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Anthrax Attacks and America's Rush to Judgment

By Carl M. Cannon - June 9, 2011

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And all this time later, no one has so much as apologized. As I said, there are lessons for us all.

"Weaponized" Anthrax

In the immediate days after the anthrax mailings, confusion and high emotions reigned at Fort Detrick. One senior scientist, John Ezzell, examined the batch of anthrax sent to Daschle's office and proclaimed to his superiors, "This is like seeing the face of Satan. This is the closest thing I've seen to weaponized anthrax."

As Willman shows, this would prove an unfortunate choice of words -- "weaponized" anthrax. It's not really a technical phrase, but what it conveyed in scientific terms was that the anthrax spores were coated with a chemical additive designed to prevent clumping and therefore make them dissipate more easily into the air -- and into a victim's lungs. Meanwhile, various other Fort Detrick scientists -- some of whom had never worked with bacteria at all, let alone anthrax -- openly speculated that the toxin had come from a foreign laboratory. They weren't shy about sharing their suspicions with members of Congress and the media. ABC News, in particular, couldn't get enough of this angle.

Brian Ross, the network's star investigative reporter, quoting unnamed sources, maintained that the spores found in Daschle's office were "almost identical in appearance to those recovered in Iraq in 1994." In other broadcasts, Ross expounded on the "weaponized" angle, adding a crucial detail: the anthrax, he claimed, had been laced with bentonite, a clay-like substance that was "a trademark of Saddam Hussein's weapons program."

None of this turned out to be true. The anthrax sent through the U.S. mail in 2001 had already been identified by the nation's top geneticists as coming from the so-called "Ames strain" of the toxin, which Iraq had never had access to. Nor was any bentonite ever found. But by the time that knowledge became public, the United States had invaded Iraq, impulsive U.S. senators had all but commandeered the Amerithrax investigation, and the USA Patriot Act had passed that self-same U.S. Senate on a vote of 98-1. The anthrax attacks -- and the mistaken notion that they originated abroad -- was very much part of the debate that led to these results. And then, as if none of that had taken place, the official attention all turned to Steven Hatfill.

FBI "Dragging Its Feet"

After it became clear that the killer was not in Iraq, the FBI operated on the assumption that whoever did this most likely had accomplices; and if not accomplices, then at least people whose suspicions had been aroused -- because the process of making anthrax and sending it through the mail was enormously difficult technically, and the pool of people with access to the toxin was finite.

"It is very likely that one or more of you know this individual," Van A. Harp, the FBI official put in charge of the Amerithrax investigation wrote in a Jan. 29, 2002 mailing to the members of the American Society of Microbiology. "This person is experienced working in a laboratory."

And so the bureau started soliciting tips. The tips flowed in, too, good ones and bad ones. But the best tip was never acted upon. It came from Nancy Haigwood, a scientist who had worked alongside Bruce Ivins at Fort Detrick and had first-hand experience with this warped man's strange sense of entitlement and penchant for seeking surreptitious revenge against colleagues and acquaintances. Willman documents a pattern of behavior: "One-on-one, he was the smiling, devout colleague who exuded empathy. Behind people's backs, he was prone to bizarre, secretive acts of vengeance, for the most obscure of slights."

The married Ivins became obsessed with various female colleagues, including Haigwood, and he stalked them, played vicious tricks on them involving stealth, burglary and anonymous letters. He had homicidal thoughts about some of these colleagues, which he discussed with his psychiatrists -- he told his therapists that he fantasized about poisoning them. In one case, Ivins actually followed a younger woman to an out-of-town soccer game, planning to drug her with "lethal poisons." Ivins had only recently told the same woman, his former lab technician, that he'd been diagnosed with "paranoid personality disorder."

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Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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