Accuracy in Media

John Kerry voted for the anti-terrorist law, the USA Patriot Act, but now wants to change it and replace Attorney General John Ashcroft with someone “who actually upholds the Constitution of the United States.” However, the liberal critics never cite alleged “abuses” under the law involving the anthrax investigation, which has been driven by Kerry’s Democratic colleagues, Senators Patrick Leahy and Thomas Daschle.

The Patriot Act has been used to obtain search warrants against doctors and scientists who had been warning about the threat of bioterrorism in the U.S. The most prominent such cases are Dr. Steven Hatfill and now Dr. Kenneth Berry. No evidence has been produced against either man, but the highly publicized raids on their homes?and the media feeding frenzy?give the fleeting impression that the Bureau is making progress.

Yet it appears that Hatfill and Berry have become FBI targets primarily because they warned America about terrorism that the FBI and the CIA didn’t prevent.

The same FBI that falsely implicated security guard Richard Jewell in the Olympic Park bombing has made several mistakes in the anthrax case. The first mistake was assuming that Leahy and Daschle received anthrax letters because they were liberals. Leahy’s influential chief of staff, who pushed this theory, was quoted in Marilyn Thompson’s book on the case as saying the anthrax killer was a “right-wing zealot.” Daschle offered his opinion that the perpetrator probably had a U.S. military background. This fit an FBI profile of the alleged perpetrator. Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a leading advocate of this view, met with the FBI and Leahy’s staff and pointed them toward Hatfill, a former U.S. government scientist. Her views were echoed by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and other media. 

Under media assault, Hatfill was labeled a “person of interest” by Ashcroft. After losing several jobs because of government and media scrutiny, he has filed suit against the Justice Department and Kristof and the Times.

The second key FBI mistake was thinking that the Ames strain of anthrax, used in U.S. labs and found in the letters, was not available to foreign terrorists.

These mistakes explain why the Justice Department, in a 29-page report on the Patriot Act, cited dozens of cases in which the law has been beneficial but had only one anthrax-related “success” story. It said that investigators “saved valuable time” by using the Patriot Act to apply for a search warrant for American Media, Inc. in Boca Raton, Florida, the employer of the first anthrax victim.

The reference to “saving valuable time” ignores the fact that it took the FBI nearly a year after the attacks to start a crime-scene investigation of the American Media building. The decontamination of the building only started this July.

Former CIA Director James Woolsey says it is time to change the FBI assumption that the anthrax attacks were perpetrated by “a crazed solitary American microbiologist operating out of a cave” in the U.S.

Such a theory, he pointed out at a June symposium at the American Enterprise Institute, means that the perpetrator was either “a very quick crazed solitary microbiologist” or “a very lucky crazed solitary microbiologist,” because he was ready to mail his anthrax letters shortly after al Qaeda hit the U.S. on 9/11.

According to the FBI theory, this crazed scientist even wrote like an Islamic radical, putting references to “Death to Israel” and praise for Allah on the letters, only as a diversion.

Woolsey noted the evidence that in the summer before 9/11, hijacker Muhammad Atta took an associate, who turned out to be one of the other hijackers, in for medical treatment in Florida, near the first anthrax attacks and near where they lived. He had a black lesion on his leg that a doctor and experts say was anthrax-related. Woolsey said, “That raises some interesting questions which again I would suggest we should pursue rather than bury.”

Ignoring the al-Qaeda connection to the anthrax attacks, the FBI’s targeting of Berry continues the questionable behavior evident in the Hatfill case. As some of their agents wore protective suits to dramatically enter one of Berry’s homes, the FBI was telling local officials there was no danger to public health. It looked like another big show and photo opportunity, similar to what occurred when the FBI raided Hatfill’s home.

Journalists should be investigating how the Bureau obtained search warrants in the Berry case and what, if any, “evidence” is contained in them. There may be a story here about real abuses of the USA Patriot Act and why the FBI has been unable to solve this nearly three-year-old case.

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