When former FBI chief Robert Mueller was appointed as Special Counsel to preside over the “Russia-gate” probe, official Washington sang hosannas. Democrats, Republicans, the pundits, and the cocktail party chatterers of every persuasion swooned over his “impeccable” credentials.
That should’ve served as a warning sign, right there. Because what are those credentials? What is the Mueller record, and why does it inspire confidence in all the usual suspects?
Mueller has been consistently wrong about every important investigation he’s been involved in: and not only that – he’s erred on the side of a group-thinking warmongering and utterly clueless political class.
Let’s start with the most egregious case: the “Amerithrax” investigation. When, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, letters containing anthrax showed up at the offices of NBC, the New York Post, and two US Senators, then FBI Director Mueller mobilized his agency to get to the bottom of a crime that shocked the nation – and helped push us into the Iraq war. Colin Powell used the anthrax attacks in his talking points for war with Iraq, telling the United Nations:
“Less than a teaspoon of dry anthrax, a little bit about this amount – this is just about the amount of a teaspoon – less than a teaspoon full of dry anthrax in an envelope shutdown the United States Senate in the fall of 2001. This forced several hundred people to undergo emergency medical treatment and killed two postal workers just from an amount just about this quantity that was inside of an envelope.”
The Iraqis, intoned Powell, had never accounted for their biological weapons. The implication was clear: the Iraqis were behind the anthrax attacks. Americans were told by their government that another terrorist attack utilizing biological weapons was imminent: they rushed to the hardware stores and bought up duct tape and plastic tarps. Mueller appeared before Congress, testifying that cooperation between Iraq and al-Qaeda on US terrain represented a direct threat:
“Secretary Powell presented evidence last week that Baghdad has failed to disarm its weapons of mass destruction, willfully attempting to evade and deceive the international community. Our particular concern is that Saddam may supply al-Qaeda with biological, chemical, or radiological material before or during a war with the US to avenge the fall of his regime. Although divergent political goals limit al-Qaeda’s cooperation with Iraq, northern Iraq has emerged as an increasingly important operational base for al-Qaeda associates, and a US-Iraq war could prompt Baghdad to more directly engage al-Qaeda.”
A month later, the invasion of Iraq began.
And the anthrax investigation dragged on. The probe focused on one Steven Hatfill, a former employee of USAMRIID, the primary US government bio-weapons research lab. Given the weaponized nature of the anthrax contained in the letters, FBI investigators were convinced that a scientist connected to anthrax research was the culprit. But why fixate on Hatfill?
This focus was due largely to the efforts of two individuals who were not experts in the field. Instead of homing in on the science – trying to trace the peculiar anthrax strain found in the deadly missives, which had killed 17 people – the FBI investigation under Mueller’s direction was based on purely circumstantial evidence uncovered by two individuals with little to no scientific knowledge: one was Don Foster, a Vassar College professor whose claim to fame was tracking down Newsweek columnist Joe Klein as the anonymous author of Primary Colors, a roman a clef about Bill Clinton’s scandal-plagued career. The other was Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a molecular biologist and former advisor to President Clinton on bio-weapons, who believed that the anthrax attacks were the unintended consequence of a secret CIA project gone awry and that the FBI wasn’t making any arrests because it would reveal the government’s responsibility for the whole affair.
Like the amateur “investigators” of the Twitterverse, who today weave elaborate conspiracy theories linking various Trump administration figures to murky Russian operatives, Foster had done some digging and uncovered a pile of circumstantial “evidence” pointing to Hatfill: he dug up an interview with Hatfill during his tenure at the National Institutes of Health in which he outlined how bubonic plague could be manufactured and launched in someone’s garage. Foster also found an unpublished novel written by Hatfill that described a biological warfare attack on Washington, D.C. More “clues”: Hatfill had been in Rhodesia during an anthrax outbreak that occurred during the 1970s, and had been a student at a medical school in the town of Greendale – the name of the made up school listed as the return address on the anthrax letters.
Rosenberg was also on to Hatfill’s trail, and she got together with Foster, comparing notes: they had independently come to the same conclusion – Hatfill was the likely culprit. Foster had previously gone to the FBI, which initially rejected his evidence: Hatfill, they told him, had a good alibi. Yet the Foster-Rosenberg team of amateur sleuths soldiered on: Rosenberg carried out a public campaign explicating her pet theories, including authoring a “Possible Portrait of the Anthrax Perpetrator” that did not name Hatfill but surely described him to a tee, even naming one of his friends.
Still, the FBI was uninterested in the Foster-Rosenberg sleuthing effort – but this changed when the two amateur investigators met with Senate staffers, including those whose offices had been targeted by the anthrax letters. The FBI agent in charge of the probe was brought into the meeting. As David Freed, writing in The Atlantic, put it:
“Rosenberg criticized the FBI for not being aggressive enough. ‘She thought we were wasting efforts and resources in a particular—or in several areas, and should focus more on who she concluded was responsible for it,” [FBI agent Van] Harp would later testify.
“’Did she mention Dr. Hatfill’s name in her presentation?’ Hatfill’s attorney, former federal prosecutor Thomas G. Connolly, asked Harp during a sworn deposition.
“’That’s who she was talking about,’ Harp testified.
“Exactly a week after the Rosenberg meeting, the FBI carried out its first search of Hatfill’s apartment, with television news cameras broadcasting it live.”
From that day forward, Hatfill’s life became a living nightmare. Then Attorney General John Ashcroft declared that Hatfill was a “person of interest.” The FBI trailed him everywhere. The media hounded him. He was driven out of two jobs. His friends abandoned him. His home was trashed by agents, as was his girlfriend’s apartment. He was constantly stopped by local police. He became a pariah. Although ultimately exonerated when the “evidence” against him collapsed – Hatfill was awarded a $5.82 million settlement after enduring six long years of torture – his life was effectively destroyed. And all because Robert Mueller fell for a conspiracy theory that had no basis in fact.
As Freed notes, President George W. Bush was constantly needling Mueller about the slowness of the anthrax investigation, and there was tremendous pressure for the FBI Director to come up with something. The hysteria level in the country was reaching new heights on a daily basis. The theory of Hatfill’s guilt filled a need for Mueller, both politically and career-wise. As Freed writes:
“There was enough circumstantial evidence surrounding Hatfill that zealous investigators could easily elaborate a plausible theory of him as the culprit. As fear about the anthrax attacks spread, government and other workers who might have been exposed to the deadly spores via the mail system were prescribed prophylactic doses of Cipro, a powerful antibiotic that protects against infection caused by inhaled anthrax. Unfamiliar to the general population before September 2001, Cipro quickly became known as the anti-anthrax drug, and prescriptions for it skyrocketed.”
Pursuing the trail pioneered by Foster and Rosenberg – Hatfill’s good alibi was apparently forgotten – the FBI tried to tie together the bits and pieces of information linking Hatfill to the attacks into a legally airtight case – and they failed. But that didn’t stop them from leaking to the media all along the way. As Freed writes: “The result was an unrelenting stream of inflammatory innuendo that dominated front pages and television news. Hatfill found himself trapped, the powerless central player in what Connolly describes as ‘a story about the two most powerful institutions in the United States, the government and the press, ganging up on an innocent man. It’s Kafka.’”
Is any of this beginning to sound familiar?
Here is a politically important case, in which several high-level people have been targeted: investigators come into the probe assuming the identity of the responsible party, and are engaged thereafter in looking for confirmation of their assumption.
The parallels with the “Russia-gate” investigation are glaringly obvious: despite the lack of any real forensic evidence, the investigation is based on the assumption that the Russians, under the direction of Vladimir Putin, interfered in the 2016 presidential election by “hacking” the DNC and John Podesta’s emails, handing them over to WikiLeaks, and otherwise engaging in a concerted campaign to keep Hillary Clinton out of the Oval Office. All evidence to the contrary – and there’s plenty of it – is being pointedly ignored. Instead, the Russian conspiracy theory is being pushed by political actors with dubious (and quite obvious) motives, with the probe headed up by a man with a history of succumbing to political pressure in order to get “results.”
Like the Foster-Rosenberg conspiracy theory targeting Hatfill – and the “evidence” the Bush administration utilized to drag us into war with Iraq – bits and pieces of “intelligence” are being strung together to depict a Vast Russian-Trumpian Conspiracy to steal the 2016 election. A meeting with the Russia ambassador: a meeting with some Russian lawyer; the selling of condos to Russian clients; bit and pieces of intercepted communications leaked by anonymous intelligence officials. The whole thing resembles the “factoids” touted by the Bush era “Office of Special Plans” that were disseminated in the media to mislead the public and the Congress into going along with the Iraq war.
Rod Rosenstein’s letter appointing Mueller as Special Counsel assumes a conclusion and then seeks evidence to confirm it: the letter takes as a given the role of the Russian government and gives Mueller the authority to probe “links” – the same carefree methodology that led to Hatfill’s years-long persecution at the hands of the government and its media accomplices.
Speaking of media accomplices, the worst was undoubtedly New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who persistently passed along Rosenberg’s unverified accusations under the thinly-veiled protective shield of prefacing it with “some say.” Weeks after Hatfill was exonerated, Kristof dashed off a reluctant-sounding pseudo-apology: that he’s now among the chief expositors of the Russia-gate conspiracy theory should come as no surprise.
Mueller’s weakness for convenient conspiracy theories that complement the conventional wisdom in Washington make him the worst possible choice for a special counsel. His tendency toward groupthink made him a key player in the campaign to lie us into the Iraq war. His utter lack of epistemological integrity in targeting an innocent man for the anthrax attacks – and refusing to clear Hatfill two years after investigators concluded he wasn’t the perpetrator – demonstrate his unfitness so clearly that one can only marvel there was no public outcry at his appointment. These flaws are more than likely to produce the same results in the Russia-gate probe – albeit on a much larger scale.
If Mueller carries out his mandate as special counsel the way he conducted the Amerithrax investigation, it will be as if Louise Mensch, Eric Garland, and Seth Abramson are providing the FBI with leads and guidance – just as Don Foster and Barbara Hatch Rosenberg did in the Hatfill case. But with this difference: hard scientific evidence – tracing the anthrax variant contained in the deadly letters – eventually led the anthrax probe in a different direction. In the case of Russia-gate, there is no science, only the guesswork of various self-interested cyber-security firms like CrowdStrike, which first fingered the Russians as the DNC/Podesta hackers. The inherent subjectivity of hacking attribution, and the extreme politicization of the investigation, will block this kind of corrective.
Which will empower Mueller to make it up as he goes along. Or, paraphrasing David Freed writing about the anthrax investigation fiasco: If there is “enough circumstantial evidence” surrounding the Trump administration that “zealous investigators could easily elaborate a plausible theory” of them as the culprits in a collusion scheme involving the Kremlin, then that is what we can expect to see.
This goes way beyond the Trump administration, Russia-gate, and the current political brouhaha over the 2016 presidential election: this is about the epistemic corruption that is rife in our political class. It is a pandemic born of groupthink, hypocrisy, smugness, and the willingness to fabricate “facts” in order to achieve political ends. It is a deadly disease, and it is killing us. The only antidote is a free media untethered to political interests and answerable only to the truth – and that is precisely what we don’t have right now. The media is complicit in all this: indeed, they are the carriers of the bacillus that is destroying this country. What happens when a free society poisons itself? I’m afraid we’re about to find out.
Important note: I don’t want to leave the impression that Mueller got it right when he targeted scientist Bruce Ivins as the culprit. In fact, the “evidence” marshaled against Ivins – who committed suicide before he could be brought to trial – was pretty much on the same level as the allegations made against Hatfill. I wrote about the Ivins case here. I also wrote about the anthrax attacks here, here, and especially here, in 2003, where I upheld Hatfill’s innocence and pointed in the direction of the probable perpetrators.
In short, Mueller never got it right.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.