Remembering the Anthrax Scare

Remember the anthrax scare? Between Sept. 18 and mid-November 2001 anthrax-laced letters were sent to selected media figures and politicians including then-Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.). Five people died from those letters containing simple messages, such as DEATH TO AMERICA, DEATH TO ISRAEL and ALLAH IS GREAT.

I, personally, saw these letters as the crude effort by someone to impersonate a Hollywood-type Muslim terrorist. But at the time there were serious efforts to link these letters with a truly threatening Islamic world and particularly with al-Qaeda and with Iraq. Iraq–that country completely unrelated to 9-11–that country that in the post-9-11 era suddenly became a looming Evil.

On October 15, 2001, President Bush declared, “There may be some possible link” between the anthrax attacks and bin Laden. “I wouldn’t put it past him,” he added. Meanwhile Vice President Dick Cheney, master of disinformation, asserted that al-Qaeda operatives were trained “how to deploy and use these kinds of substances, so you start to piece it all together.” The New York Daily News reports that FBI director Robert Mueller was pressured by the administration to connect the anthax with al-Qaeda; a former top aide to Mueller told the newspaper that Mueller was “beaten up” for failing to find proof that the killer spores were of foreign origin. “They really wanted to blame somebody in the Middle East,” the official stated.

Just like they wanted to blame 9-11 on Iraq. Richard Clarke, Bush’s counter-terrorism advisor at the time, has recounted how on Sept. 12 he was instructed by the president in the White House Situation Room to “see if [Saddam Hussein]’s linked in any way to this.” When Clarke replied, “But, Mr. President, Al Qaeda did this,” Bush responded: ”I know, I know, but … see if Saddam was involved. Just look. I want to know any shred.” Clarke has written that he felt intimidated, tasks to find links between the attacks and Iraq.

Of course, Colin Powell was to recite a whole list of links in his presentation to the United Nations in February 2003. He mostly focused on the figure of Abu Musab Zarqawi, whom he falsely called a “Jordanian-born Palestinian” and his supposed involvement with a Kurdish Islamist group producing chemical weapons with Saddam’s approval in a region that was in fact not under Saddam’s control but administered by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan under Jalal Talabani. It was mostly nonsense culled from the neocon press and the Pentagon’s “Office of Special Plans” rather than serious intelligence professionals.

In their fear mongering drive to justify war on Iraq, the neocons found an ally in Rchard Butler, Australian former UN weapons inspector He wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in mid-October 2001 stating, “If the scientific path leads to Iraq as the supporter of the anthrax used by the terrorist mailers, no one should be surprised.” Asked on PBS’ Frontline what “proof” of Saddam Hussein’s aggressive intentions would be necessary to justify an attack on Iraq, he replied: “Well, some connection between the Saddam regime and what happened on Sept. 11 or the anthrax stuff. Something like that.”

How idiotic such comments appear in retrospect! It would have been extremely surprising had Saddam been behind the anthrax. Why would Saddam’s regime risk so much in order to terrify a few Americans? But the supposition that Baghdad might be behind the “anthrax attacks” (as just one form of “bioterrorism” at a time when the wildest accusations were being hurled at Iraq) acquired a certain credence. Some fairly rational people foolishly bought it.

The editors of the Wall Street Journal had made their minds up as of October 18, when they declared, “By far the likeliest supplier [of the anthrax] is Saddam Hussein.” When former CIA head James Woolsey visited Europe that month, the Daily Telegraph described him as “the man entrusted with investigating Iraqi involvement in the September 11 attacks and anthrax outbreaks.” (This trip was the origin of the false report that a 9-11 hijacker had met an Iraqi agent in Prague in 2001.) In late 2001 the deputy lab director of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) was quoted in the press as saying the anthrax found with the letters contained a mix of aluminum and silica “previously … found in anthrax produced by Iraq.”

Former UN arms inspector Scott Ritter scoffed at such charges, indeed accusing his former boss Butler of fanning “the flames of fear and panic.” By the summer of 2002 various scientific studies confirmed that the anthrax had been produced in a U.S. military laboratory. Still, the anthrax scare had served to fan those fears about Iraq and prepare the country for Bush’s plans to attack. It’s one of those Big Lies, so soon forgotten. How could well-educated people have ever believed that Saddam Hussein, master of a weak bleeding country, was killing U.S. postal workers with his anthrax? And that beyond that, he was planning to nuke New York City?

Now, as everyone’s heard, it turns out that U.S. scientist Bruce E. Ivins may have sent the letters. A “prominent researcher of inhaled anthrax bacteria,” Ivins was 55 in 2001. He had been working for 28 years by this time at the government “biodefense” lab in Fort Detrick, Maryland, and helped to develop a commercially available genetically engineered anthrax vaccine. In 2003, he was awarded the Decoration for Exceptional Civilian Service, the highest honor given to civilians Defense Department employees, for his vaccine work.

The mainstream media story is: the FBI was narrowing in on this guy. Social worker Jean C. Duley told a grand jury that she has evidence that Ivins should be charged with five capital murders. Ivins committed suicide. All well and good. But I wonder: why’d he send those letters implicating Muslims in bioterrorism in September and October 2001?

He was a Roman Catholic, regularly attending church. After the 2004 election he wrote to his local newspaper expressing his “hope, joy and salvation of the resurrection” and sense that “[w]hether Americans like it or not, the results of the presidential election have propelled charismatic and evangelical Christians into new heights of political power.”

Some of the coverage dismisses him as a psychopath, and he had had problems in recent years at work requiring police intervention. But Ivins seems to have made a good impression on his neighbors, and to have been stable and uncontroversial in 2001. Why’d he do what he did, right after 9-11, when the nation was so vulnerable to panic and the vilification of selected groups? Why’d he pose as a radical Islamist, delivering anthrax along with the message ALLAH IS GREAT?

Obviously he wanted to spread fear of Islam, fear of those opposed in some way to Israel and the U.S. “By blood and faith,” he wrote in August 2006, in a letter to the editor disparaging a call for Muslim-Jewish dialogue, “Jews are God’s chosen, and have no need for ‘dialogue’ with any gentile. End of ‘dialogue.’” (Aug. 24, 2006) Maybe this was a Christian Zionist who felt the end justified the means, and felt that his technical expertise with anthrax allowed him to do God’s will against the Muslims on behalf of God’s Chosen People.

There is no question that the anthrax attacks and deaths helped generate fear and promote the case for war on Iraq–or for any war, on anyone targeted as seeking weapons of mass destruction. But will there ever be a thorough, credible investigation of Ivins’ actions and associations as he played his vital role?

Gary Leupp is a Professor of History at Tufts University, and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Gary.

2 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Andres Kargar said on August 6th, 2008 at 10:58pm #

    Every time the US ruling class stabs us, the people, in the back, it turns around and force feeds us the most ridiculous of explanations and justifications.

    First it was the lone gunman theory. Many of us swallowed it. “Case closed,” said our beloved Nation-liberal-turned-neocon Gerald Posner. “The single bullet did it; don’t question the authorities”.

    We were then force-fed the “lone caveman” theory. “It was Osama and no one else in the US government.” Those of us who questioned this were labeled “conspiracy theory nuts” by the very same benevolent liberals who love to criticize the system but would be scared to death of seeing cracks in it.

    And now the Bush Justice Department tells us it was the “lone mad scientist”, that no one else was involved, and that all investigation of the matter will be coming to a halt.

    Anthrax was clearly used, not by a lone mad scientist (although he or even Steven Hatfill might have been involved in it too) to keep Americans fearful and their feelings of patriotism alive. Moreover, this was used as a tool to stun and paralyze Congress. It was particularly directed at more liberal congressmen who might have been questioning any aspect of the Bush administration’s politics. It completed the coup.

    The planners of the anthrax attacks were most probably the same forces that monitored (if not planned) the WTC attacks, the very same people who wanted to paint UN planes to provoke Saddam Hussein to shoot them down, the very same people who want to dress Marines as Iranians and then shoot them in the Persian Gulf to provoke a war with Iran. Are we going to believe their word?

  2. paul cant said on February 1st, 2009 at 2:23pm #

    ivins was not the first culprit for the anthrax letters. a scientist working at the american lab that produced the anthrax was accused first by media rumour. he later settled with us authorities out of court for a considerable sum for damages.
    the spotlight was then turned on another scientist in the lab. he recently settled in court for seventy four million dollars. next culprit: ivins, who conveniently committed suicide. file closed.
    but is there any way an ordinary us citizen can take the us authorities to court for obstruction of justice in this affair? it was revealed on a french tv documentary that a graphologist was about to check the handwriting of all working at the us lab, but that at the last moment, his investigation was called off. long before ivins.
    it looks as if the us authorities are once again getting away with murder.