THE PLANK AUGUST 2, 2008
Concerned citizens: Skip today's news-analytical obits for Dr. Bruce Ivins, the high-level government scientist and accused perpetrator of the fall 2001 anthrax attacks, who reportedly took his own life yesterday.
There's some good stuff there, but the must read: Glenn Greenwald's stunning synthesis of the suspect legal, scientific and journalistic scufflings in the aftermath of the attacks. Based on his previous reporting and currently available evidence, Greenwald explains how and why the anthrax sent to Americans--five of whom died--is now presumed to have come from a maximum security government laboratory. And, what's more, how the goverment-grade anthrax was asserted, repeatedly and without laboratory proof, to be a bentonite-laced strain that was a trademark of Saddam Hussein's biological weaponry. The false connection circulated for weeks afterward, based on the claims of "four well-placed and separate sources" for ABC news--claims, again, since proven to be totally false. Key points:
Much more important than the general attempt to link the anthrax to
Islamic terrorists, there was a specific intent -- indispensably aided
by ABC News -- to link the anthrax attacks to Iraq and Saddam Hussein.
In my view, and I've written about this several times and in great detail
to no avail, the role played by ABC News in this episode is the single
greatest, unresolved media scandal of this decade. News of Ivins'
suicide, which means (presumably) that the anthrax attacks originated
from Ft. Detrick, adds critical new facts and heightens how scandalous
ABC News' conduct continues to be in this matter.
Pressure on ABC to out their sources should be swift and sustained. But
footage of John McCain on October 11, 2001, plumping on Letterman for the Iraq-anthrax connection is certainly the most significant part of this story.
McCain qualifies the assertion as follows:
LETTERMAN: How are things going in Afghanistan now?
MCCAIN: I think we're doing fine . . . I think we'll do fine. The second phase -- if I could just make one, very quickly -- the
second phase is Iraq. There is some indication, and I don't have the
conclusions, but some of this anthrax may -- and I emphasize may --
have come from Iraq.
LETTERMAN: Oh is that right?
MCCAIN: If that should be the case, that's when some tough decisions are gonna have to be made.
Video here. I don't believe that anthrax got us into Iraq, but taken to its logical conclusion, McCain's statement should be politically devastating. It ties McCain back to the march for war (even before the bentonite claim began to float), establishes his lack
of intellectual rigor in asking the right questions before making the "tough decisions," and, as would only seem fair these
days, confirms his own status as a vain and irresponsible celebrity.
Finally: The anthrax attacks seem like another universe away (I was only in high school). But they were, in hindsight, perhaps the high-water mark of post-9/11 hysteria. Of course, life changes anyhow--but Americans had no way of knowing then that these envelopes weren't just the beginning. It certainly didn't throw me into a war pant, but Todd Gitlin explains thusly:
The 2001 anthrax attacks were hugely important in stoking up a
War-of-the-Worlds panic. The envelopes of white powder inflamed the
sense that They're Everywhere--Lake Worth, FL; Washington; a mailbox in
Princeton. Without doubt, the anthrax panic muddled brains, promoted an
atmosphere of Bush-knows-best, and was easily convertible to war
fever--in Iraq or, goddammit, somewhere.
That such justified fearfulness could be "easily converted" into war is one fact; that men like McCain, who based the "tough decisions" on prejudices that continue to shame and unravel over time is another. Let's hope we hear that story.
Ponnuru argues that “[McCain’s] statement itself would, I think, seem appropriately tentative to reasonable observers, because it was.” That depends on how charitable you feel like being to McCain. Ponnuru is quite so; I'm inclined to be less generous. Maybe I overreached in concluding that his "Letterman" linkage of anthrax and Iraq should be politically devastating--but it is true that it would be easy to formulate an attack ad out of his nonchalant asssertion (30 days after 9/11) that "the second phase is Iraq."