ANTHRAX: A POLITICAL WHODUNIT



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Last Updated

21 Nov 2002

Source: ABC Radio National, Australia, November 17, 2002.

PART ONE (Click here for PART TWO)

BACKGROUND BRIEFING

Anthrax: a Political Whodunit

Produced by Brigid Glanville

Brigid Glanville: Travelling and working in America, there is a palpable sense of anxiety. Thereís the constant fear of more terrorism, everywhere you go there are extraordinary security measures. There were the Washington snipers who have now been caught, and thereís the ever-present fear of some kind of biological warfare.

On top of it all thereís still the mystery of who sent out the anthrax letters that killed five, and made many more gravely ill. There was enough anthrax loose in America at one stage to potentially kill 20 million people.

Hallo, Iím Brigid Glanville, and while in America, it was the anthrax story that I followed for Background Briefing.

Brigid Glanville: Itís now more than year since the anthrax letters were sent out, and though one, Ďperson of interestí has been named, Steven Hatfill, there have been no arrests.

The FBI says all State and local police and authorities are helping them, but thereís very little hard information. There are several websites devoted to the anthrax story, and dozens of conspiracy theories, from the wacky to the just possible. Many believe the perpetrator is someone so high up in government defence circles, that it is too embarrassing for the Administration to expose them, because it may also expose the fact that America has been working on bio-offence. Or, some say, the motive was to reveal to the government the need for money for research in case of an attack from elsewhere. Or to get America to sign the Biological Weapons Convention at the meeting this month.

The FBI has come in for an extraordinary amount of criticism for poor handling of the case.

A strong critic of the FBI, Pat Clawson:

Pat Clawson: The FBI investigations obviously have been botched right from the beginning. I was really stunned. I was sitting in our news room here in Washington, watching the live televised news conference from Florida with the Head of the FBI office in Miami. The day after Steve Hatfill did his last press conference, the FBI held a press conference to announce they were going back into the offices of the National Inquirer newspaper in Florida, where the first anthrax attack was reported. And I about fell off my chair when I heard the head of the FBI office in Florida say they had never conducted a full crime scene search at the National Inquirer offices.

Here we are, almost a year after the anthrax attacks, and the FBI had never conducted a full crime scene search. Now let me put this into perspective for your listeners. Youíve got a bank sitting on a corner. A robber goes into the bank and shoots the teller in the head and flees the bank. The FBI pulls up to the scene, they run into the bank, they pull out the dead teller, they put up the yellow crime scene tape around the bank, and then they leave for a year. Thatís what happened here in the anthrax cases. They left for a year! Itís unbelievable, the lousy police work thatís been done in this case.

Brigid Glanville: Pat Clawson is the spokesman for Steven Hatfill, the FBIís named person of interest. The FBI has never granted any interviews about the anthrax attacks, but did agree to talk exclusively to Background Briefing. We asked why they hadnít taken more care over the National Inquirer newspaper office. They said they did do a full crime scene search in August this year. But the point remains, that was nearly 12 months after the anthrax letters first arrived there.

The FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., is an old building but just as large and grand as many other buildings in Americaís capital. There are American flags everywhere in the grounds, and at the main gates youíre confronted by six policemen in what looks like full riot gear, standing to attention.

On the driveway there are concrete barricades and spikes to make sure no vehicle can do a quick dash in or out.

Two police officers usher me through metal detectors. They searched my bags and my passport was thoroughly checked.

Being escorted down the echoing, cold corridors was an eerie feeling, like entering one of those huge old-fashioned hospitals. We went through five checkpoints before I was showed into the office of FBI Domestic Terrorism Chief, Tom Carey. His section is part of the Counter-Terrorism Division. Thereís been very little hard evidence on the anthrax issue, says Tom Carey.

Tom Carey: What we do have and what we do know is that the anthrax was mailed here in the United States; we know it was mailed from 10 Nassar Street, Princeton, New Jersey, from a mailbox. We know the flow of the mail flow, we know the dates that the letters were sent, and it would appear to many of us that have worked this investigation, that itís much more consistent with someone being an American-born, and having some level of familiarity with the Princeton-Clinton New Jersey area versus a foreign operative coming into the US and being able to successfully conduct such an attack.

Brigid Glanville: One of the major criticisms of the FBI, apart from its lack of progress on the case, has been that there seem to have been an extraordinary number of strange leaks coming from the organisation, including a leak that named Steven Hatfill as a person of interest, leading to a media frenzy about his role.

Tom Carey was not happy answering Background Briefingís questions about the leaks.

Tom Carey: Youíd have to talk to the person who leaked that information. Iím not aware of that in terms of who leaked it. I would say itís unlikely it was somebody from the government, we have nothing to gain by that. We like to keep our investigations discreet, but we have seen more than one instance where we have gone out to places and within minutes there is a news chopper overhead, or news reporters at the scene, so we are as frustrated by it as people that may be potentially persons of interest, and that are being looked at.

Brigid Glanville: Given that there was a leak then, and Hatfill has become a target, why didnít the FBI release the names of other people as a person of interest?

Tom Carey: Well again, thatís an investigative technique and weíre are not going to let the world know who weíre looking at and why weíre looking at them, because all that is going to do is cause problems for our investigation down the road. He has been, he is the one thatís held all the press conferences. The FBI has not made comments on it, and you canít control what people say and do with the media, and again thereís a lot of speculation there, thereís a lot of so-called leaks, and I attribute a lot of this to people that are misinformed, but they may have partial information but their information at the end of the day is ultimately incorrect.

Brigid Glanville: The media have raked over every tall tale and true about the anthrax mystery, and there have been very different positions taken on who might have done it, not only among journalists, but among scientists, defence and terrorism academics, and the various police and intelligence services.

In September, the most prestigious journalism school in the world, The Columbia School of Journalism in New York, organised a special Breakfast Forum on what was going on.

The lack of information and the FBIís refusal to talk to anybody about the case, has raised questions amongst the media and science community about a cover-up about who sent the letters. Most of the speakers agreed that the politics of the case are probably clouding the investigation, and that could be why the FBI are so secretive about it all.

Top reporters talked about how tough it has been to get hard information; others talked of disinformation and poor journalism.

Speaking at the Forum, from The Baltimore Sun newspaper, Scott Shane.

Scott Shane: There have been major erroneous stories, even apart from Hatfill. For example, it was reported by major publications and networks quite definitively that the anthrax powder in the envelopes contained bentonite and that pointed the finger at Iraq. This is going back a ways, now everyoneís focused on Stephen Hatfill, no-one remembers Iraq, but for a while there, Iraq was the culprit and the proof was bentonite and then the guy who was then head of the armyís Biodefence Centre in Frederick at Fort Detrick came out and said that the samples didnít have aluminium in them and therefore it couldnít have bentonite, and that story died. Another example was a major network led the evening news one day in December by saying the FBI had identified a leading suspect and the suggestion was they were about to put the cuffs on him. And that too was wrong and disappeared pretty much without a trace.

Brigid Glanville: Scott Shane echoed the opinion of many of the other journalists when he said that the poor media on the story came about because when it first happened, there were many journalists who had no real understanding of anthrax.

Scott Shane: The combination of intense competition on a huge national story, a very unfamiliar topic, you know there were a lot of people posing as anthrax experts early on who some of us found didnít know all that much about anthrax, and why would they, you know who knows that much about anthrax? So maybe that was the fatal combination, a topic that was unfamiliar to many supposed experts combined with intense pressure of a very competitive national story.

Brigid Glanville: At the Columbia School of Journalism forum, one of the things that was discussed was the lack of hard evidence available.

The FBI says the letters containing anthrax spores sent to various newspapers, and some politicians, are all theyíve got.

On its way through the postal system, the anthrax spilling out of these letters killed several people, including postal workers, and made many others sick.

The letters, which can be seen on the Background Briefing website, hold several clues that are fascinating. It is now accepted that someone in America was trying to disguise himself by making the letters sound as if they were written by a Muslim in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Hereís a reading from one of the letters.

Take penicillin now. Death to America. Death to Israel. Allah is great.

Brigid Glanville: Itís believed after these initial letters were sent to the media, the perpetrator sent more, even stronger anthrax to Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. Those letters read:

You cannot stop us. We have anthrax. You die now. Are you afraid? Death to America. Death to Israel. Allah is great.

Brigid Glanville: Itís believed the letters sent to the Senators had a different motive to the earlier ones. Not only was the anthrax much more refined and pure, but there was enough of it to kill 20-million people.

Quick action and a shut-down of many government buildings prevented any more victims of inhalation anthrax.

One of the biggest anthrax sites in the web is run by Ed Lake. Thereís about 300 articles there, with a timeline, and copies of all the evidence so far available. Ed Lake also says the letters hold the key, and they point to the perpetrator being in New Jersey.

Ed Lake: There are a lot of laboratories in central New Jersey where it could have been done. I think when he finished making the anthrax he wouldnít have wanted to carry it very far, so he mailed them probably within 50 or 60 miles of his home. The return address on the envelope was a combination of things regarding central New Jersey, it was a good central New Jersey zipcode, there was a central New Jersey city, there was a school that can be interpreted, instead of Greendale you get Greenbrook, and you get a school in central New Jersey. Thereís a lot of things about central New Jersey that implies that he lives there and knows it very well.

Brigid Glanville: Internet experts of various kinds have also been taking special interest in the case, because of an unusual nine-digit zipcode number.

Senator Leahy,
433 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington D.C.
20510 Ė 4502

Brigid Glanville: The man who uncovered the people who created the Melissa and I Love You viruses a few years ago, Richard Smith, says the zipcode in theory narrows down the possible anthrax case suspects.

Richard Smith: When you look at the two addresses first, which is two of the letters were sent to Senators here in the United States, Senator Daschle and Senator Leahy, and you look at the addresses and theyíre very well done. Thereís a particular way that Senators get addressed and mail sent to them, and the perpetrator had used a very specific format for the address and the code, which is United States zipcode, so letís say itís a postal code. And the 9-digit zipcode is fairly unusual, most people still use the older 5-digit form. And what that shows is he, the perpetrator, had copies the address from some kind of directory. And so my interest was to find what directory that was, whether it was a printed directory or if it was gotten from the internet, and thatís sort of an obvious place nowadays for people to get addresses, is from the internet. And had he got it from the internet then he would be traceable by some of the tracks he left at the website, or wherever he got the address from.

Brigid Glanville: Any good mystery or set of coincidences spawns a myriad of conspiracy theories, and the anthrax mystery is a natural. There are enough kooks and loonies on the web to dream up almost anything. Some of the conspiracies are that it was done by one of the big pharmaceutical companies who would then make a lot of money selling medications and vaccines. Another is that a local politician did it, for whatever reason, or even that the CIA did it in order to scare people and raise even more fear of people from the Middle East. But the Islamic connection was so poorly made, no-one takes it seriously now. Thereís also the bitter ex-wife theory, but two theories recur time and again.

Ed Lake: The two main theories that are on the internet are that Dr Hatfill did it, or al Qaeda did it. The one that isnít on the internet that much is that it was done by some right-wing group. You donít see much in the way of websites about that, but it seems to be what the public seems to believe. There seem to be individuals with wacko theories; theyíll look at some local politician and think that he did it or somebody they met, and Iíve encountered people who think they were followed by Dr Hatfill in a uniform, things like that. But basically it boils down to two theories: Al Qaeda and Dr Hatfill.

Brigid Glanville: But the most plausible theories are money or politics. Or perhaps money and politics. The strain of anthrax used in the letters is now proven to be the Ames strain, and that strain is only found in a small number of laboratories in America. But the most likely is that it came from Fort Detrick, the US Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, USAMRID.

Fort Detrick, though cloaked in tight security and secrecy, is well known as having been researching biochemical diseases and weapons for decades.

Chairman of the Federation of American Scientists Working Group on Biological Weapons is Professor Barbara Hatch Rosenberg.

Barbara Hatch Rosenberg: I suppose I was the first one to point out rather clearly, at least the first person outside government, that the attack was almost certainly come out of the US biodefence program. I think that the US government has supported that position from way back, because in less than two weeks after the attacks were recognised, US officials began saying that the attacks were probably domestic and theyíve never strayed from that as the most probable interpretation. I agree with them, I think that the evidence of the anthrax itself points in that direction, and since then a great deal more evidence has accumulated to support that premise.

Brigid Glanville: Who do you think did it?

Barbara Hatch Rosenberg: I am not in any position to mention specific names because I have no absolute evidence for any specific person as the perpetrator, but I do know that the number of people in the biodefence program who had the expertise and the access to carry out that attack was quite small, and I know this from people in the program who know all the people who could have done it, and who have given names to the FBI way back in the beginning, and I think the agreement is that the number is certainly under 100 and more likely around the 20 to 30 mark for those who really, thereís reason to suspect.

Brigid Glanville: The Ames strain comes in many different strengths after itís been whatís called Ďweaponisedí, that is, made into a state where it can be easily breathed in. You need about 50,000 spores to kill one person.

The anthrax letters sent to Senator Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy had about 1-trillion spores per gram and there were 2-grams in the letters. That means potentially 20-million people could have been killed.

Barbara Rosenberg says because of how pure and refined the anthrax was, it had to be someone within the American bio-defence program that knew about weaponising anthrax.

Barbara Hatch Rosenberg: Itís the question of access and expertise. It had to be someone with access to the Ames strain and the genetic evidence strongly suggests that that Ames strain came out of the US Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Disease at Fort Detrick. The evidence has not all been published on this, but from the way the FBI has behaved and concentrating on that laboratory and from what I know this is by far the most likely source, so that means someone who either works there now or who has worked there in the fairly recent past, and that limits the number of possible suspects greatly, and then further limiting the number is whether they had the expertise to actually weaponise the material in the highly refined way that they did. And Iíve spoken with people within the biodefence community who have done that manipulation, who have weaponised anthrax and who say that the material in the letters corresponds to the state-of-the-art in the United States, an art that they donít believe is possessed anywhere else in the world.

Brigid Glanville: It was just after Rosenberg released her report with a profile of who she thought was capable of doing it, that Steven J. Hatfill became a person of interest to the FBI.

Many media reports claim Rosenberg, along with certain journalists, including Nick Kristof from The New York Times, were responsible for naming Hatfill. The leak of his name seems to initially have come from inside the FBI itself.

A virologist, Steven Hatfill had worked at Fort Detrick for 18 months on the Ebola virus, and Rosenberg says would easily have access and the knowledge to weaponise anthrax. And there are other reasons, from his background and from lies he has told, that mean Hatfill can be made to look like a suspect.

Barbara Hatch Rosenberg: Thereís been a lot of investigation by reporters into his background, and what has been uncovered makes one really worry about the poor security in the US biodefence program, because this person not only has he worked and with racist foreign governments in the past, but he has heavily falsified many of his credentials. He does not have a PHD which he claimed he did; he has not had various trainings and certificates that he claims he has had; and he says that he was in the Special Forces but it turns out that he was asked to leave after a very short tenure because of fraud. His whole background is fraudulent and he has refused to answer any questions about that. So aside from the question of the anthrax attacks, this is hardly the kind of person that we should place our trust in and give access to highly dangerous agents.

Brigid Glanville: All of this is circumstantial evidence and Hatfill has his defenders, who say he is being made a scapegoat and heís made himself an easy target.

Hatfill is a loud, gregarious character, very popular in his circle. However he was not truthful when he claimed a brilliant career in the US military, bragging to a friend he flew fighter planes and helicopters.

He also claimed he had a PhD from Rhodes University which was later found to be false, and that he forged signatures in the process.

Nevertheless, Steven Hatfill has loudly and publicly insisted he is innocent of any connection with the anthrax mystery. In August this year he held a press conference.

Steven Hatfill: I have devoted much of my professional career to safeguarding men, women and children from the scourge of different types of disease, from leukaemia to infectious disease. I have had nothing to do in any way, shape or form, with the mailing of these anthrax letters, and it is extremely wrong for anyone to contend or suggest that I have. I am extremely proud of my service with the government, and my efforts to help safeguard public health and protect our country against the scourge of offensive biological warfare.

Brigid Glanville: Steven Hatfill then turned his anger on Barbara Hatch Rosenberg for bringing him to the attention of the authorities.

Steven Hatfill: In June 2002, a woman named Barbara Hatch Rosenberg who affiliates herself with the Federation of American Scientists saw fit to discuss me as a suspect in the anthrax case in a meeting with FBI agents and Senate staffers. I donít know Dr Rosenberg, I have never met her, I have never spoken or corresponded with this woman, and to my knowledge she is ignorant of my work and background except in the very broadest of terms. The only thing I know about her views is that she and I apparently differ on whether the United States should sign onto a proposed modification of the International Biological Weapons Convention. This was something I opposed to safeguard American industry, and I believe she favoured.

Brigid Glanville: This issue of the modification of the International Biological Weapons Convention may be important. World leaders are meeting this month to try to get global agreement on biological weapons inspections, after the anger and disappointment of many, including Australia. America refused to sign the Convention about a year ago. Barbara Rosenberg has been one of the many scientists who have been extremely vocal about why it is important for America to sign the convention, and she says the anthrax attacks prove her point.

Barbara Hatch Rosenberg: That Convention is now toothless, it has no verification means at all, and the international community has been trying over the past ten years to give it teeth. Now last November and December the five-year-review of the Biological Weapons Convention took place. On its final session in its final hour, the US pulled out of a tentative agreement with the other parties to follow up with annual meetings and discussions of what can be done to prevent biological attacks. So there is no international agreement now, and because of the confusion resulting from the US pull out that review conference was suspended and will resume in November of this year. In preparation for that, the US has just very recently announced that it wants that meeting to take place in only one or two days, and it wants no outcome except a decision about when to meet next four years from now. This is a shocking position to take, for a country that has just been attacked itself by a bioterrorist when the rest of the world, including the closest allies to the United States, (Australia is one of them) have been pushing so hard for an international joint effort to do something to prevent future attacks.

Click here for Part Two.