Anthrax Attacks and America's Rush to Judgment

By Carl M. Cannon - June 9, 2011

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But Democratic staff members were less inclined than FBI special agents to dismiss the fulminations of the New York Times, and Barbara Hatch Rosenberg's theories found a ready audience among Leahy and Daschle staff members. In June of 2002, Van Harp and three other bureau officials were summoned to the office of Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, only to find their meeting turned over to Rosenberg. "For the better part of an hour she presented her views about the letter attacks and the culpability of Hatfill, without ever naming him," Willman writes. "When Harp tried to press Rosenberg for concrete details, Leahy's staff cut him off."

Instead of resisting this political pressure, the FBI knuckled under.

With no evidence against Hatfill -- after all, he was innocent -- the bureau essentially turned the fact-finding mission over to two bloodhounds from California who could supposedly sniff the scent on the anthrax-tainted letters. The dogs were then introduced to Hatfill, who -- not realizing how desperate the FBI had become -- simply petted them. The pooches' animated response, the dog handlers assured the FBI, pointed to Hatfill's guilt.

This junk science, ludicrous on its face, had already been exposed for what it was in several courtrooms in Southern California. There, prosecutors had used the same bloodhounds in criminal trials -- based on the same nebulous description from the handlers about what the dogs could properly ascertain. In one 1999 case, the dog wranglers testified that the bloodhounds "alerted" on a suspect who was charged with -- and later found to be innocent of -- several sexual assaults in Long Beach. Two years earlier, another judge threw out a murder conviction based in part on the bloodhounds' supposed reaction, and called the dog's handler who testified for the prosecution "as biased as any witness that this court has ever seen."

None of this was secret. The cases unfolded in open court and were covered in the media, including David Willman's newspaper, the Los Angeles Times. Yet ABC News, Newsweek, and, yes, The New York Times all went hard for the bloodhound angle. And on March 31, 2003, FBI Director Robert Mueller and Richard Lambert, the man Mueller picked to replace Van Harp as the head of the Amerithrax investigation, assured Attorney General John Ashcroft that the bloodhounds that had "associated" Hatfill with the anthrax letters had "extensive track records." Mueller had made some of the same representations to President Bush in August 2002.

President Obama has recently asked Mueller to stay on the job past the legal term limit of 10 years. Proceeding this way will take special legislation, but it will avoid a Senate confirmation fight. This is too bad. I wouldn't expect Patrick Leahy, who still chairs Senate Judiciary, to ask tough questions of Mueller about the Amerithrax investigation, but surely someone on that committee would be so inclined.


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

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