The claim that the anthrax was laced with bentonite, and that government tests detected the presence of bentonite, was simply false — a complete invention from Ross’s sources, eager to link Saddam and anthrax attacks. And separately, it was a complete fiction that “the anthrax spores found in the letter to Senator Daschle are almost identical in appearance to those they recovered in Iraq in 1994 when viewed under an electron microscope.” That just never happened.
Equally false, really completely frivolous, was the conclusion Ross’s sources fed to him from this false premise — namely, that even if bentonite — which ABC referred to as a “troubling chemical additive” — had been found in the anthrax, that would be some sort of compelling proof linking Iraq to the anthrax attacks.
The very idea that bentonite is “a troubling chemical additive,” let alone that it is some sort of unique Iraqi hallmark, is inane. Bentonite is merely a common clay that is produced all over the world, including from volcanic eruptions. Over the weekend, I spoke via e-mail with M.A. Holmes, a Geologist in the Department of Geosciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who wrote:
Bentonite is mined and used for drilling mud (getting the rock chips out of a drill hole when drilling for oil or deep water) and now is mined for the clumping-type kitty litter (“swells when wet”). It’s also used to draw cactus spines put of the skin (sold as a product called “Denver Mud”). It has lots of other uses, like lining pits for waste disposal (because it “swells when wet” it forms a pretty good seal).
Bentonite is mined extensively in Wyoming and oh, yes, SOUTH DAKOTA. It is not “a chemical additive” and it is not unique to Iraq. It is widespread and common, and readily available wherever you can get “drilling mud.”
One ironic fact that illustrates just how commonplace is bentonite is this 2004 Washington Post profile of Dick Cheney, in which his wife, Lynne, fondly recalled the early years of their relationship: “I knew when he was digging ditches out at the Central Wyoming Fair and Rodeo Grounds. And I knew him when he was loading bentonite, hundred-pound bags of bentonite, onto railroad cars.”
The best publicly available investigative work by far on the anthrax attacks and subsequent investigations is, unsurprisingly, not from a “credentialed journalist,” but from someone named Edward G. Lake — an American citizen, a non-journalist, who is a retired computer systems analyst in Racine, Wisconsin. To his credit, the Times‘ Broad quoted Lake in his article on the FBI’s recent anthax findings, because Lake knows more about the anthrax investigations than any national journalist, by far.
Lake began following the anthrax reporting and noticed the endless series of misstatements and misperceptions being reported. On a website he created (and subsequently in a self-published book he wrote in 2005) he began chronicling and meticulously documenting the actual known facts relating to the anthrax attacks, and continues to do so with an amazingly relentless allegiance only to credible, established facts (and with appropriate disdain for speculation, fact-free assertions and conspiracy theories alike).
As Lake has also documented at length (long before the FBI confirmed it in August), virtually all of the credible, available evidence proves conclusively how false the ABC/Ross “bentonite” report was (see point 4 on Lake’s main page, with multiple links).
The unresolved, critical issues
At one of the most critical times in American history — the weeks following the 9/11 and anthrax attacks — ABC News and Brian Ross published multiple, highly inflammatory reports, aggressively linking Iraq to the anthrax attacks, which turned out to be completely false. Accompanying those false anthrax reports, ABC News frequently linked Saddam to the 9/11 attacks as well — such as when Cokie Roberts, during an interview with Donald Rumsfeld immediately following one of Ross’s Saddam-anthrax stories, referenced “the confirmation that Mohammed Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence official.”
While ABC, from the beginning, noted that even the White House publicly denied the bentonite story, they have never retracted, corrected or even explained their false reports. When I spoke with ABC News Senior Vice President Brian Schneider last week, he repeatedly emphasized that ABC News’ credibility rests with the fact that when they are wrong, they quickly and clearly correct their errors.
Yet — more than five years later — why do they continue to allow these extremely damaging Saddam-anthrax reports to go uncorrected? The New York Times published a lengthy examination of its own culpability in publishing false reports about Iraq’s WMD program long after those reports were published. Why hasn’t ABC done that with these anthrax reports?
But the most important issue is this: Someone clearly invented false stories about the anthrax investigation and fed them to Brian Ross, knowing he would run all over ABC News programs heaping blame on Saddam for those attacks. In fact, Ross said that there were at least four highly-placed, separate sources who told him that.
How can ABC and Ross justify continuing to conceal the identity of these sources — some of whom, presumably, were and still are in the Bush administration — when those sources concocted lies with the intent to manipulate Ross and the American public into believing that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the anthrax attacks?
There is a widely accepted journalistic principle that reporters are not required to conceal the identity of anonymous sources who feed them false information with the intent to induce the journalist to disseminate the falsehoods. In fact, in such a situation, there is an obligation on the part of the reporter to reveal who the sources are who passed on those lies.
Multiple people, in key positions, made numerous false statements to Brian Ross suggesting that Saddam was responsible for the anthrax attacks and made false claims about the results of government tests on anthrax. They did so with the clear intent to mislead the whole country on the most critical issue we faced — a fraud which resulted in damage that is impossible to quantify but unquestionably significant. How can ABC News and Brian Ross justify continuing to protect the people were who led them to perpetuate that fraud? Shouldn’t we know who invented those false stories and fed them to ABC?
UPDATE: Jonathan Schwarz has a highly relevant excerpt from Hubris, the book by Michael Isikoff and David Corn, which reported:
In October 2001, [Bush terrorism official Gen. Wayne] Downing, [Paul] Wolfowitz, and other proponents of a war with Iraq thought they had yet more ammunition for the case against Saddam. A series of deadly anthrax-laced letters had been sent to the Capitol Hill offices of Senator Daschle and Senator Patrick Leahy and to several newsrooms. Mylroie asserted that Saddam was behind the mailings. An early forensic test of the anthrax letters (which was later disputed) appeared to show that the anthrax spores were highly refined and “weaponized.”
To the Iraq hawks, the news was electric. “This is definitely Saddam!” Downing shouted to several White House aides. One of these aides later recalled overhearing Downing excitedly sharing the news over the phone with Wolfowitz and Feith. “I had the feeling they were high-five-ing each other,” the White House official said.
The attempt to link Saddam to the anthrax attacks was just as fraudulent — and just as significant — as the attempt to link Saddam to 9/11, Al Qaeda and nuclear weapons. Brian Ross and ABC played a key role in that part of the fraud, yet have never accounted for their conduct.
UPDATE II: In Comments, Science Guy voices a couple of insightful objections to two of the points I made in this post. My response is here.