the attention that’s been paid to that spooky chapter in the history of the "war on terrorism" in the intervening years, it may as well have never occurred. That’s why news of the former prime suspect’s ultimate vindication – and his victory in a $5.8 million lawsuit in which he accused the feds of unfairly targeting him as a "person of interest" (as John Ashcroft put it) – seems like a visitation from another time, the ghost of 9/11 past, haunting and mocking us. It sends chills down my spine – because, you see, the real culprits are still out there.

The FBI’s non-investigation of this heinous and sinister crime was a joke from the beginning: after all, since when do FBI probes have official names, and why such a silly one as "Amerithrax"? Such brazen corniness has about it an unmistakable Keystone Kops air, which was certainly evident throughout the long-playing media circus that will evermore be known as the persecution of Steven J. Hatfill.

Hatfill, you’ll recall, is the long-suffering victim of this horror story, a bio-weapons expert and "insider" who was targeted as the culprit not only by the FBI and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, but also by dustbin Dylanologist A.J. Weberman, who, with characteristic restraint, accused him of being "the scumbag who killed several people in an attempt to awaken America to the dangers of biological warfare." This profile of the killer or killers as a "rogue insider" was also pushed by Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a biowar expert at the State University of New York at Purchase, who chairs the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Program of the Federation of American Scientists.

It was Rosenberg who became the mainstream media’s expert-in-residence at the height of the anthrax scare, and, although she never named Hatfill, it was she who relentlessly pushed the "insider" thesis to the major news organizations, which settled on her detective story as the conventional wisdom. A story that turned out to be spectacularly, disastrously, and tragically wrong. Tragic, that is, from the perspective of poor Hatfill, who found himself vilified and hounded out of his job, deprived of his position in the community, and practically run out of human society by his relentless pursuers.

The Hatfill-haters’ narrative went something like this: Senor Hatfill is a right-wing nut-case with dubious connections to South Africa’s apartheid regime, and quite possibly a "bio-evangelist" (as Weberman put it) who might conceivably have planned the attacks to "warn" us of the dangers of biowar – by demonstrating, on a small scale, how terrorists might envelop a nation in a miasma of fear.

Which is precisely what the anthrax attacks accomplished. The administration invoked them as part and parcel of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the War Party pointed to Saddam Hussein as the probable culprit. Andrew Sullivan, who had earlier accused the antiwar movement of being part of a bi-coastal "fifth column," was so certain the anthrax attacks were proof of Iraq’s perfidy that he called on the U.S. to drop nuclear bombs on the Iraqis in retaliation.

The anthrax letters that arrived at major media outlets as well as the Senate offices of two prominent Democrats certainly added a special fillip of fear to the war hysteria that ensued in the wake of 9/11: the senders definitely had an agenda, and there seems little doubt as to what they aimed at: to prepare the nation for war, for some kind of massive retaliation against the Arab world. That was the agenda, and it largely succeeded – but whose agenda was it? Hatfill’s exoneration raises the question: if he didn’t mail the anthrax letters, then who did?

The answer is not really a mystery, since all the facts are on the public record, but I’ll reiterate them here in case you aren’t familiar with my past writings on this fascinating subject.

Just before the anthrax letters became public knowledge but after they’d been mailed, military police headquarters at Quantico, Virginia, received a letter that accused an Arab scientist who once worked at the USAMRID facility, a biowarfare lab at Ft. Detrick, of being a terrorist about to unleash biological warfare against civilian targets in the U.S.

The author of this anonymous missive claimed to have been one of the scientist’s former co-workers, and appeared to have a detailed knowledge of Assaad’s career and daily routine. When the anthrax letters were opened, the FBI paid a visit to Dr. Ayaad Assaad, a former Ft. Detrick employee, and questioned him extensively.

The FBI cleared Assaad of any connection to the anthrax letters early on, but then seemed to have let this significant clue grow quite cold, failing to follow up on it until the winter of 2004, when they launched an investigation into the Quantico letter. It seems clear that whoever sent that letter had at least foreknowledge of the anthrax attacks, and discovering the writers’ identity could certainly lead us to the source of the attacks. Yet for years the FBI did nothing: instead, they chased Hatfill around, following him everywhere, blackening his name – and diverting attention away from the only hard evidence that has so far surfaced in this baffling case.

What were the results of the Quantico investigation? The Hartford Courant, which ran a series of articles on the anthrax case and the attempted framing of Dr. Assaad, was the only media outlet, to my knowledge, that reported on this development, which seems mysterious in itself. As for the outcome, that, too, remains a mystery – as does practically everything connected with this murky affair.

Dr. Assaad, an Egyptian-born biologist who worked at USAMRID in the early 1990s, was the target of a hateful harassment campaign that became the subject of a federal lawsuit later settled out of court. The defendants in the suit were a group of USAMRID employees who targeted Assaad by sending him anti-Arab missives – including a rubber camel outfitted with a sex toy – and composed poems that they left on his desk. An account in the Courant depicts the bizarre atmosphere in which U.S. government scientists worked on toxins powerful enough to kill off entire populations:

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 ideological flavor of the Camel Club’s jibes isn’t too hard to fathom: they sound just like the participants in the hate-fest over at Little Green Footballs, or, come to think of it, the editorial board of the Weekly Standard. The anthrax-laden letters read "Death to America" and "Death to Israel," and invoked the name of Allah. Clearly this wasn’t just an attempt to set up a particular Arab, Dr. Assaad, but to finger all Arab-Americans, and Muslims, as potential terrorists – weeks after bin Laden and his boys downed the World Trade Center and took out the Pentagon.

The trail that leads us to the perpetrators of the anthrax letter terrorist attacks ends at Ft. Detrick, where the "Camel Club" held court. Check out this Courant story that details the incredible laxity of the security controls in place at one of the U.S. government’s most sensitive military facilities – and then imagine how easy it was for the terrorists to have smuggled out anthrax and other even more lethal toxins.

Doesn’t any of this merit investigation by our "law enforcement’ agencies – or are they too busy reading ordinary people’s email and spying on antiwar organizations to bother going after a gang of dangerous poisoners and murderers?

In settling with Hatfill for mega-bucks, the U.S. government isn’t officially admitting any wrongdoing, – and we shouldn’t hold our breath waiting for anything like an apology – but clearly something was going on behind the scenes that looks very much like obstruction of the investigation. Of course it’s easy for a libertarian like me to scoff at the inefficiencies of government agencies: that’s comes with the territory – and is, furthermore, a well-known fact [.pdf]. Yet there seems something a bit more dicey than mere incompetence at work here.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

If you want to read the most politically incorrect piece I’ve ever written, then for sure you’ll want to check out "Gay Marriage Sucks!" over at Takimag.com. And don’t say I didn’t warn you …

My book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement was first published in 1993, and quickly went out of print. Warning that the conservative movement was being hijacked by a bunch of war-crazed "neocons," who were intent on promulgating their nutty doctrine of "benevolent global hegemony," the book was the first treatment of what I call the War Party as an ideological phenomenon – and an imminent danger to liberty and the peace of the world.

The book also presciently invoked an older, alternative ideological heritage for conservatives in search of sanity on the foreign policy front, presenting portraits of the writers, politicians, and publicists who would later come to be known as the "Old Right." Here was an account of a self-avowedly conservative political movement that was anti-imperialist as well as anti-statist, and, what’s more, was deeply rooted in the American political tradition. The book caught on with paleoconservatives, and Pat Buchanan contributed a trenchant introduction to the second printing that called it "the Iliad of the American Right."

Now the Intercollegiate Studies Institute has reissued Reclaiming in a handsome new edition, with a wonderful introduction by Georgetown University political scientist George W. Carey, and essays by Chronicles magazine editor Scott Richert and Mises Insitute scholar David Gordon.

The relevance of this book to today can hardly be underestimated, and this is underscored by the first lines, in which I wonder why, after decades in power, "has the conservative movement failed to make a dent in the growth of big government?" As I put it in 1993, so it is today: "Bewildered, frustrated, and demoralized, the men and women of the Right are asking themselves: What went wrong?"

Reclaiming answers: A lot more than George W. Bush. Order your copy today.

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