Anthrax Attacks and America's Rush to Judgment

Anthrax Attacks and America's Rush to Judgment

By Carl M. Cannon - June 9, 2011

Nearly a decade ago, as Americans were reeling from the shock of September 11, the nation was besieged by a crafty and concealed killer who murdered five people, sickened 17 others, shut down the U.S. Capitol, and helped coalesce the Bush administration's focus on invading Iraq, which it suspected of being responsible for dispatching anthrax through the U.S. mail.

The killer masqueraded as an Islamic terrorist. "We have this anthrax," proclaimed the notes containing the lethal spores sent to numerous offices, including those of Democratic Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy (pictured with FBI Director Robert Mueller). All of the mailed letters contained the date "09/11/01" and the lines: "DEATH TO AMERICA. DEATH TO ISRAEL. ALLAH IS GREAT."

The FBI took charge of the investigation, and within days the bureau had strong scientific grounds to presume that no rogue jihadist had obtained these spores. This was either state-sponsored terrorism -- and the White House was focused on only one sovereign state, Iraq -- or it was the work of a highly intelligent lunatic with experience handling anthrax, a security clearance, and access to U.S. bio-weapons research labs.

The probe that ensued was a comedy of errors, except there was nothing funny about it. The resources of the world's most powerful nation were brought to bear on two individuals for this crime: Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and, later, Steven J. Hatfill, a scientist who had worked for two years at the U.S. Army's bio-warfare research center at Fort Detrick, Md.

Neither man had anything whatsoever to do with it. Nonetheless, Hussein's nation was invaded, his regime overthrown, and he and his sons killed. Steven Hatfill was hounded, literally, by the feds, who put dogs on his trail, searched his apartment with media trucks in tow, ran over his foot with a car, leaked erroneous information about him to the media, and forced a university to rescind a job offer. Hatfill later recovered money in a lawsuit, but his career was effectively destroyed.

Meanwhile, the actual murderer, Bruce Ivins, continued to work for years at Fort Detrick, where he misled investigators and covered up his tracks. Ivins took his own life as the FBI finally closed in on him in July of 2008, after wasting the better part of a decade and untold thousands of man-hours on a wild goose chase. The Amerithrax investigation is one of the most embarrassing chapters in the history of the storied agency. But why did it happen?

The answer to that question is unraveled, in a meticulous and authoritative fashion, in "The Mirage Man," arriving in bookstores this week. Author David Willman is one of the most accomplished investigative journalists of our time, and his book will make many prominent people in his profession uncomfortable, as it should. There are few heroes in the story, and some villains, too. But mostly there are lessons -- lessons are about the danger of jumping to conclusions, lessons about sensationalizing the news, and lessons about the dangers of politicizing science or the criminal justice system.

"The Mirage Man" should be required reading in every journalism school, and law school, in this country. It should be the textbook of a case study at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va. -- and police academies everywhere. It should be taught in college government classes, and handed out to freshman members of Congress when they arrive in Washington, and to staffers assigned to the Capitol Hill committees and the White House National Security Council.

The anthrax attacks were a deadly tragedy for the families of those hurt by them. But the rush to judgment inside the White House, the misleading media coverage of the event, and the politically tinged FBI investigation were a national disgrace. The Bush administration used the attacks as part of its litany of provocations against Iraq. Later, liberal ideologues zeroed in on an innocent man, forever tarnishing his reputation.

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

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