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Cold Case

What happened to the anthrax investigation?

The five-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon will witness a torrent of commentary reflecting on the moment and meaning of 9/11. Ceremonies will be enacted and we will honor our dead—while politicians, as usual, take the opportunity to make maximum use of the occasion. The War Party, quite naturally, will be in the lead, using this dark memorial for its own ends: we must never forget, we must re-energize our will to make war, we must dedicate ourselves to a future of unrelenting aggression against a billion-plus Muslims. You know the drill.

But one thing will escape public notice, something it seems everyone has let slip down the memory hole—the series of subsequent attacks that filled the nation with dread and fueled the War Party’s program of perpetual war abroad and unprecedented government repression at home: the anthrax attacks.

The smoke had hardly cleared from lower Manhattan before the news broke: ABC, NBC, CBS, and the New York Post all received letters containing crude anthrax spores. So did the offices of the company that publishes The National Enquirer in Boca Raton, Florida. The letters were postmarked Sept. 18, in Trenton, New Jersey.

The second wave came in the beginning of October: two letters, postmarked from Trenton, dated Oct. 9, were sent to the offices of senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. Only this time the spores were of the highly refined “weaponized” variety, a dry powder ground into a dust designed to spread through the air and be inhaled quite easily. This strain of anthrax has been positively identified as the Ames variety, stored at USAMRIID, the U.S. government biological weapons research facility at Fort Detrick, Maryland, and a few other such labs.

Already reeling from 9/11, the nation went into panic mode. Capitol Hill shut down. Thousands took Cipro, the only known defense against anthrax infection. The airwaves were thick with ominous portents of more to come, and visions of a horrific bio-terror assault were conjured before our horrified eyes. The War Party was quick to jump on this opportunity and channel it into war hysteria directed at Iraq, with Andrew Sullivan, warblogger-in-chief, leading the charge:

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.

Bill Kristol, less hysterical but hardly more credible, wondered in The Weekly Standard

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?

He postulated that at the now famous Prague meeting—which Czech police deny ever took place—Atta not only planned the 9/11 attacks with an Iraqi intelligence agent but also hatched the anthrax plot. Given that this mythical meeting was alleged to have occurred at the Prague airport, well within range of security cameras, one wonders if passing vials of anthrax might have proved somewhat problematic. But the War Party didn’t need especially logical arguments to stoke the fires of American rage.

We’ve since been treated to a parade of utopian justifications for the invasion of Iraq, but in the days immediately following 9/11, neoconservatives seized upon something more elemental: American grief and fear. Just as the shock began to subside, the anthrax attacks provided a vital sequel in their propaganda campaign designed to link Iraq to terrorism in the U.S. and drag us into war. The New York Times reported,

For months, intelligence agencies searched for Iraqi fingerprints and scientists investigated whether Baghdad had somehow obtained the so-called Ames strain of anthrax. Scientists also repeatedly analyzed the powder from the anthrax-laced envelopes for signs of chemical additives that would point to Iraq. ‘We looked for any shred of evidence that would bear on this, or any foreign source,’ a senior intelligence official said of an Iraq connection. ‘It’s just not there.’ … ‘I know there are a number of people who would love an excuse to get after Iraq,’ said a top federal scientist involved in the investigation.

Best efforts of Kristol & Co. notwithstanding, the evidence didn’t support an Iraq link. It pointed in a different direction—much closer to home—but in the years that have followed, the investigation has stalled and scapegoated, never giving Americans an answer to who sent terror through our mail.

Days before the anthrax story broke—but after the deadly missives had been sent—military police headquarters in Quantico, Virginia received an anonymous letter containing important clues to the mystery. Written by someone with a detailed knowledge of USAMRIID, the letter stated that Dr. Ayaad Assaad, an Egyptian-born American citizen who had formerly worked at Ft. Detrick was at the center of a terrorist plot against America. The author claimed to have worked with Assaad.

Interviewed by the FBI, Assaad was quickly cleared of any connection with the anthrax attacks, but his story points so clearly in the direction of the real terrorists that it is difficult to believe federal law enforcement failed to follow through.

Someone had tried to set Assaad up, but whoever wrote that poison-pen letter was also very likely trying to divert attention away from the actual perpetrators. As Assaad put it: “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.”

Surely this is the kind of lead law enforcement would normally be quite interested in, especially given that the anthrax attacks would become public knowledge a few days later, but, oddly, that was not the case.

For years, Assaad had been the victim of a group of scientists at Ft. Detrick who styled themselves the “Camel Club.” They sent him an obscene 47-stanza, 235-line poem and proffered a constant stream of racist anti-Arab epithets. “In [Assad’s] honor we created this beast; it represents life lower than yeast,” they wrote. The “beast” referred to a rubber camel outfitted with sexually explicit appendages, delivered to his mailbox. Assaad filed a formal complaint and was eventually offered an official apology by the U.S. Army.

The early 1990s were “a turbulent period of labor complaints and recriminations among rival scientists” at USAMRIID, the Hartford Courant reported, which coincided with a number of other more serious—indeed, outright sinister—problems. Soon after the anthrax attacks, the Courant revealed that 26 sets of biological toxins—not only anthrax but also hanta virus, Ebola virus, and other lethal pathogens—had gone missing from the Ft. Detrick facility. An inquiry “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” is not all that mysterious, as 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.

Both Zack and Rippy were charter members of the Camel Club. They left Ft. Detrick “voluntarily,” shortly after Assaad’s complaint.

The FBI won’t release the Quantico letter, claiming it would identify secret sources in the continuing investigation. But FBI spokesman Chris Murray told the Courant, “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.”

Rather, the bureau turned its resources on one Steven Hatfill, a former USAMRIID scientist against whom there was not an iota of physical evidence. The case against him consisted solely of public pronouncements on the subject of bio-terrorism and accord with a profile of the potential anthrax killer. Yet for two years, Hatfill’s privacy and sanity were held hostage by the FBI. Washington, D.C.’s City Paper relates a spectacle at once menacing and pathetic:

The video cameras seem to be the latest hassle. One time, [press liaison Pat] Clawson remembers, Hatfill spotted a few agents trying to rig a camera to a lamppost across from his apartment building. He decided to have a little fun and go out there and offer his assistance.

‘What are you guys doing?’ Hatfill asked, according to Clawson.

The agents told him that they were installing an ‘Internet relay device.’ Whatever that means. He offered to help them install it anyway. The joke in Hatfill’s camp is that he’s secured the best Internet service in the District.

Our tax dollars at work. More tax dollars were spent draining a pond a few miles from the Ft. Detrick lab. Four weeks and 50,000 gallons later, a veritable army of feds, both FBI and postal agents, came up with a couple of logs, a few fishing lures, and an old gun unrelated to the attacks. Tests for traces of anthrax came up negative.

Hatfill was never charged and is now suing the New York Times, Vanity Fair, and Reader’s Digest—all of which ran articles implicating him as the culprit—as well as the government in an attempt to get his reputation back.

After the misdirection involving Iraq and the dramatics surrounding Hatfill, the fact remains that whoever was behind the anthrax attacks is still lurking out there. And perhaps the biggest mystery aside from the identity of the culprit or culprits is why the “Amerithrax” investigation—the silly name given the case by U.S. government investigators—was so suddenly and unceremoniously dropped, especially when there is plenty of publicly available evidence containing a rich trove of clues.

The FBI is unusually cavalier about its failure to bring the perpetrators to justice. Assistant Director Michael A. Mason told the Washington Times, “Despite our very, very, very best efforts, we still might not be able to bring it home. This would not be the first case in the FBI’s history that remained unsolved. It simply happens to be the first case that has received this level of publicity that has not yet been solved.” That’s a casual way to treat the investigation of an attempted mass poisoning that occurred mere weeks after the worst terrorist attacks in American history.

Either the bureau is curiously lax or they received orders from on high to pursue a certain trail of evidence by going after one suspect and neglecting others. Who, other than the culprits, would benefit from allowing the case to remain unsolved? Who would profit from widespread fear that anthrax had come from some shadowy foreign source rather than a racist clique? It’s impossible to ignore the fact that certain of the administration’s goals were served: the postal pestilence created an atmosphere in which the PATRIOT Act sailed through Congress without a single member having read it. The attacks also helped amplify the horror of 9/11, which gave impetus to the War Party that had long been agitating for the invasion of Iraq.

The whole matter cries out for an investigation, if not by the U.S. government, then by the media. So where are our vaunted investigative reporters? Where is the Fourth Estate? The resounding silence we hear from these glorified stenographers is a sad testament to the degeneration and domestication of the species once known as journalists. Meanwhile, the evidence molders, ignored, in a dark corner, while the world moves on to new crises—fresh fears of terrorist attack, only this time nuclear instead of bacteriological.

If the run-up to war with Iraq required putting a scare into the American people, then no doubt the prelude to confronting Iran will require a similar softening up process. Last time around, five people died and 22 were sickened. How many will it be tomorrow?

Justin Raimondo is editorial director of Antiwar.com.



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