When Comey and Mueller Bungled the Anthrax Case
In the wake of Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, the Justice Department named Robert S. Mueller III as a special prosecutor to investigate possible Russian interference in the 2016 election. It was a decision greeted with a chorus of supportive croaking from inside official Washington, aka The Swamp.
“If anyone can stay on course and not be deterred by the whims of politics, it’s Bob Mueller,” said former Missouri senator and U.S. attorney general John Ashcroft. “A great choice,” added John McCain. “Somebody we all trust,” echoed California Congressman Darrell Issa.
“Impeccable credentials,” chimed in Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah. “Should be widely accepted.”
Democrats were even more extravagant. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein said that “no better person” could have been named. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin tweeted, “I have the highest regard for his integrity and intelligence.”
All this was dutifully reported in the press, which gushed over Mueller just as effusively. “Robert Mueller: The Special Counsel America Needs,” intoned the New York Times editorial board. Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, revealing a lack of self-awareness worthy of Trump himself, gleefully predicted disaster for the president.
“Mueller is a Trump nightmare: a pro, who ran the FBI for 12 years and is broadly respected in both parties in Washington for his competence and integrity,” Kristof wrote. “If Trump thought he was removing a thorn by firing Comey, he now faces a grove of thistles.”
Kristof never mentioned why he had as much reason to recuse himself from this subject as Attorney General Jeff Sessions did. I’ll explain later. First, I’ll say that when I heard Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had appointed Bob Mueller as a special prosecutor, I didn’t experience the same rhapsody as my capital compatriots. Why? Three reasons.
First, Jim Comey and Bob Mueller have a long history as professional allies. For Mueller to be brought in to investigate the behavior of the guy who sacked Comey seems a conflict of interest. Perhaps this is the wrong way to look at it, and that Mueller’s professionalism will supersede any personal loyalty. Okay, but here’s a second reason: These two guys, working in tandem, have a track record of bureaucratic infighting – with another Republican White House as their shared adversary -- that belies their reputations for being above political intrigue. This is not news. Some of the positive coverage in the last few days highlighted that episode. It’s a long and convoluted story, but the story line that took hold in Washington went like this:
In March 2004, Comey, then deputy attorney general, sped with sirens blazing to the hospital bedside of his boss, John Ashcroft, who was recovering from gallbladder surgery. At the time, the Justice Department was being pressured by White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and Chief of Staff Andrew Card to sign papers reauthorizing a secret anti-terrorism domestic surveillance program initiated after 9/11. The clock was running out and the papers had to be signed or the program would lapse. But Comey, who had a dim view of the program’s constitutionality, wouldn’t do it. When he heard Gonzales and Card were on their way to the hospital, Comey rushed there, too, to stop them.
Comey had enlisted Bob Mueller, then FBI director, as an ally. Both men apparently told George W. Bush privately they’d quit rather than extend the program. “Here I stand, I can do no other,” Comey told Bush. That’s Martin Luther’s iconic line, and although in 2016 Hillary Clinton would come to see Comey as more akin to Judas than Luther, one thing is apparent: Jim Comey is a government appointee who thinks of himself in a manner many people find grandiose. Bush backed down in the face of the Comey-Mueller insurrection, but three years later Comey told his dramatic Ashcroft hospital bed story in a congressional hearing that eviscerated Gonzales, who was attorney general by then.
The third and most important factor tempering my enthusiasm for the new special prosecutor is that Comey and Mueller badly bungled the biggest case they ever handled. They botched the investigation of the 2001 anthrax letter attacks that took five lives and infected 17 other people, shut down the U.S. Capitol and Washington’s mail system, solidified the Bush administration’s antipathy for Iraq, and eventually, when the facts finally came out, made the FBI look feckless, incompetent, and easily manipulated by outside political pressure.
This, too, was an enormously complex case. But here are some facts: Despite the jihadist slogans accompanying the mailed anthrax, it had nothing to do with Saddam Hussein or any foreign element; the FBI ignored a 2002 tip from a scientific colleague of the actual anthrax killer, who turned out to be a Fort Detrick scientist named Bruce Edwards Ivins; the reason is that they had quickly obsessed on an innocent man named Steven Hatfill; the bureau was bullied into focusing on the government scientist by Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy (whose office, along with that of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, was targeted by an anthrax-laced letter) and was duped into focusing on Hatfill by two sources – a conspiracy-minded college professor with a political agenda who’d never met Hatfill and by Nicholas Kristof, who put his conspiracy theories in the paper while mocking the FBI for not arresting Hatfill.
In truth, Hatfill was an implausible suspect from the outset. He was a virologist who never handled anthrax, which is a bacterium. (Ivins, by contrast, shared ownership of anthrax patents, was diagnosed as having paranoid personality disorder, and had a habit of stalking and threatening people with anonymous letters – including the woman who provided the long-ignored tip to the FBI). So what evidence did the FBI have against Hatfill? There was none, so the agency did a Hail Mary, importing two bloodhounds from California whose handlers claimed could sniff the scent of the killer on the anthrax-tainted letters. These dogs were shown to Hatfill, who promptly petted them. When the dogs responded favorably, their handlers told the FBI that they’d “alerted” on Hatfill and that he must be the killer.
You’d think that any good FBI agent would have kicked these quacks in the fanny and found their dogs a good home. Or at least checked news accounts of criminal cases in California where these same dogs had been used against defendants who’d been convicted -- and later exonerated. As Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times investigative reporter David Willman detailed in his authoritative book on the case, a California judge who’d tossed out a murder conviction based on these sketchy canines called the prosecution’s dog handler “as biased as any witness that this court has ever seen.”
Instead, Mueller, who micromanaged the anthrax case and fell in love with the dubious dog evidence, personally assured Ashcroft and presumably George W. Bush that in Steven Hatfill the bureau had its man. Comey, in turn, was asked by a skeptical Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz if Hatfill was another Richard Jewell – the security guard wrongly accused of the Atlanta Olympics bombing. Comey replied that he was “absolutely certain” they weren’t making a mistake.
Such certitude seems to be Comey’s default position in his professional life. Mueller didn’t exactly distinguish himself with contrition, either. In 2008, after Ivins committed suicide as he was about to be apprehended for his crimes, and the Justice Department had formally exonerated Hatfill – and paid him $5.82 million in a legal settlement – Mueller could not be bothered to walk across the street to attend the press conference announcing the case’s resolution. When reporters did ask him about it, Mueller was graceless. “I do not apologize for any aspect of the investigation,” he said, adding that it would be erroneous “to say there were mistakes.”
Does this mean Comey and Mueller are bad guys? I’m not saying that. Mueller, for one, answered his country’s call and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps when many others of his generation were avoiding combat service in Vietnam. Both men have forsaken millions of dollars in salary at private law firms for public service. Neither has ever had a hint of personal scandal.
I know Steven Hatfill’s attorney, Thomas Connolly, well, and David Willman, a former newsroom colleague, even better—and I spoke to them last week about these events. Connolly said he thought Comey was a “decent guy” who was legitimately fooled by that business with the dogs. And while Willman and I were discussing whether Mueller’s reputation for competence was deserved, the reporter volunteered that he did not question the man’s integrity. Fair enough. I would, however, pose this query to the keepers of official Washington’s agreed-upon narrative.
While running for president, Donald Trump promised to “drain the swamp.” He won enough votes, in the right states, to make him president. So here’s the question: How does official Washington, which clearly does not want to be drained, think the 63 million people who voted for Trump will feel about an investigation run by D.C. insiders with a history of grandstanding – an investigation that some Democrats and commentators are saying aloud they hope will end in impeachment? And what will those Trump voters think of uncritical media coverage of this effort by a self-righteous press corps that has suddenly rediscovered its investigative-reporting impulses, and which behaves as if little of this relevant context is even worth mentioning?