Accuracy in Media

The public was treated to a new FBI television reality show when federal agents swooped into Wellsville, New York, to target Dr. Kenneth Berry in connection with the nearly three-year-old unsolved anthrax letters case. Pastor Richard “Dick” Helms, a resident of the area and friend of Berry’s, saw the media manipulation up close, as satellite trucks and news vans were on the scene, tipped off by the FBI in advance, to record the raids on any place Berry had lived or spent time. Some federal agents wore protective biosuits even while telling local officials there was no health threat. It was an absurd spectacle, the pastor said, done to impress the media and the public.

Helms says they spent 13 hours in one house, left in the middle of the night, “and nobody has heard anything from them since then,” although a local newspaper editor was told that the FBI staged the raid to eliminate Berry as a possible suspect in the case.

Helms understands the need to eliminate people as suspects but questions why there had to be such a big media show. He says Berry also “understands they have to track these things down. But the way they did it was wrong.” He adds, “I heard the home was a wreck when the family got back.”

Helms has worked with Berry on his PREEMPT counter-terrorism project, designed to prepare the U.S. against chemical and biological warfare agents. Berry had appeared at conferences around the country as a bioterrorism expert before 9/11. Because of his association with Berry, Helms says that he, too, has been questioned by the FBI in the case.

The big show also occurred in the case of Dr. Steven Hatfill, another FBI target, who had his home raided under the glare of television cameras and journalists, some of them circling in helicopters overhead. The FBI then raided and ransacked his girlfriend’s apartment. These raids are designed to convince people that the FBI is making progress in the case.

Helms says Berry, a Bible-believing Christian, is a “super guy” and a brilliant doctor “passionate about protecting America” from chemical and biological warfare. Helms explains, “He was training first-responders and medical personnel long before it was fashionable, and what people don’t know is that he did most of that out of his own pocket, without any reimbursement at all. He’s a really good man and a true patriot.”

Helms has known Berry for eight years and knows his character well. He said there’s no way he had anything to do with the anthrax letters. Besides, in the time period before 9/11 and the mailing of the anthrax letters a week after that, Berry was very busy making arrangements to get married. Immediately after 9/11, said Helms, Berry’s web site became a national resource for information about the terrorist threat, and Berry himself took some time to go down to Ground Zero to assist in the recovery efforts. 

Helms says that, because of the FBI raids, “I fear that the FBI’s actions will deprive America of a real asset in our war on terrorism, if not a national treasure in that area.” Despite the presumption of innocence in the U.S., Helms knows that the damage has already been done and that Berry’s reputation has been ruined. “You know how people are,” Helms explains.

Again, all of this happened before in the Hatfill case. Hatfill, however, fought back, filing lawsuits against the Justice Department and the media. The foreign terrorists in al-Qaeda most likely responsible for the anthrax letters must be laughing at the FBI and praising Allah at the same time.

Helms has his own web site, featuring a pro-George W. Bush ad saying, “Ten out of ten terrorists agree anybody but Bush.” He thinks the President is doing a good job in the war on Muslim terrorists. But one wonders if Dr. Berry shares this view after being on the receiving end of the FBI’s reckless probe in the anthrax case.  

Before it is too late, the media should start examining whether there has been another major FBI intelligence failure that has left us even more vulnerable to terrorism. It would be a national tragedy and a scandal if another anthrax attack hits America while the first attack remains unsolved nearly three years later.

Yet, this is a distinct possibility. At a time when Attorney General Ashcroft himself has warned about another al-Qaeda operation called “The Winds of Black Death,” possibly using anthrax against America, the Bush administration would be well-advised to subject the FBI to the scrutiny it deserves. The sooner the better because American lives hang in the balance.

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