Accuracy in Media

Despite bipartisan congressional support for examining the FBI’s gross mishandling of the post-9/11 anthrax attacks, President Barack Obama is telling Congress that he doesn’t want the agency to be scrutinized and held accountable.

Dr. Steven Hatfill, one of the innocent victims of the FBI investigation, is preparing to go public with his account of how the Department of Justice (DOJ) violated his rights and tried to ruin his career and reputation. He will be the subject of a forthcoming Atlantic magazine article and will be sitting down for an interview by the NBC “Today Show’s” Matt Lauer. The DOJ paid Hatfill $6 million in damages after finally admitting that he was not involved in the anthrax attacks that killed five people.

Hatfill is adamant that justice has not been done because the formerly high-ranking officials who lied to the press about him and violated his rights have not been held accountable for their crimes. 

Conservative “hero” John Ashcroft, then the Attorney General, had publicly labeled Hatfill a “person of interest” in the case. The lives of Hatfill and his friends and associates were turned upside down as the FBI unleashed dozens of agents and spent tens of millions of dollars in a fruitless effort to link Hatfill to the crime.

Expert observers of the controversial case, known officially as “Amerithrax,” also believe the FBI failed to seriously consider the role of foreign terrorist organizations and their sponsors in the anthrax mailings. 

An amendment to the intelligence spending bill sponsored by Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) and Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) calls for the anthrax murder case to be re-opened and a foreign connection to be investigated. It passed the House. The amendment asks the intelligence community’s inspector general to specifically look into the foreign angle.

But rather than get to the bottom of what really happened and whether the U.S. still remains vulnerable to a foreign-sponsored biological terrorist attack, Megan Eckstein of the Frederick (Maryland) News-Post reports that Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag sent a letter to four congressional leaders on March 15 rejecting the probe and suggesting that if this measure remains in the intelligence spending bill, Obama may veto it.

Orszag said an investigation would be “duplicative, and the Administration is greatly concerned about the appearance and precedent involved when Congress commissions an agency Inspector General to replicate a criminal investigation.” The letter goes on to say “the FBI is confident that the attacks were planned and committed by Dr. Bruce Ivins, acting alone. The commencement of a fresh investigation would undermine public confidence in the criminal investigation and unfairly cast doubt on its conclusions.”

“I am not surprised at the FBI’s opposition to [a Congressional investigation], given the fact that they have stonewalled every House and Senate member who has sought information on this investigation over the last decade,” Holt has told Orszag in response: “What surprises me is that an Administration that has pledged to be transparent and accountable would seek to block any review of the investigation in this matter.” 

Public confidence is already lacking because serious analysts do not think the FBI’s blaming of Ivins holds up under scrutiny. Plus, the FBI had previously tried to blame Dr. Steven Hatfill for the anthrax mailings before exonerating and paying him $6 million in financial damages.  

Holt, whose congressional district is where the anthrax letters were mailed from, pointed out, “The Bureau has asserted repeatedly and with confidence that the Amerithrax investigation is the most thorough they have ever conducted-claims they made even as they were erroneously pursuing Dr. Steven Hatfill.” 

Megan Eckstein of the News-Post says, “FBI records, released through the Freedom of Information Act, show that employees at Fort Detrick’s U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases mention Iraq as possibly having access to the strain of anthrax used in the attacks. They also discuss foreign scientists visiting the labs, and Ivins said a number of times he thought the strain could have ended up in Britain and other countries.”

Attorney Ross Getman, author of Anthrax and Al Qaeda: Infiltration of US Biodefense, has written extensively on the anthrax mailings and says the evidence implicates Dr. Ayman Zawahiri, the head of Egyptian Islamic Jihad who ran al Qaeda’s biological weapons program, as conceiving a plan to use Islamic militants to infiltrate U.S. biological weapons labs and obtain the anthrax used in the attacks. A 1984 graduate of Harvard Law School, Getman has produced a series of documents and images examining how this occurred and how the FBI has misinterpreted and missed key evidence.

Meryl Nass, MD, another leading authority on the case (, says Ivins didn’t have the motive, means or opportunity to carry out the attacks.

She points out that retired colleagues of Ivins have said he did not have the equipment to make the quality of anthrax in the amounts required using equipment available to him at Fort Detrick, where he worked. As for motive, she says, “The FBI has alleged a variety of motives at different times, but none of them seem to make any sense.” In terms of opportunity, she asked, “Could Ivins have made it to the Trenton/Princeton area to mail the letters and return to Frederick [where he lived] in time to meet his other obligations? The FBI’s first reported (2008) scenario of how this may have occurred was incorrect. I have not seen a convincing scenario since.”

The FBI’s public case against Ivins relies on “circumstantial evidence and character assassination” and is unconvincing, she says.

Nass questions why the FBI, which was conducting intensive surveillance of Ivins when he died, reportedly through a deliberate Tylenol overdose, didn’t intervene to save his life.

She asks, “Why wasn’t he given a Tylenol antidote to prevent liver failure? Ivins was allegedly found unconscious on the bathroom floor with an orange liquid next to him. A Tylenol overdose requires several days before you die, and does not cause coma for days. If the benadryl in Tylenol PM led to unconsciousness (according to a later account by Scott Shane in the NY Times) there was still time to treat him successfully for Tylenol toxicity. Ivins was under 24/7 surveillance by FBI, from the house next door. The FBI should have identified an overdose before several days had passed, and the window of opportunity for treatment was lost. The FBI could have furnished Ivins’ medical providers with information that might have saved his life. The medical records of Ivins’ hospitalization have not been released.”

Nass has several other questions about the FBI’s handling of the case, including its premature closing before the National Academy of Science has released its own report on the FBI’s gathering of forensic data in pursuit of the perpetrator.

Dr. Leonard Cole, a bio-terrorism expert and author of The Anthrax Letters, also believes that the case was closed too soon by the FBI. In a statement, Cole declared that:

“It seems bizarre that the FBI would close the anthrax case now. A National Academy of Sciences committee that is assessing the bureau’s purported scientific evidence has yet to issue its findings. The FBI’s action is doubly perplexing since it commissioned the academy’s investigation in the first place.”

Cole is described as the only person outside law enforcement to have interviewed every one of the surviving inhalation-anthrax victims, along with the relatives, friends, and associates of those who died, as well as the public health officials, scientists, researchers, hospital workers, and treating physicians. He holds a PhD in political science from Columbia University and teaches public policy at Rutgers University.

Regarding the FBI’s claim that Ivins did the attacks, Cole says it is possible but that “the evidence is circumstantial and no way can Ivins be considered guilty ‘beyond a reasonable doubt,’ as has been claimed by Justice Department and FBI officials, including FBI Director Robert Mueller.”

Cole added, “Since Ivins committed suicide (in July 2008), there will be no trial, cross-examination, or deliberation by a jury-so a conviction cannot have been assured.”

Concerning the “case” that the FBI makes against Ivins in the media, Cole points out, “There remain important gaps in the evidence.” For example, Ivins lived and worked in Frederick, Maryland, and the letters were mailed from Princeton, New Jersey. “There are no witnesses or other evidence that placed him in Princeton at the times of the mailings,” he notes.

Cole says that even if you make the questionable assumption that Ivins had developed and stored the strain of anthrax sent in the letters, “more than one hundred co-workers had access to his laboratory, which was at the Army’s Fort Detrick research facility” and “Several of his colleagues remain convinced that he was not the perpetrator.”

If Ivins didn’t do it, as these analysts suggest, then the perpetrators are still free, America remains vulnerable to a biological weapons attack, and the FBI is clueless about the nature of the threat we face. 

On top of this, President Obama doesn’t want Congress to get to the bottom of what really happened.

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