Accuracy in Media

(Editor’s note: The intelligence spending bill is now in a conference of the House and Senate. The House version includes an amendment sponsored by Reps. Rush Holt and Roscoe Bartlett calling for the intelligence community’s inspector general to examine a foreign connection to the post-9/11 anthrax attacks. The Senate version of the bill does not include such a provision. Please call your Senators (202-224-3121) and encourage the re-opening of the case so that the evidence implicating al Qaeda in the attacks can be thoroughly examined and that the implications of the FBI’s mishandling of the problem can be seriously addressed).

There’s a gaping hole in the FBI’s argument that U.S. Government scientist Bruce Ivins was the anthrax mailer. 

In addition to the 100 scientists with access to virulent anthrax from Ivins’s flask whom the FBI claims to have ruled out, one unauthorized individual had a special kind of access-the kind you get when you steal something. Hovering in proximity to an unlocked refrigerator with the anthrax at George Mason University was Islamic ideologue Ali al-Timimi, who in early 2001 was studying for a Ph.D in computational biology. Al-Timimi has since been arrested and sentenced for inciting Muslims in Virginia to travel to Pakistan to fight against U.S. forces.

(Note: The GMU researchers used what is known as Delta Ames.)

Al-Timimi’s office was right around the corner from the offices of Charles Bailey and Ken Alibek, co-principal investigators on a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)-funded anthrax project.  Bailey was a former deputy commander of USAMRIID at Fort Detrick, Maryland, where he had been a boss of Bruce Ivins.  Alibek was the former deputy director of the Soviet biowarfare program. Bailey and Alibek had partnered on a patent application for a method of preparing anthrax that would closely resemble the sophisticated preparation in the letters mailed to Senators Daschle and Leahy.

As a computer expert, al-Timimi presumably knew how to access Bailey’s poorly secured computer to obtain this application.

All these details and more have been worked out by attorney Ross Getman, a leading researcher on the anthrax mailings case.  Getman found several other labs where al Qaeda may have gained access to the anthrax, but the presence of al-Timimi and the patent application make GMU by far the most likely location.

Al-Timimi does not show up in FBI’s report on the case, which dismisses the possibility that any foreign entity was involved in the anthrax mailings. 

And he is not the only key player who does not appear.

Handing Off the Anthrax

Assuming that al-Timimi indeed stole the anthrax and the instructions, here is what then seems to have happened.

Al-Timimi provided the anthrax to a scientist who sympathized with al Qaeda and who had a lab somewhere along the Canadian border (according to the isotope ratios in the water used to prepare the anthrax). When it was ready, al-Timimi gave it to Mohamed Atta. Atta and his group of intending hijackers in Florida unsuccessfully sought to obtain a cropduster, and they evidently handled the anthrax themselves, infecting themselves in the process.

As September 11 neared, Atta contacted Abderraouf Jdey in Montreal. Jdey, a Canadian citizen of Tunisian origin who had trained in Afghanistan, had been designated first as an alternate hijacker, then as a part of the second wave of attacks. He returned to Canada in the summer of 2001 and was detained by FBI and INS together with intending pilot Zacarias Moussaoui. Jdey was carrying biology textbooks.

Atta appears to have handed over the vials of anthrax to Jdey in Portland, Maine on September 10, which powerfully explains Atta’s otherwise anomalous trip to Portland on the day before the September 11 terrorist attacks. Jdey, whose modus operandi involved travelling to sites in the northeastern U.S., wrote and mailed the anthrax letters in September and October. In November he left his apartment in Montreal, drove to New York, boarded American Airlines Flight #587 on November 12, and brought it down with a shoebomb. His role as shoebomber was subsequently related to interrogators by al Qaeda detainee Mohammed Mansour Jabarah and leaked in a 2004 Canadian news report.

The Cover-up

The FBI seems to have learned of Jdey’s likely role as the anthrax mailer in 2004, when this writer contacted the Bureau about Jdey. Investigating further, FBI appears to have found confirmatory evidence. But then-because Jdey was a terrific embarrassment-it suppressed the information it had developed, removed the note in his online biography that he had studied biology, listed him as one of the terrorists it was still hunting for, and searched for a new anthrax mailings suspect.

Eventually, the FBI focused on capable, dedicated, patriotic, and psychologically vulnerable Bruce Ivins. Ivins was a pianist at his church, taught children juggling, was married and the father of two adopted children, was involved in many research projects, was entrusted with the anthrax, and had developed a promising vaccine for anthrax. This is the profile of an active contributor to his community, hardly of a ruthless anthrax mailer. The FBI, however, has tried to use his various quirks and obsessions to make Ivins out to be an intrinsically evil person. 

Under the pressure of FBI questioning and surveillance, Ivins became unhinged and committed suicide. Then the FBI accused him of having perpetrated the anthrax mailings, produced a collection of circumstantial evidence, and closed the case on February 19, 2010.

FBI Director Robert Mueller told a 2008 Senate committee that he thought Ivins was guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” 

Beyond a reasonable doubt? Given the weak evidence and the widespread skepticism among experts and the public, this is an extreme statement that lacks any credibility.

In fact, the key people in the anthrax mailings were not Bruce Ivins or Steven Hatfill, his predecessor as the FBI’s target.  Instead, they appear to have been Ali al-Timimi and Abderraouf Jdey. And the key person in the investigation was FBI Director Robert Mueller himself.




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