It is surprising to see no mention in any media today of the parallel that exists between the 2001 anthrax attacks across the US and the poisoning of a former Russian spy on British soil.
It could have been called 9/11, Act I, Scene II, or, in Hollywood terms, the sequel. The script was short — just a few brief sentences ending with “ALLAH IS GREAT,” enclosed in an envelope full of deadly poison, followed by a series of bombastic, confused or inept statements by US authorities. But that’s what anyone should expect from an action film.
That was 2001. Now that a similar scenario is taking place in the UK, this question deserves being asked: Does anyone remember the anthrax attacks across the United States in the aftermath of 9/11, and how that story developed and how it ended? And among those who do, how many sought — while it was going on — to follow the stages of the investigation that eventually led to the suicide of a scientist? It is surprising to see no mention in any media today of the parallel that exists between the 2001 anthrax attacks and the recent poisoning of a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, in the quiet English town of Salisbury, with what appears to be a nerve agent known as Novichok.
A quick reminder of the basic facts may prove useful. On September 18, 2001, the first letters containing anthrax were mailed from Trenton, New Jersey. Between October 4 and November 21, 17 people were infected from the letters, and five died.
In 2002, the FBI began investigating Steven Hatfill, an American scientist, who ended up successfully suing the government in July 2008 under the Privacy Act, receiving a settlement of $5.8 million. Sometime in 2006, the FBI began considering a new suspect, a senior biodefense researcher at the US Army medical command facility at Fort Detrick, Bruce Ivins. A month after Hatfill’s victory in the courts, Ivins committed suicide. The FBI, under instructions from its then-director, Robert Mueller, promptly called the case closed, though no serious evidence ever emerged to charge Ivins. As CNN reported at the time, “Federal prosecutors named Ivins the culprit in the anthrax attacks after his death.”
In December 2014, Scientific American discussed the results of a US Government Accountability Office report under the headline, “FBI’s 2001 Anthrax Attack Probe Was Seriously Flawed.” The report cites Jim White, a retired molecular biologist, “and others” who “argue that the information and questions that have surfaced in recent years warrant reopening the case.” (The GAO’s title was much more kind — Anthrax: Agency Approaches to Validation and Statistical Analyses Could Be Improved). Needless to say, the case has not been reopened.
A More Likely Scenario
The New York Daily News in August 2008, days after Ivins’ suicide, reported some unrevealed facts from September 2001:
“In the immediate aftermath of the 2001 anthrax attacks, White House officials repeatedly pressed FBI Director Robert Mueller to prove it was a second-wave assault by Al Qaeda, but investigators ruled that out … Mueller was ‘beaten up’ during President Bush’s morning intelligence briefings for not producing proof the killer spores were the handiwork of terrorist mastermind Osama Bin Laden, according to a former aide.
The same article states that by October 15, “the FBI already knew anthrax spilling out of letters addressed to media outlets and to a U.S. senator was a military strain of the bioweapon.” According to a retired FBI operative interviewed on a local radio station in Southern California in mid-October, Mueller’s active colleagues at the FBI had determined the identity of the culprit, who was an American citizen, and whose identity would be revealed the following day. The former agent speculated that the attacker’s motives may have been patriotic, though clearly perverse. He put forward the thesis that the scientist wanted the public to be aware of how dangerous chemical weapons might be if they fell into the hands of terrorists.
There was no announcement the following day. Eight months later the public heard its first hint that scientist named Steven Hatfill was a “person of interest.” And whether the investigation focused on Hatfill or Ivins, the FBI never again attempted to elucidate a “patriotic” motive.
In mid-October 2001, there was an understanding that the anthrax had originated in an American laboratory and not in the Middle East. Why then did ABC News report on November 6, three weeks later, that the “worldwide anthrax scare spread to Russia today as FBI officials conceded they still do not know the source of the deadly bacteria, and have not figured out even what labs in the United States would be able to produce it”? In the same article, we learn that “FBI officials told a Senate panel today they have had little progress in the investigation on the spread of anthrax.”
Perhaps the most poignant quote from the article is attributed to James Reynolds, the Justice Department’s chief of terrorism and violent crime: “This is a war that we are all fighting and like every war, there’s a certain amount of fog.” On September 16, President Bush had already promised that “this crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while.” Battling the fog does slow things down, including the release of the truth about the true origin of the anthrax. In the same article, ABC News reported that investigators were questioning “three Pakistani men who were taken into custody near the anthrax-contaminated postal facility in Hamilton Township, N.J.” They were wasting their time.
In 2007, Glenn Greenwald questioned for Salon “The unresolved story of ABC News’ false Saddam-anthrax reports,” documenting the details of ABC’s reporting, pointing out that even more than five years later they had never retracted them. “All of those factual claims — each and every one of them, separately — were completely false, demonstrably and unquestionably so. There is now no question about that.” According to Greenwald, ABC’s Brian Ross “claimed at the time … that these false reports — clearly designed to blame Iraq for the anthrax attacks in the eyes of Americans — were fed to him by ‘at least four well-placed sources.’ Who were the well-placed, multiple sources feeding ABC News completely fictitious claims linking Saddam Hussein to the anthrax attacks, including false claims about the results of government tests?”
In an article from 2008, Greenwald wrote that “the role played by ABC News in this episode is the single greatest, unresolved media scandal of this decade.”
The Real Mystery
As everyone knows, after invading Iraq and destroying the fabric of Iraqi society, the United States found not a single WMD. The only chemical weapons actually used for purposes of terrorism in that period came from the US and were used against US citizens. And yet the truth had become known, at least to insiders, by mid-October. That was when ABC began its campaign of accusing Saddam Hussein on the basis of these “four sources,” which, as Greenwald points out, could only come from the US government’s laboratory. The ABC “reports were absolutely vital in creating the impression during that very volatile time that Islamic terrorists generally, and Iraq and Saddam Hussein specifically, were grave, existential threats to this country.”
Those are the known facts. Two questions remain, Whodunnit and why?
Here is Gabriel Schoenfeld writing in The Los Angeles Time in August 2008: “Whether Ivins is conclusively shown to be the perpetrator, or whether he was an innocent man hounded by intrusive surveillance and public humiliation into suicide, questions about the FBI’s performance are piling up. The bureau’s horrific track record before 9/11, and its single-minded focus on Hatfill after the anthrax attacks, raises the suspicion that, in the dramatic events of last week, we are glimpsing yet another monumental screw-up, one fully worthy of the FBI’s inglorious recent past.”
Since no one has published anything resembling a reasonable account of motives of whichever scientist at Fort Detrick may have prepared the anthrax, readers will draw their own conclusions. Concerning motives, we know it wasn’t Middle East terrorism. The man credited with solving the mystery of the origin of the anthrax, Paul Keim, explained in detail how and when he discovered the truth that traced the source to Fort Detrick. By October 5, the day the first victim, journalist Robert Stevens, died, Keim had identified the Ames strain of anthrax. That led him to narrow it down to a specific morph, RMR-1029, and finally to Fort Detrick. By mid-October, Keim and the FBI had determined that the source could not be Iraq and was most likely Fort Detrick.
“In November, microbiologist Paul Keim was able to prove that wasn’t the case,” according to an article in Wired on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 that reminds us of the role the anthrax scare played in the build-up to the invasion of Iraq 18 months later. Keim’s proof had the effect of ending ABC’s valorous campaign of fake news. But it didn’t stop the Bush administration from continuing to exploit the idea that Saddam Hussein might have been the culprit.
In his State of the Union address in January 2002, George W. Bush began beating the drums of war while suggesting, though he knew it to be false, that Saddam Hussein was behind the 2001 attacks: “The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax and nerve gas and nuclear weapons for over a decade.” In September 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney, in an interview with Tim Russert on NBC News Meet the Press, continued to insinuate that Iraq might have been responsible:
“VICE PRES. CHENEY: Who did the anthrax attack last fall, Tim? We don’t know.
RUSSERT: Could it have been Saddam?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: I don’t know. I don’t know who did it. I’m not here today to speculate on or to suggest that he did.”
Of course he did know. As did Robert Mueller. By that time, the FBI was actively pursuing Steven Hatfill as the prime suspect, with absolutely no connection to Iraq. But allowing people to continue to suspect Saddam Hussein served Cheney’s real purpose — to go to war.
As the Wired article mentions, Secretary of State Colin Powell famously addressed the United Nations on February 5, 2003, making the same disingenuous suggestion of a connection between the anthrax attacks of 2001 and the Iraqi regime. A little more than a month later, the invasion of Iraq took place, inaugurating a war that is still dragging on. Once that had happened, followed by the failure of the invading army to find any semblance of weapons of mass destruction, the anthrax story dropped out of both the news cycle the rhetoric of Washington politicians. The FBI pursued its investigations around Fort Detrick until it could achieve “closure” with the suicide of Bruce Ivins.
Traditionally, great detectives solve crimes by asking the question, Cui bono? In this case, we need to remind ourselves of the actors in the story. Their names are George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Robert Mueller and, perhaps, Bruce Ivins. To which we might add Brian Ross of ABC News and possibly the entire corporation. Did any of them have anything to gain in a series of acts that resulted in the death of five Americans?
We don’t know, and it’s unlikely that the kind of investigation that could reveal either the motives or the truth about the acts will ever take place. There is at least one person who knows everything about the case and about the motives of a number of people: Robert Mueller. But he now appears to be occupied with another investigation.
Now What About Novichok?
Can we see any similarities with the story that’s unfolding today in the UK concerning the attack on the former Russian spy and his daughter?
Here are some things to think about. Theresa May’s government immediately accused the Kremlin of attempted murder, because it seemed “logical.” Novichok was developed in the Soviet Union as part of its chemical weapons program, and the target was a former Russian spy. On that basis, but without material proof, May took diplomatic action and convinced most Western governments to follow suit. Britain’s foreign minister, Boris Johnson, specifically claimed that Porton Down (UK’s military research lab located in Salisbury) had confirmed the Russian source, much as ABC News had claimed the chemical proof existed of the Iraqi source of the anthrax. Weeks later, we learn not only that Johnson’s claim was false, but that he had deleted the tweet in which he had made the claim.
In both cases — anthrax and Novichok — we don’t know about how the acts took place, who the actors might have been or even the probable motives. We may never know, either because the crime was too well disguised or the investigation bungled, deliberately or through simple bureaucratic incompetence. We do know that both members of the governments in question and the media at various stages added to the confusion rather than attempting to clarify it.
We do, however, know that the governments involved took political action without proof, and that the media, whatever their political orientation, not only acted as a megaphone for the government’s “logical” stance, but failed to ask questions at those critical moments when contradictions appeared. Alongside the fog of war, we need to acknowledge the pea-souper of political crimes.
Ten years after September 2011, The Guardian published a brief account of the anthrax episode with the title, “The anthrax scare: not a germ of truth.” At what point did the media accept and reported candidly on what seemed to be known to be true in mid-October 2001?
All this can be reasonably be built into what could be deemed a classic conspiracy theory. Its credibility would depend largely on determining who communicated with whom and with what intent. It took the FBI some time — seven years — but Bruce Ivins eventually became their Lee Harvey Oswald, the lone-wolf killer who probably had some kind of grudge, though in his case it is far from clear against whom. Ivins too conveniently died before his trial.
All observers have noticed that anthrax played a serious psychological role in justifying George W. Bush’s and Tony Blair’s Iraq invasion. The mounting campaign to make everyone aware of the dire threat of Russia has become the driving theme of the political classes in a number of Western countries, especially the US and Britain. Do their economies depend on it? Does the survival of their political reputation require it? Does it help distract from other unmanageable problems for which they might be held accountable?
We have no answers. But wouldn’t it be nice if the media pointed this out from time to time rather than just repeating the facile “logical conclusions” and “rational explanations” politicians use to fob us off?
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.
In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.
We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money.
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.
Support Fair Observer
We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.
Will you support FO’s journalism?
We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.