Sunday, September 18, 2011

Special Delivery: Two New Books About the Anthrax Attacks

The Wall Street Journal reviews a pair of new books about the anthrax attacks, which happened nearly 10 years ago.

Biological warfare came to America soon after the 9/11 attack. In Florida, a photo editor died of inhalation anthrax. At the time it was thought to be an isolated incident. But then anthrax was found in New York in the newsrooms of NBC and the New York Post, together with letters dated "09-11-2001" and warning: "Death to America Death to Israel Allah Is Great." These were followed by anthrax-laced letters, with a similar message, sent to Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee, and Majority Leader Tom Daschle. The clouds of trillions of spores closed down Congress. In all, five people died from the killer anthrax, and more than a dozen required treatment.

It was quickly established that all the anthrax was from the deadly Ames strain. All the envelopes carried the same Trenton, N.J., postmark, but the FBI had little else to go on. There were no fingerprints, fibers or DNA traces on the envelopes, on the tape used to seal them or on the photocopied letters inside. After testing every mailbox that used that postmark, the FBI found one in Princeton, N.J., that tested positive; investigators found no witnesses to the mailings. Though the FBI eventually identified a few suspects and ultimately insisted that it had found its man, no one was ever prosecuted.

Now two excellent books give a thorough chronicle of the anthrax terror campaign and try to clarify what happened. "American Anthrax" is Jeanne Guillemin's brilliant examination of how America responded, while David Willman's "The Mirage Man" focuses more tightly on the FBI investigation, exposing the inner workings of one of the most extensive efforts in the bureau's history.

Incredibly, there are still a lot of loose ends, including new questions about who really was behind the biggest germ warfare attack in American history. Steve Hatfill, of course, saw his life ruined as the FBI spent literally years trying to build a case against him. Nicholas Kristof even got into the act, publishing FBI leaks supposedly establishing Hatfill's guilt that were pure fiction. (you would think someone at the FBI would have realized their investigation was going off the rails when they started relying on a professional bed-wetter like Kristof).

After giving up on Hatfill (and paying him millions to settle a lawsuit), the FBI turned its focus on a troubled colleague of Hatfill's, Bruce Ivins. Ivins, you will recall, was identified with great fanfare as the anthrax killer after genetic tests established that the anthrax could be traced to some of Ivins' lab equipment. This time, there was no need to "break" Ivins, as they had tried to do with Hatfill, because Ivins was already broken. The man killed himself, although he may have just as likely been upset about the FBI's finding pornography on his work computer, as he was about being prosecuted for bio-terrorism.

But, here's a newsflash I hadn't heard until I read the linked review: the tests establishing Ivins's guilt were independently reviewed and found wanting:

The report concluded that the FBI's key assertion—that its genetic fingerprinting showed that the killer anthrax could have only come from the flask in Ivins's custody—was flawed. "The scientific data alone do not support the strength of the government's repeated assertions that 'MR-1029 was conclusively identified as the parent material to the anthrax powder used in the mailings,' " the report stated. "It is not possible to reach a definitive conclusion about the origins of the B. anthracis in the mailings based on the available scientific evidence alone." Without a scientific basis for tracing the killer anthrax to Ivins's lab, the FBI's case against him was reduced to inferences from his behavior.

Not only that, there was a third suspect, Barry Mikesell, also a scientist, who was part of the small group of scientists with access to the Ames strain of anthrax. I had never heard of him before (had you?) but that might be because he drank himself to death soon after becoming aware of the FBI's unhealthy interest in him.

In other words, we are really no closer to solving the anthrax murders now than we were 10 years ago, except there are shattered lives littered along a trail that has gone cold. Your tax dollars at work.

Like TWA 800 and 9/11, the anthrax attacks were a shocking event that was never satisfactorily resolved. But, unlike those two events, the anthrax case hasn't attracted the usual crazed conspiracy theorists. Maybe that's because the crazy conspiracy theorists are working for the feds.

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