T E C H N O L O G Y The Anthrax Truth Movement The Web searches for holes in the FBI's latest lone-gunman theory.
Posted Thursday, Aug. 7, 2008, at 4:50 PM ET
On Wednesday, the FBI released a raft of documents to buttress its case against Bruce Ivins, whom the government says bears "sole responsibility" for the 2001 anthrax attacks. The FBI says Ivins, the late military scientist, is the man who mailed anthrax-laced letters to news organizations and two Senate offices, killing five people and infecting 17 others. The FBI's dossier offers mainly circumstantial evidence, leaning heavily on Ivins' troubled psychological history and on genetic markers that tie the anthrax used in the attacks to a lab in which Ivins worked. The FBI says that in the days before the letters were sent, he grew frustrated with the state of his research, spent late nights in his lab, and sent e-mails describing his paranoid delusions. Ivins' e-mails (PDF) also warned that Osama Bin Laden had "decreed death to all Jews and all Americans"—language similar to that used in the anthrax letters.
The FBI's cartload of paper is unlikely to settle the case. Like 9/11 and the Kennedy assassination, the anthrax attack bears the hallmarks of a tragedy destined to spawn innumerable alternative theories: It's an event of world-changing consequence with a murky official narrative that can be construed, depending on your view of the government, as either pretty sensible or unbelievably bizarre. The FBI has outlined a classic "lone gunman" case. Ivins, an unstable yet brilliant scientist who feared that his research was endangered, worked late into the night to cook up anthrax in his lab.
I've spoken to many members of the 9/11 "truth" movement, and aside from the supposed evidence they marshal, their argument against the official story inevitably comes around to plain disbelief. Nineteen men were inspired by a tall bearded fellow in a cave to do that!? Skeptics of the FBI's anthrax case are putting forward a similar argument: Can we really believe that one man did all that by himself?
When news of Ivins' suicide broke, media accounts portrayed the government's case as open-and-shut. The follow-up stories have been much more dubious. Online, disbelief is ascendant. Ivins' friends and colleagues, many with backgrounds in biology and weaponry, are pushing back against the allegations. And unlike doubts about the official story of 9/11—which tend to come from the Bush-hating far left—incredulity about the anthrax attacks has united skeptical partisans on both sides. Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald has been leading the charge on the left; he points out that the Bush administration and Republicans long spun the anthrax letters into a case for war in Iraq and argues there's little reason to believe what they're saying now. Meanwhile, no less a conservative authority than the Wall Street Journal's op-ed page has declared Bruce Ivins innocent.
There's also a crush of amateur speculation. At least a half-dozen full-time, nonprofessional investigators have set up shop online, plumbing the case's odd turns with obsessive diligence. Some outsiders have even managed to push the official investigation in new—and erroneous—directions. Microbiologist Barbara Hatch Rosenberg was instrumental in fueling early interest in Steven Hatfill, the weapons expert whom the Justice Department fingered as a "person of interest" in the case. The government later exonerated Hatfill, settling a lawsuit with him earlier this year for more than $5 million.
Below, I've compiled the emerging alternative theories about the anthrax case, listed in decreasing order of
plausibility. Think of it as a preview: If the response to 9/11 is any sign, the Web is likely to fracture into separate truths on this story. In a few years' time, you'll Google anthrax and have a choice—you can go with the FBI's account, or you can choose to believe .
Theory No. 1: Bruce Ivins is another Steven Hatfill. On her blog about the ins and outs of anthrax vaccination, Meryl Nass, a researcher who knew Ivins, offers a point-by-point rebuttal to each of the government's claims against her former colleague. There isn't any physical evidence implicating Ivins, she notes. The government claimed the anthrax came from a vial in Ivins' lab, but as many as 100 people could have worked with that vial, the FBI has admitted. What's more, the government has offered no evidence to place Ivins in Princeton, N.J.—where the anthrax letters were postmarked—at the time of the mailings. (To place Ivins in Princeton, the FBI points to his strange obsession with the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority, whose chapter house was located near the mailboxes where the letters were dropped off.) Salon's Greenwald adds that the FBI was unable to find any anthrax spores at Ivins' house or on his other belongings.
All of this gets at the biggest problem for the government's case: To believe that the FBI's circumstantial evidence amounts to proof beyond a reasonable doubt, you've got to trust in the bureau's competence. The FBI got the wrong man once. Couldn't they have done it again?
Those on the left who make this case are particularly suspicious of the government's theory for why Ivins would have done it (to boost the market for a vaccine he was working on, the FBI says). Nass offers what she considers more plausible motives for others who may have been involved—for instance, "bioevangelists" who made money when the government moved to fund research into bioterrorism. Neither Nass nor Greenwald venture anywhere near suggesting that the administration carried out the attacks (see below for that). But their arguments have resonated among left-wing bloggers who say that given how officials used the attacks to press for war, we can't believe what they say now. (Greenwald has demanded a 9/11 Commission-style investigation into the case.)
Theory No. 2: It was Syria and Iraq. Richard Spertzel, a former biological weapons inspector in Iraq, wrote in the Wall Street Journal this week that the anthrax used in the 2001 attacks was "a product of exceptional quality." The particles were extremely small and prepared in such a way as to be easily inhaled. Their lethality, he concludes, is likely beyond the capabilities of what can be produced by a scientist working alone in the United States.
Spertzel, who fervently believed that Saddam Hussein harbored weapons of mass destruction before the U.S. invasion, has outlined a classic international conspiracy theory to explain the attacks. "I now suspect that Syria made the anthrax product with Iraqi Intelligence assistance," he wrote in 2007. Spertzel believes that sometime before the invasion, Iraq sent Syria a "spray dryer" that could have been used to produce the anthrax. Iraq also had access to silica particles, which he says were used to coat the anthrax so they could be more easily dispersed through the air. He says the bacteria themselves could have come from the Pasteur Institute in Paris, which was known to house the strain of anthrax used in the case.
But Spertzel's case has several flaws (even beyond the fact that he has no evidence to support any of it). The FBI's deeper genetic analysis of the anthrax ruled out most international labs as the source of the bacteria. In addition, there is a heated debate about the quality of the anthrax used in the attacks, particularly over whether it was treated with additives like silica. Early in the investigation, officials suggested that such additives were used; later, scientists who examined the spores said they doubted the presence of silica. In its presentation this week, the FBI said little about the anthrax itself, leaving open the possibility, for some, that outside powers were involved.
This theory finds support among conservatives who still believe there were WMD in Iraq. The FBI's pursuit of Hatfill long rankled many on the right, who believed that it should have been looking beyond American borders for the killer. For the same reason, the FBI's new lone-gunman theory will be hard for Iraq-agitators to swallow.
Theory No. 3: Did the White House know about the attack beforehand? Just after the 9/11 attacks—and weeks before the anthrax letters were found—the White House distributed the antibiotic Cipro to staffers, including those traveling with Vice President Dick Cheney. This has drawn the attention of many on the conspiracy fringe. Why would the White House have handed out an antibiotic used to treat exposure to anthrax—unless, maybe, possibly, our government knew something that we didn't?
That idea reprises the primary argument you see in conspiracy theories about 9/11: Hawks in the White House derived the greatest benefit from the attack (it helped their case for war), so we ought to suspect them of the crime.
The White House has long declined to explain why it handed out the Cipro. In 2002, the conservative group Judicial Watch, which represented postal workers in Washington, sued the White House for documents relating to the case, but the suit went nowhere. Larry Klayman, the founder of Judicial Watch, has been quoted as saying, "We believe that the White House knew or had reason to know that an anthrax attack was imminent or underway." (Klayman is no longer with the group, and a spokesman disavowed his comments.)
Obviously, there's nothing inherently nefarious about the vice president getting Cipro. After 9/11, the White House was a clear target; it didn't take foreknowledge to see that the place could come under biological attack. But what's a modern conspiracy theory if Dick Cheney isn't involved?
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. Article URL: http://www.slate.com/id/2196986/
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