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Last Updated

18 Aug 2003

Source: Wall Street Journal, June 3, 2002.


FBI Reform: Connect Anthrax Dots

by Robert L. Bartley

FBI Director Robert Mueller has scrambled the boxes on his organization chart, and dropped his previous stonewalling about mistakes prior to the September 11 disaster. The question is whether this actually changes the FBI mindset, and to my mind the test is the Bureau's position on the subsequent anthrax attacks.

Congress should apply this test as it takes up intelligence failure. The Select Committee on Intelligence starts closed-door hearings tomorrow, and the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold open hearings Thursday. The latter will likely feature Coleen Rowley, counsel to the Minneapolis FBI office and author of the now-famous letter to Director Mueller. It is certainly dramatic: "Although I would hope it is not necessary, I would therefore wish to take advantage of the federal 'Whistleblower Protection' provisions by so characterizing my remarks."

Agent Rowley is scathing about "chalking this all up to the '20-20 hindsight is perfect' problem." Minneapolis agents who arrested Zacarias Moussaoui prior to the World Trade Center attacks quickly identified him as a terrorist threat, and indeed identified the legal grounds on which he has since been indicted. Meanwhile, Phoenix agents had sounded an alarm about suspicious Arabs taking flight training. So "this is not a case of everyone in the FBI failing to appreciate the potential consequences."

The problem, rather, was that FBI headquarters obstructed the Minneapolis office's attempts to get a warrant to search Moussaoui's computer. At one point, the Supervisory Special Agent in Washington dismissed French reports that Moussaoui had terrorist connections by saying others in France might also be named Zacarias Moussaoui. While the Paris phone directory listed only one, "the SSA continued to find new reasons to stall." Even after terrorists flew into the Trade Center, the supervisor said Moussaoui's interest in flight training might be a "coincidence."

Washington headquarters had a mindset of not wanting to hear bad news, indeed one of rationalizing away disturbing reports. Keep this in mind as you consider the anthrax investigation. The first anthrax death occurred on Oct. 5, suggesting an exposure roughly coincident with the September 11 attacks. Within a month, the FBI proclaimed a "lone wolf" theory, trotting out James R. Fitzgerald, head of its behavioral analysis unit to proclaim the timing was a coincidence.

Mr. Fitzgerald's sleuths peered into the letters, a total of 39 words, and determined that this episode was basically a repeat of the "Unabomber" case, in which Theodore Kaczynski expressed environmentalist rage with mail bombs. The anthrax mailings, they concluded, were almost certainly the work of a single adult male, and probably an American. He was an "opportunist" in launching his attack in the wake of the kamikaze plane attacks. And he sought to mislead investigators by dating the letters "9-11-01" and including phrases such as "Death to America, Death to Israel, Allah is Great."

This theory is, to be polite, counter-intuitive. Yet the FBI has stuck to it ever since, and has been seconded at various key points by Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge and White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer. The Bureau has sent agents running in circles to find its mad scientist, proposing polygraphs for hundreds of government lab employees and sending letters to some 40,000 microbiologists saying it's "very likely that one or more of you know this individual."

Meanwhile, it's downplayed and explained away a stream of evidence pointing in an even more sinister direction. Initially the anthrax was described as a type that could be whomped up by an individual scientist with $2,500 worth of equipment in his basement. But with successive reports it becomes more and more virulent, and less and less likely to be brewed outside of a full-scale biological weapons plant.

It further develops that one of the hijackers contracted anthrax , at least in the current opinion of a Florida doctor who treated him for a skin lesion. And indeed, Mohamed Atta visited a pharmacy for skin irritation on his hands. This was reported to the FBI in October, before the Fitzgerald announcements; when it was publicized by the New York Times in March, an FBI spokesman dismissed it as "nothing new."

"Exhaustive testing did not support that anthrax was present anywhere the hijackers had been," he continued. Of course, testing was unable to detect anthrax anywhere Ottilie Lundgren (case 23) or Kathy Nguyen (case 22) had been, though both died of the disease. There is also the pregnant fact that both Atta and Moussaoui had collected information about crop dusting aircraft.

And of course, there are the still controversial reports of a meeting between Atta and an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague. Newsweek has recently reported the latest in a series of denials of this meeting, and says its sources were in Europe and it remains confident of them. But against this anonymous report we have the on-the-record statement of Czech Interior Minister Stanislav Gross that his government maintains its position that the meeting took place.

In any event, we know that Iraq has weaponized anthrax and has the capability to mount a serious anthrax attack, with germs released as aerosols rather than sent through the mail. CIA director George Tenet has testified that Iraq and al Qaeda have "had contacts," and that "Their ties may be limited by divergent ideologies, but the two sides' mutual antipathy toward the United States and the Saudi royal family suggests that tactical cooperation between them is possible."

'It is critically important that we have that connection of dots that will enable us to prevent the next attack," Mr. Mueller told the press Wednesday. A full-scale anthrax attack would be a catastrophe of September 11 dimensions. Go connect.