Accuracy in Media

Katie Couric promised her viewers an informative report on the case of the post 9/11 anthrax attacks that killed five people on her September 18 broadcast. Instead, what they got from correspondent Jim Stewart on the fifth anniversary of those attacks was an apology for the FBI’s incompetence and a failure to follow the available leads in the case to the likely perpetrators. The solution may lie in President Bush’s recent disclosures about al-Qaeda’s anthrax weapons program.

Calling it a “Cold Case,” the report noted that after five years, 53,000 leads, and 6,000 subpoenas, the FBI still has no arrests. Stewart asked, “So who did it? Former Attorney General John Ashcroft once singled out Dr. Steven Hatfill, a bioweapons specialist, as a ‘person of interest.’ But there have been no charges.”

That statement shortchanges the facts surrounding the government’s wrongful pursuit of Hatfill and its destruction of his life and career.

In fact, Hatfill has sued the government for invasion of privacy, and he has sued the media, including the New York Times, for defamation. Acting on information provided by a left-wing activist named Barbara Rosenberg, influential Times columnist Nicholas Kristof urged the FBI to go after Hatfill, arguing that he was a good suspect in the case. Liberal Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy, the recipients of two of the anthrax letters, also encouraged the pursuit of Hatfill. They figured that since they were liberals, the anthrax letters must have come from someone with a vendetta against them. In other words, a right-winger. Hatfill, a bioweapons researcher at Ft. Detrick with conservative views, seemed to fit the bill.

All kinds of false things were said about him, in the Times, the Washington Post and most of the rest of the liberal media. The FBI’s pursuit of him was so heavy-handed that agents in a car ran over his foot as he was walking through Georgetown in Washington, D.C. But the ACLU, supposedly a friend of those victimized by an American police state, never came to Hatfill’s defense. He wasn’t their kind of defendant because he was considered too conservative.

Today, as his lawsuits go forward, Hatfill stands to collect millions of dollars in damages from the government and the media. Now why didn’t Stewart mention that?

Meanwhile, leads pointing to al Qaeda, including indications that one of the 9/11 hijackers had been exposed to anthrax, were simply brushed aside by the FBI.

Stewart’s report noted that “The bureau never had more than scant physical evidence, like the envelopes the anthrax was mailed in, and the terse letters inside-‘Death to America’ read one-and the spores themselves. But they were never able to trace the anthrax back to the attacker.”

The spores themselves were said by some to suggest they had been made in a U.S. military lab. But there’s no hard evidence of that, either.

In fact, we now know, thanks to what the President himself revealed on September 6, that al-Qaeda had an active and extensive anthrax program.

In discussing his proposal for military commissions to try terrorists, Bush revealed that “KSM [9/11 architect Khalid Shaikh Mohammed] also provided vital information on al Qaeda’s efforts to obtain biological weapons. During questioning, KSM admitted that he had met three individuals involved in al Qaeda’s efforts to produce anthrax, a deadly biological agent-and he identified one of the individuals as a terrorist named Yazid. KSM apparently believed we already had this information, because Yazid had been captured and taken into foreign custody before KSM’s arrest. In fact, we did not know about Yazid’s role in al Qaeda’s anthrax program. Information from Yazid then helped lead to the capture of his two principal assistants in the anthrax program. Without the information provided by KSM and Yazid, we might not have uncovered this al-Qaeda biological weapons program, or stopped this al-Qaeda cell from developing anthrax for attacks against the United States.”

Notice the phrasing about stopping “this” al-Qaeda cell from “developing anthrax for attacks against the United States.”

Was there another al-Qaeda cell that staged the post-9/11 anthrax attacks? That’s what the evidence suggests. But because the FBI went on a media-generated wild goose chase after Hatfill, the case was never solved. The perpetrators either fled the country, were deported for immigration law violations, or are still here. The President may not be able to talk about it because of the Hatfill litigation and the reluctance to admit publicly that the FBI completely botched the case.

The phrase “Death to America” was in the letters, as Stewart noted, but they also said, “Death to Israel” and “Allah is God,” sure signs that an Islamic extremist had written them. You could see those phrases on the letter that Stewart flashed on the screen. But the FBI dismissed these obvious leads as a diversion intended to falsely blame radical Islam and focus attention away from the real perpetrator, supposedly a right-winger with a military background.

Former FBI counter-terrorism executive and now CBS News consultant Mike Rolince told Stewart that no case has frustrated the FBI more. “We now know that someone, or ones, can conduct an attack like this and for at least the first five years, get away with it,” Rolince says.

So Rolince gets paid by CBS News to try to explain away FBI incompetence in the case. What a waste of money. No wonder Stewart’s report was so superficial and disappointing. CBS News can do better than this. Katie Couric ought to shake things up.



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