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August 02, 2008

Anthrax and the Damage Done
Posted by Michael Cohen

Glenn Greenwald has posted a piece over at Salon on the links between the anthrax attacks of September 2001, the US Government, the recently deceased Bruce Ivins (who is now seen as a prime suspect in the attacks) and the war in Iraq.

While Greenwald doesn't come out and directly say it; he darkly hints of complicity at the highest levels of the US government in the anthrax mailings that terrorized the country and intimates that subsequent government leaks about the potential involvement of Saddam Hussein in the incident were an effort to lay the groundwork in the Fall of 2001 for war with Iraq:

If the now-deceased Ivins really was the culprit behind the attacks, then that means that the anthrax came from a U.S. Government lab, sent by a top U.S. Army scientist at Ft. Detrick. Without resort to any speculation or inferences at all, it is hard to overstate the significance of that fact. From the beginning, there was a clear intent on the part of the anthrax attacker to create a link between the anthrax attacks and both Islamic radicals and the 9/11 attacks.

Now, when one argues that they are not resorting to speculation or inference one can safely conclude that the opposite is occurring:

The same Government lab where the anthrax attacks themselves came from was the same place where the false reports originated that blamed those attacks on Iraq. It's extremely possible -- one could say highly likely -- that the same people responsible for perpetrating the attacks were the ones who fed the false reports to the public, through ABC News, that Saddam was behind them. What we know for certain -- as a result of the letters accompanying the anthrax -- is that whoever perpetrated the attacks wanted the public to believe they were sent by foreign Muslims.

Feeding claims to ABC News designed to link Saddam to those attacks would, for obvious reasons, promote the goal of the anthrax attacker(s).

Surely the question of who generated those false Iraq-anthrax reports is one of the most significant and explosive stories of the last decade.

Now if Greenwald thinks this was the effort of a lone scientist and part of a larger conspiracy  he should really come out and say it - or at the very least provide a scintilla of evidence to back up this incendiary charge. He's done neither.

But let's say that Greenwald is not making this charge - let's unpack for a moment his larger argument that "after 9/11 itself, the anthrax attacks were probably the most consequential event of the Bush presidency. One could make a persuasive case that they were actually more consequential." And what about his equally bold assertion that "there can't be any question that this extremely flamboyant though totally false linkage between Iraq and the anthrax attacks . . . played a very significant role in how Americans perceived of the Islamic threat generally and Iraq specifically."

Greenwald presents several critical examples of news outlets trumpeting the notion that Iraq was somehow behind the anthrax attacks. His evidence: ABC reporting, particularly by Brian Ross and Peter Jennings; a Richard Cohen column; and a Weekly Standard article. Truly this is thin gruel.

Now having lived in New York I cannot vouch for how Americans viewed the 9/11 attacks vs. the anthrax mailings. Both were obviously traumatic, but I have hard time believing anyone would readily suggest that the anthrax attacks were more consequential than the attacks of September 11th or that the linkage between Iraq and that terrible day was made less explicitly. Indeed in September 2003, 69% of Americans saw a link between Iraq and 9/11. I have yet to find a public poll that shows a similar margin of Americans saw a linkage between Iraq and the anthrax attacks.

What's more, in the three major speeches that President Bush delivered in 2002 that brought the country to war in Iraq (the 2002 SOTU, the May 2002 speech at West Point that unveiled the preemption doctrine and the Oct 2002 speech in Cincinnati making the case for war in Iraq) he mentioned the word anthrax three times and by no means were they the focal point of his addresses. As for 9/11; it was the centerpiece element of the Bush Administration's case for war. More specifically, Glenn have you forgotten the images of mushroom clouds painted by a litany of Bush Administration officials? They didn't use anthrax to sell the war; they used nukes!  It simply belies reality to argue that the anthrax attacks and the White House spin that Iraq was responsible for them played a significant role in making the case for war.  The evidence simply does not exist to make such a claim.

Now the rejoinder here would likely be that some in the Pentagon and elsewhere in the Administration used the anthrax attacks as an excuse to make false links between Iraq and the war on terrorism as a way to lay the groundwork for war. If you boil it down, that is the essence of Greenwald's claim. To quote Albert Brooks in Broadcast News, 'you really blew the lid off of nookie with that one Glenn.'

Of course the Bush Administration used the anthrax attacks to sow the seeds of the war in Iraq. I won't even bother to link to all the reports of Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and others in the Administration who made the case for war in Iraq in the days after September 11th. Knowing what we know now about the false Bush Administration case for war in Iraq none of this should be at all surprising. And considering the fragile state of the country's psyche in the Fall of 2001 it's even less surprising that reporters and politicians picked up on the idea. Along these lines, Greenwald links to a fascinating interview with John McCain in October 2002 from the Letterman show:

LETTERMAN: How are things going in Afghanistan now?  

MCCAIN: I think we're doing fine . . . I think we'll do fine. The second phase -- if I could just make one, very quickly -- the second phase is Iraq. There is some indication, and I don't have the conclusions, but some of this anthrax may -- and I emphasize may -- have come from Iraq.


LETTERMAN: Oh is that right?


MCCAIN: If that should be the case, that's when some tough decisions are gonna have to be made.

The big deal here is not that McCain made a linkage between Iraq and anthrax - he probably received the same bad information from enterprising and misleading Bush Administration officials as the reporters that Greenwald castigates. The big deal is that a month after 9/11 McCain was talking about Iraq in terms of being "the second phase" of the war on terror after Afghanistan. That is much more disturbing and indicative of McCain's militaristic viewpoint.

But as for the notion that somehow, 7 years later, Greenwald has stumbled on some extraordiary revelation or that the false claims of a linkage between Iraq and the anthrax attacks spurred the case for war - this is pure nonsense. What's worse, Greenwald darkly hints at the the unsubstantiated notion that government officials, linked to the Bush Administration, were somehow involved in the anthrax attacks. Now, in fairness Greenwald doesn't make this assertion directly; but he comes pretty close. And for an individual who seems obsessed with the notion of journalistic impropriety - this is the height of impropriety itself; and one Greenwald should either offer evidence of, or retract immediately.

What's good for the goose is good for the gander.


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I shouldn't try to rewrite Greenwald but this is how I see it (and how I think he sees it): The anthrax mailings brought the biological terrorism threat into the national consciousness. Both the government and the news media did lump bioterror and specifcally anthrax into their descriptions of what Saddam might have been up to at the time. As you rightly point out, Condi Rice was out there talking mushroom clouds. Anthrax and bioterror were just parts of a purposefully convoluted rationale for war. They wanted to be able to be vindicated no matter what they found after the invasion, after all. If not nukes, maybe some mustard gas, if not that, some anthrax.

Certainly seems like no one in the government was in a rush to publicize the fact that the anthrax mailings were likely an act of domestic terrorism. That strikes me as irresponsible. The government seems to have deliberately left people with the impression that the attacks could have been acts of international terrorism. Would it have compromised the investigation if the government had said, much earlier on, that its chief people of interests were American citizens? I don't think so. But it also wouldn't have served Bush's propaganda purposes.

I have to say, Michael, that your priorities seem quite out of whack on this one. I know you have some sort of running war with Glenn Greenwald, but he’s really, really not the story here.

The administration was always more circumspect in promoting the anthrax theory than they were in promoting the aluminum tubes and nuclear weapons theory. But what they never did during the run-up to the war was shoot the story down. And yet it is very implausible to think that they didn’t at least have a rough idea of the truth fairly early on.

There are really very few places the anthrax could have come from, and I find it difficult to believe that the FBI and the administration did not realize very early on that the source was domestic, and unrelated to Middle Eastern or Islamic terrorism. And we know that by the middle of 2002 the FBI, presumably relying in part on classified forensic evidence derived from the recovered anthrax samples, was already looking at Fort Dietrich and Stephen Hatfill.

There was indeed a large, thriving cottage industry back in 2001 and 2002 devoted to pushing the theory that Saddam was behind the anthrax attacks – and other attacks, such as the first World Trade Center attack in 1993 - and this theory subsequently became widely popular on the right. The German magazine Bild, for example, had published a story not long after the attack, allegedly sourced to Israeli intelligence, that claimed Muhammad Atta had been given a vial of anthrax in Prague, which he brought in to the United States when he flew to Newark airport prior to 9/11. The anthrax, as we know, was mailed from New Jersey, a decision that in retrospect looks like an attempt by Ivins, or whoever perpetrated the attacks, to pin the blame on Atta and company. The Bild story was carried in the British and American press, and was a staple of right-wing discussion of Iraq. Even today, you find many right wingers who will not accept that Fort Dietrich was the source of the anthrax, and are convinced the nefarious FBI is covering up Iraqi involvement.

Colin Powell held up a vial of the same sort, for dramatic effect, during his infamous UN presentation. Of course, Powell restricted himself there to claims about what could happen, rather than making direct assertions about what did happen. But you don’t think that this piece of theatrics was a dog whistle to the true believers, aimed at tying into fears, suspicions and legends that were known to be widespread in some quarters in the US? The administration was more than happy to get an assist from this undercurrent of suspicion.

It is stunning, and nothing short of scandalous, that this series of attacks, a major panic-inducing terrorist event which constituted one of the crimes of the century, has remained unsolved for so long. This story, which was the talk of the nation for weeks, has been successfully shoved down the memory hole for seven years. Yet now that the Bush administration is on its way out the door, voila, case closed.

My feeling is that the administration, while not involved in the attacks, probably had a role in sitting on this case,and slowing down the investigation, for the same reason they have never seemed particularly anxious about capturing or killing Obama Bin Laden, and for the same reason they spent a couple of years promoting color-coded terror alerts. Maintaining public fear and suspicion was essential to their war effort. The revelation that this attack had come from individuals employed by the US government at Fort Dietrich, individuals likely motivated by the same right wing politics driving the friends of the administration, would have been a very damaging blow to the narratives the administration was trying to reinforce.

I live in New Hampshire, not New York. For many of us out here in the northern hinterlands, the anthrax attack hit closer to home than the 9/11 attacks. It was clear as soon as the 9/11 attacks occurred that their intent was to destroy high profile symbols of American power. It was impressive, but I never worried that terrorists were going to drop a plane on my family in New Hampshire. For people outside of the major cities, the rampant speculation about biological and chemical weapons was a very important motivator.

Michael, consider what has emerged here: Fort Dietrich, the center of US bio-weapons research and heart of the nation’s bio-weapons defense program, was the source of a terrorist attack on the US homeland, an attack that included the attempted assassination of two Democratic US Senators. Doesn’t that seem a bit more important to you than anything Glenn Greenwald might or might not be hinting? Why aren’t you outraged that the perpetrator of this attack, likely in a position to carry out further such attacks, was never apprehended?

Rather than demand Glenn Greenwald retract statements that he didn’t even make, and pursuing your personal agenda with him, why don’t you put your argumentative abilities to work pursuing the truth about the primary issues?

First of all, let us recall that the anthrax attacks were the most successful political assassinations ever carried out, because although their targets (Senators Daschle and Leahy) did not die, the entire Democratic Party was intimidated into abandoning its oppositional role. I do not think a historical parallel can be named.

Second, it was overwhelmingly obvious, in the weeks after the anthrax attacks, that the perpetrator(s) was/were known and being protected.

If Ivins was the culprit, then it would be interesting to know 1) why it was possible to protect him then and 2) why it recently became impossible to protect him. The Hatfill hat trick does not account for this.

What was the guy's name -- Roger something? -- whom they tried to frame for the Atlanta Centennial Park bombing in order to try to protect Eric Rudolph? There are similarities between the two cases, but they may not be significant.

The Wacky, Wacky, Wacky Michael Cohen

The FBI released case documents. They cannot put Ivins in Princeton NJ where the letters were mailed. They cannot match his handwriting to the handwriting in the letters. The late Ivins is alleged to have committed suicide with tylenol the absence of a suicide note, notwithstanding. They have not provided information about the scientific process used to identify the source of the anthrax so the process cannot be evaluated on the merits by scientists. USA Taylor claims the totality of the evidence (circumstantial evidence) is how he knows Ivins acted alone.

Cohen's agenda in reviewing this matter seems motivated by some personal animus toward Glenn Greenwald and not on aspects more central to Ivins guilt, such as whether Ivins acted alone, whether the FBI has done its job with integrity or whether this whole affair was abuse of power and domestic terrorism x 2.

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