The Anthrax Follies and the Bizarro Effect
The release of the FBI’s "evidence" against Bruce Ivins, the now-deceased Ft. Detrick scientist targeted by the FBI as the alleged culprit in the 2001 anthrax letters case, demonstrates either (1) the FBI is covering for the real culprits, or (2) what we are witnessing is a dramatic drop in the intelligence of the average FBI official – maybe it’s something in the water.
In making the case for the latter, I offer as exhibit number-one the FBI’s contention [.pdf file] that the origin of the return address on some of the anthrax-laden envelopes – "Greendale School" – was explained by Ivins’ membership in the American Family Association, a group of Christian fundamentalists who often lobby and litigate on behalf of conservative causes:
"The investigation into the fictitious return address on envelopes used for the second round of anthrax mailings, ’4th GRADE,’ ‘GREENDALE SCHOOL,’ has established a possible link to the American Family Association (AFA) headquartered in Tupelo, Mississippi. In October 1999, MA, a Christian organization, published an article entitled ‘AFA takes Wisconsin to court. ‘The article describes a lawsuit filed in federal court, by the AFA Center for Law and Policy (CLP), on behalf of the parents of students at Greendale Baptist Academy. The article focuses on an incident that occurred on December 16, 1998, in which case workers of the Wisconsin Department of Human Services went to the Greendale Baptist Academy in order to interview a fourth-grade student. The case workers, acting on an anonymous tip that Greendale Baptist Academy administered corporal punishment as part of its discipline policy, did not disclose to the staff why they wanted to interview the student. The case workers interviewed the student in the absence of the student’s parents and informed the school staff that the parents were not to be contacted. The AFA CLP filed suit against the Wisconsin Department of Human Services, citing a violation of the parents’ Fourth Amendment rights."
You ask: so what? As do I. But those geniuses over at FBI headquarters are waaaay ahead of us:
"[Redacted] donations were made to the AFA in the name of ‘Mr. and Mrs. Bruce Ivins’ on eleven separate occasions beginning on December 31, 1993. After an approximate two year break in donations, the next donation occurred on November 11, 1999, one month after the initial article referencing Greendale Baptist Academy was published in the AFA Journal. It was also discovered that the subscription to the AFA Journal, in the name of Mr. & Mrs. Bruce Ivins … was active until March 2005."
This doesn’t even rise to the level of a logical fallacy, which has to have at least some internal coherence to so qualify. It’s just plain weird. At this point, one has to wonder if the FBI itself has become a casualty of some previously unknown biological agent that has caused its employees to be afflicted with the Algernon Syndrome.
There is, however, an internal consistency in the body of "evidence" released so far, and it consists of stretching even the most marginal bits of information to the breaking point in an often hilarious effort to prove Ivins’ guilt. The AFA angle may seem bizarre, but it is no less so than the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority gambit, which the FBI engages in to divert attention from the fact that they at no point place Ivins anywhere near the Princeton, N.J., location the deadly missives were mailed from. Instead, they point to Ivins’ alleged "obsession" with Kappa Kappa Gamma and the fact that the group maintains a storehouse near that location.
What are they smoking over at FBI headquarters?
The FBI points to Ivins’ alleged evasiveness when it came time for him to hand over samples of the anthrax strain he was working on: on two occasions he gave them the wrong samples. Yet even this – their strongest real evidence by far – is by no means clear. Ivins’ lawyer, Paul F. Kemp, points out that the investigators either asked for the wrong sample, or else didn’t make themselves clear as to what they were requesting. National Public Radio reports Kemp saying that "when investigators asked Ivins for an anthrax sample, he thought they were asking for a pure culture sample. It wasn’t until six weeks later that they called and said they had wanted something else." Ivins, says Kemp, "never denied to the FBI that the anthrax could have come from his batch."
Ivins, the FBI avers, was the "custodian" of the particular anthrax strain contained in the letters, and this conclusively proves his guilt. However, since this strain was developed in 1997, more than 100 people have at some point shared this "custodianship" with the accused. It is therefore not true that, as FBI officials put it, Ivins was the "one individual who controlled it."
The FBI also claims the envelopes containing the anthrax must have come from the Frederick, Md., mail facility where Ivins maintained a post office box. Yet, as noted in the FBI’s own affidavit, those envelopes could have come from any one of hundreds of post offices: as the affidavit put it, the printing defects that made these particular envelopes identifiable were distributed "to post offices throughout Maryland and Virginia."
No traces of anthrax were found in Ivins’ car or home. Other than tracing the anthrax strain to a flask in Ivins’ lab, our intrepid G-men have no physical evidence pointing to his guilt. All they have is the AFA/Greendale "connection" and an e-mail written by Ivins right after 9/11 in which he stated:
"’Bin Laden terrorists for sure have anthrax and sarin gas’ and have ‘just decreed death to all Jews and all Americans,’ language similar to the anthrax letters warning ‘WE HAVE THIS ANTHRAX … DEATH TO AMERICA … DEATH TO ISRAEL.’"
This doesn’t rise to the level of circumstantial evidence – it’s just simplistic nonsense. How else would one describe Osama bin Laden’s views, which he and his followers have expressed on many occasions? Certainly these were a prime subject of public discussion at the time Ivins’ e-mail was written.
Stylistically, what the FBI’s "case" against Ivins resembles is nothing so much as the case for invading Iraq. Here we see the same cherry-picking of "intelligence" and isolated factoids, mixed together in one very unappetizing goulash, which we are supposed to swallow without so much as a grimace.
In this era when circumstantial and highly selective evidence is enough to set America on a course to war, it’s also enough to convict a man of the most heinous crimes and blacken his name forever. That’s the kind of world we’re living in – truly a nightmare universe, in which the FBI, instead of doing its job, is doing its best to make sure that we never get to the heart of this sinister mystery.
What’s really scary about all this is that these are the people who are supposed to be protecting us from terrorists hell-bent on our destruction. In which case God help us all. One searches, in vain, through the released documents for a reason to believe that, even if Ivins was somehow connected to the anthrax attacks, he acted alone.
Which brings us to the scariest aspect of this entire affair: the real culprits are still out there.
I use the plural because it’s clear, at least to me, that no one could have carried out this scheme to poison the U.S. mails alone. Ivins, if he was involved, had to have help. Yet our protectors, the FBI, seem indifferent to this strong possibility. Their chief interest appears to be in protecting their own backsides, and what’s left of their reputation.
This confirms, once again, my contention that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were of such unusual physical and psychic force that they tore a hole in the space-time continuum and allowed us to slip into an alternate universe known as Bizarro World, where everything is topsy-turvy: up is down, wrong is right, and the FBI isn’t concerned with solving crimes, but only in sweeping them under the rug.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
As I noted above, the Algernon Syndrome – which inflicts a rapid dumbing-down on its victims – is pandemic, and it appears not to be limited to our law enforcement agencies. It also seems to have taken its toll on the pundits. Exhibit A: Andrew Sullivan, commenting on Glenn Greenwald’s series of superb pieces on the anthrax case:
"Glenn reminds me that it was the anthrax attacks that took the post-9/11 sense of threat to a whole new level – and moved the Iraq invasion forward as a possible response. That we now think the threat was actually a domestic source with no connection with Islamism is a critical piece of historical adjustment."
Speaking of "historical adjustment," this seems like as good a time as any to remind Sullivan that he did more than his part in moving forward the idea that we ought to invade Iraq as a response to the anthrax attacks, and I quote:
"The sophisticated form of anthrax delivered to Tom Daschle’s office forces us to ask a simple question. What are these people trying to do? I think they’re testing the waters. They want to know how we will respond to what is still a minor biological threat, as a softener to a major biological threat in the coming weeks. They must be encouraged by the panic-mongering of the tabloids, Hollywood and hoaxsters. They must also be encouraged by the fact that some elements in the administration already seem to be saying we need to keep our coalition together rather than destroy the many-headed enemy. So the terrorists are pondering their next move. The chilling aspect of the news in the New York Times today is that the terrorists clearly have access to the kind of anthrax that could be used against large numbers of civilians. My hopes yesterday that this was a minor attack seem absurdly naïve in retrospect. So they are warning us and testing us. 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."
Sullivan didn’t stop there, however. Back then, you’ll remember, he was railing against the "fifth column" on "both coasts" that was supposedly sympathetic to bin Laden, and he was pining – aching – for a "muscular" response, one that would deal a decisive blow to what he termed "Islamofascism":
"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."
Sullivan didn’t just want to invade Iraq – he wanted to nuke the entire country. On the basis, I might add, of exactly zero evidence that the Iraqis were behind the anthrax letters, the same level of evidence that the FBI, today, considers sufficient to convict Ivins of that crime.
Does Sullivan really believe no one remembers what he wrote, or is it that he – thoroughly immersed in his new role as war opponent and Obama supporter – no longer recalls his frothy-mouthed call to commit genocide in Iraq?
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