Salon Radio: Rep. Rush Holt on anthrax

The chairman of the House Select Intelligence Oversight Panel expresses skepticism over the Ivins accusation and supports a full-scale investigation.

Topics: Washington, D.C.,

(updated below – Update II – Update III – Update IV)

Rep. Rush Holt represents the Central New Jersey district where at least one of the anthrax letters was sent. Rep. Holt’s Congressional office was one of the few in which traces of anthrax were found. He is also a physicist and has been an outspoken critic of the FBI’s investigation into the anthrax attacks. Perhaps most importantly, he is the Chairman of the House’s Select Intelligence Oversight Panel, which very well may hold hearings to examine the FBI’s investigation and conclusions.

This morning, I spoke with Rep. Holt for roughly 20 minutes. During the discussion, Rep. Holt:

  • indicated his support for the creation of an investigative body, with full subpoena power, along the lines of the 9/11 Commission, to investigate all unresolved aspects of the anthrax attacks;
  • enumerated the many reasons why a rational person would lack confidence in the the FBI’s investigative abilities;
  • complained that the FBI has continuously “stonewalled” both him and all other members of Congress, for years, as they tried to exercise oversight over the FBI’s investigation into the anthrax case;


  • declared that nobody should conclude, without much further proof, that the actual anthrax killer has been identified.

Particularly on matters of intelligence and science, Holt is one of the most informed and intelligent members of Congress. When those attributes are combined with the fact that his district was directly affected in several ways by the anthrax attacks, his views on this case are well worth listening to.

UPDATE: Accountability Now, as one of its very first campaigns following this week’s August 8 Money Bomb, intends to launch an ad campaign to publicize the numerous unresolved questions surrounding the anthrax investigation and to increase the pressure for a full-fledged, meaningful Congressional investigation. We have a petition — here — demanding that Congress commence such an investigation, and the names of the first 1,000 people who sign the petition will be listed in the full-page ads we place.

UPDATE II: On an unrelated note, I wrote a piece for the ACLU examining the numerous grounds for arguing that the telecom immunity provisions of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 are unconstitutional. That can be read here. Several ACLU affiliates, along with EFF, intend to challenge the constitutionality of those immunity provisions (independent of the ACLU’s constitutional challenge to the Act’s surveillance provisions) very shortly.

UPDATE III: The transcript for the interview with Rep. Holt is here.

UPDATE IV: Poynter.org, one of the most-read sites in Establishment Media World, has a column today reporting on the growing demands for ABC News and Brian Ross to reveal the sources which fed them the false bentonite story. That can be read here.

Glenn Greenwald: I’m joined this morning by Congressman Rush Holt, whose New Jersey district contains apparently one of the mailboxes that was used by the anthrax attacker to send anthrax, and Congressman Holt is also a trained physicist and possibly most relevant for purpose of what we’re going to discuss, the chairman of the House’s Select Oversight Panel. Thanks for joining me this morning.

Rush Holt: Good to be with you.

GG: Now I want to begin by asking you this: I think that there are a lot of people who, in light of the history of the anthrax case, are going to have a very hard time believing that they’ve really gotten the full story, and believing the FBI’s accusations, in the absence of some meaningful scrutiny of what the FBI claims to place here. And ordinarily, the problem is that ordinarily, claims of this sort, accusations against Bruce Ivins, would be subjected to real scrutiny in a criminal court proceeding, but, with all sorts of adversarial safeguards. But since the accused here is dead, that’s not going to happen, and so the only meaningful way to have genuine scrutiny, a real forensic examination of what the FBI did and what they’re claiming occurred, would be some kind of sweeping investigative body that has real subpoena power and is set out to do a real investigation. First of all, is that something you agree with, and secondly is the committee that you chair empowered or authorized to conduct an investigation of that sort, and if not who would be?

RH: First of all, thanks for your work on this subject, and raising several issues that aren’t generally raised but should be. This is something I’ve followed right from the very beginning. Among the first people to get sick were post office workers here in central New Jersey. We now believe that the letters were mailed from here in central New Jersey. We know that the mail sorting facility here in Hamilton, New Jersey was where the letters were sorted and sent on to Brokaw and Leahy and so forth, Daschle. Furthermore, my office in Washington was one of the few House offices contaminated.

So I not only have constituents who care about this, but I’ve also followed the investigation quite closely from the beginning. I watched them take evidence. I saw how it unfolded, although without the benefit of thorough briefings from the FBI, but nevertheless I early on did have some briefings from them, and I actually watched the taking of evidence.

It doesn’t inspire confidence, maybe to put it euphemistically. Just the sampling, the wiping, to pick up anthrax spores in the offices was done in a sloppy and actually illogical way. Then when it was determined early on that the Hamilton sorting facility was the place where the letters were sorted, instead of following all the paths that a letter might have followed to get to that Hamilton facility – which they could have done in a matter of a few days with a couple dozen agents checking all the mailboxes for example, checking all the regional post offices, to see how the letters got to the Hamilton facility – it took them nine months. And nine months later, they discovered a contaminated mailbox on Nassau Street in Princeton, New Jersey, took that box out of circulation, and then started asking passers-by on the street if they remembered anything unusual at that box the previous fall.

GG: Nine months earlier?

RH: Yeah, nine months earlier. That’s just one example of how this has not been well-handled. Of course, the fact that they had to pay damages to someone falsely accused – of course, they would be careful to say not accused, but only a person of interest, Hatfill – just is another formal confirmation that this whole investigation has been poorly done. When you add this to the FBI’s jumping to conclusions in the Atlanta Olympic bomber, in the Madrid train bombing, where they fingered a lawyer in Portland, Oregon – who they later admitted was completely innocent, and that they actually paid damages to – it makes you wonder, well, are they following good procedures?

I have an interest in this and I demand that the FBI brief Congress for two reasons. One is that people of central New Jersey, and elsewhere in the country, and all mail handlers and letter carriers and local police officials deserve to know whether there is a murderer still at large; and Congress has a responsibility to see that we’re well prepared to deal with bio-terrorism. Based on what I have seen – without detailed briefings – I have doubts that we’re well prepared, at least in this forensic sense.

So those are two equally good reasons for the FBI – I was going to say come clean, but let me be more fair to them – to lay out the procedures they followed, so that independent people can determine whether those procedures are good. I doesn’t seem to me that they’ve been following logical procedures: they’ve been jumping from one conclusion to another conclusion. You’re right, that if this went to court, they would have to meet the real standards of evidence, which now in the newspapers they don’t have to meet, and especially since their main culprit now can’t defend himself.

So it’s not something you can feel good about. They’ve left a trail of anxiety and embarrassment, and even tragedy behind them over the seven years of this case, almost seven years now. Even if they have now identified the murderer, the real culprit, we can’t feel good about how this has transpired.

GG: Right. Let me ask you a little bit more broadly. You’re absolutely right, the law enforcement issues – both retrospectively and prospectively – are important, but I would suggest that there’s actually a still further imperative that distinguishes this from the standard criminal case that we’d want to make sure is solved. Which is that this is the first lethal bio-terrorism attack on the United States, and by our own government’s reckoning, it actually came from a US government facility, perpetrated by a top government scientist, and that these attacks were actually used early on to try and ratchet up the fear of terrorism and did do that, and would have done that naturally.

But there was also a concerted effort among various factions inside and outside the government to link these attacks to Iraq at a time when we know that the government in various fashions were interested in depicting Iraq as a threat. We have John McCain in October 2001 going on David Letterman and saying there are indications that these anthrax attacks came from Iraq. There was a very concerted story that seemed to have come from Fort Detrick, leaked to ABC News, that caused that news outlet to tell the country for a week straight, in a very aggressive way, that there tell-tale signs of the Iraqi biological weapons program behind the attacks.

And the significance of these attacks and the multiple unresolved questions seem to really call for the kind of sweeping inquiry that we’ve had in the past whenever there have been doubts about whether the government is telling the truth, and that it would call for more than just an investigation or oversight of what law enforcement mechanism did they use, but of all these surrounding questions, so at the very least, the doubts and these questions can be put to rest in a way that I would think would be in the government’s interest as well as the country’s.

Can you envision an investigation of that type being conducted by Congress?

RH: Well, yes, and in answer to your question from before, and following on here, I chair the Select Intelligence Oversight Panel. Now, intelligence, as defined under the National Security Act and so forth, is intended for foreign adversaries, agents of foreign powers. And so, we really don’t have authority over, say, criminal investigations and the FBI in that sense. But the FBI is now designated as an intelligence agency; just about every agency in the federal government now has an intelligence component. So it is not at all inappropriate for us to be looking at the FBI and especially to determine why they, in recent years, have excluded the possibility of foreign involvement. I’m not saying there was or wasn’t; the FBI in recent years has assumed or concluded or deduced – I don’t know which, more likely just assumed – that there was no foreign component.

But we need to understand that, because as you point out – and I really want to credit you for your blogs of the past few days, where you’ve made the point, I think you said that this was the second most significant occurrence in the Bush Administration – perhaps an overstatement, but I see your point. It really was the other shoe that dropped that convinced most Americans that there was this international terrorist conspiracy out to get Americans any way they could, and that therefore we’d better do everything we can from taking off our shoes at airports to going to war. It really is very much worth looking into how this investigation was conducted, and how it was portrayed to Americans and to the world. For all of those reasons, I think it’s worth looking into.

So far the FBI has stonewalled it. Every time any member of the FBI from the director on down, has come to either the panel I chair, or the Committee which I also sit, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, I’ve asked them this question, or this series of questions, and they always come with a statement prepared by – I guess by the Congressional Relations Department – they can’t comment, this is an investigation that’s on-going, and they’ve really stonewalled it. Stonewalled all of Congress, not just me.

Curiosity on our part, that leads us to ask these questions – we have a responsibility of oversight here, and they are impeding our ability to do that. Should we subpoena them? Well, that’s easier said than done. There are a lot of people who say, oh there are all these impeachable offenses, and all of these transgressions of this administration from the various agencies – and they’re right, these transgressions number probably in the dozens – and people say why doesn’t Congress just subpoena the people. Well, that’s hard to do, as you see right now, there’s a subpoena underway, and it’s been a fight for several months now to get Karl Rove to come and testify. The courts finally ruled that he is obligated to, but I’m sure there will be appeals, and my guess we won’t see him in this session of Congress. I’m not sure what we can do. There’s the usual problems, that if the FBI is going to stonewall us, we’re going to have trouble getting the full story.

GG: Right, and I guess there’s been some suggestions that a commission of the type that has investigated government mysteries of the past, whether it be Iran-Contra, or the 9/11 attacks even, that a commission endowed with that kind of investigative power might be appropriate in order to ensure that all the facts here have been divulged in a way that inspires confidence.

RH: I think I would favor that, I think it’s a good idea. Meanwhile, I thank you and some others like you who are not only keeping the subject alive, but doing real investigation of your own. We’ll keep after it.

GG: Okay, I just have one quick last question for you. And I appreciate that, and I have no doubt that you will keep after it, having you in this context and others. You said you’ve been stone-walled, and Senators Daschle and Leahy have also complained about the same thing, even though, Senator Leahy chairs the Judiciary Committee with oversight of the Justice Department and was one of the targets of anthrax attacks. Do you have information about the current case against Bruce Ivins, other than what has been leaked? And given the amount that has been leaked now, which is increasing by the minute of course, have you formed an opinion about how persuasive you find that case, or are you withholding judgment on that until the FBI’s presents their full panoply of whatever it is that they claim they have?

RH: As a congressional representative, I shouldn’t play the role of judge, jury or forensic scientist. I don’t have a lot – as I said, I was watching how they collected evidence – I don’t have a lot of confidence, and I think the burden is on them to satisfy me and other members of Congress that they’ve done this right.

Now, since part of this depends on DNA genetic typing, I think you’ll discover that there’s no-one in Congress who is really qualified to evaluate that. So, just as a court, you would have to have expert testimony – so would we. Recently in the papers in the last day or two, there are those who are saying that this genetic typing is far from conclusive. They make it sound almost circumstantial. So that the fact that they have focused on this one weapons lab, bio lab, is, may itself be premature or a matter of jumping to conclusions. I thought, just from general knowledge, that the DNA typing would be enough to really identify a particular facility. But maybe not, from what I read in the papers now.

GG: Right. Yeah, there’s this….

RH: As for whether he was psychologically unstable – I imagine if the FBI tries hard enough, they can dig up dirt or imagined dirt on just about anybody in the country. If they go back far enough and they talk to enough disgruntled friends or associates or casual, or neighbors down the street. I don’t find that compelling, the fact that one person said in his counseling sessions he felt that he was being accused of murder doesn’t mean that he’s unstable – yeah, he was being accused of murder. And he got…

GG: Right, there was some details in the New York Times this morning that the FBI had gone to his children, and enticed them with a $2.5 million reward and showed pictures of the victims…

RH: That’s right.

GG: …and said, your father did this…

RH: Your father…

GG: Guilty or not, who wouldn’t feel severe emotional distress when placed under the thumb of the FBI that way?

RH: From what I’ve read so far, he might have had the means. It’s hard to see what his motivation was. Someone suggested he would get get more royalties from his vaccine patent. I have no idea whether those royalties belong to the federal government or whether he would get them.

The case seems to me at this point to be circumstantial, but again, without any briefings from the FBI, it would be presumptuous of me to say. And it would be, I think, presumptuous of people in central New Jersey to breathe a sign of relief and say they’ve got the murderer, he’s no longer at large. They deserve, the people deserve better reassurance than what they’ve gotten.

GG: Absolutely I think the only thing you can conclude at this point, that a rational person can conclude, is that there’s all kinds of unanswered questions. Perhaps the FBI has convincing answers to those questions, and perhaps they don’t, but we’re not going to know that until there’s a real examination of what it is that the FBI claims, and I’m glad to hear that your perspective on that seems to be the same.

Thank you so much for taking the time this morning, and I expect and I really hope that this will continue and we’ll be able to talk about this again.

RH: Glenn, it’s great to talk with you.

[Transcript courtesy of Thames Valley Transcribe]

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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