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Anthrax Attacks and America's Rush to Judgment

By Carl M. Cannon - June 9, 2011

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This last part was true -- Ivins was prescribed the anti-depressant Celex and the anti-psychotic drug Zyprexa. To his psychiatrists, Bruce Ivins was "creepy" and "spooky" or the "scariest" patient they'd seen in their careers.

He also was one of the nation's foremost experts on anthrax. In fact, he was listed on two patents for a genetically engineered anthrax vaccine, and stood to personally profit from the government's accelerated vaccination program that came in response to the anthrax mailings. Ivins had long, unexplained sessions in his lab -- alone -- at the time of the anthrax mailings and, despite frantic attempts to cover his tracks, he couldn't help but give himself away in small ways: In an email to another female colleague he had also quietly contemplated killing, Ivins wrote, "I certainly don't want to see any headlines in the National Enquirer, ‘PARANOID MAN WORKS WITH DEADLY ANTHRAX!!!' ''

This message was sent a year before the attacks -- and the first anthrax letter was sent to the Florida offices of the National Enquirer, where Robert Stevens, who worked there for the tabloid's parent company, became his first victim. Ivins also suddenly renewed his email relationship with Nancy Haigwood, who was struck by the fact that Ivins predicted trouble at Fort Detrick just three days after the first anthrax letters were mailed -- and before they were known publicly.

"Oh, my God," Haigwood said when she received the FBI mass mailing asking for help finding the killer. "I know him." She phoned the bureau to report what she knew, a tip that was dutifully filed away. It turned out that actual first-hand knowledge of an obvious suspect was not the right way to get the FBI's attention in 2002.

The Strange Case of "Mr. Z"

When the anthrax story broke, a political activist and college professor from New York named Barbara Hatch Rosenberg began insisting publicly that the anthrax used in the attacks "was derived, almost certainly, from a U.S. defense laboratory." If Rosenberg, a former cancer researcher trained as a molecular biologist, had left it at that, she'd have been prescient.

But she went much further. Her thinking ran to sinister government conspiracy theories (a secret CIA caper "gone badly awry," she postulated) and her actions spilled over into casting suspicion on a scientist she'd heard gossip about: Steven Hatfill. Unlike Nancy Haigwood, who knew Bruce Ivins in all his chilling weirdness, Barbara Hatch Rosenberg had never met Hatfill. But that didn't stop her from accusing him of mass murder.

Rosenberg found a ready audience in New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and, in turn, Sen. Patrick Leahy and his staff. In a series of six pieces Kristof wrote after conferring with Rosenberg, The Times' columnist, first referring to Hatfill as "Mr. Z," and later by his actual name, asserted that Hatfill had "up-to-date" anthrax vaccinations, "unquestionably had the ability to make first-rate anthrax," was upset at the government, had access to an isolated residence that might be a CIA safe house, was once caught naked with a girlfriend in a biohazard suite at Fort Detrick, and may have helped launch a genocidal anthrax and cholera attack against blacks during Zimbabwe's war for independence.

No evidence was ever offered for any of these claims, all leveled anonymously, and none ever surfaced, either. Kristof, who asserted openly in his column that he was trying to "prod" the FBI into following up on his hunch, was considered a ridiculous diversion by the agents assigned to the Amerithrax investigation. Inside the Washington field office, an FBI supervisor named Robert Roth began putting Kristof's more outlandish statements on the wall in large letters. To buck up his besieged agents, Roth added a statement of his own: "One of the best things that can happen to you is to have this type of person criticize you."

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

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