Are anthrax letters OK for abortion-rights groups?

Activists concerned about a second wave of threats fear the attorney general's antiabortion beliefs are the reason he won't meet with them.

Published November 10, 2001 9:01AM (EST)

After the latest round of anthrax scares hit abortion clinics and women's rights groups Thursday, leaders of several abortion rights organizations reiterated their request to meet with Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Abortion rights leaders, who have been subjected to anthrax threats for years, complain that their concerns about those threats have been ignored since Ashcroft, a staunch abortion opponent, became attorney general. After the deadly anthrax attacks of last month, their fears -- and anger at Ashcroft for not meeting with them -- have increased. Abortion rights groups believe Ashcroft should meet with them not just to ensure their safety and send out a strong message that the government will not tolerate such threats, but because the information they have gathered on domestic terrorists could be useful in the national anthrax investigation.

At press time Ashcroft's office had no plans to meet with the groups.

Thursday, a second wave of anthrax threats were sent by Federal Express to nearly 200 abortion clinics and organizations. Last month, abortion clinics received more than 100 letters claiming to be laced with anthrax -- all of which tested negative for the deadly bacteria. While there is no apparent link between them and the real anthrax letters sent to political and media offices around the country, the appearance of the new anthrax threat resurrected a theory that has been floated by the media for weeks -- that the real anthrax letters sent in September were the work of domestic terrorists.

The FBI investigation into the anthrax letters sent to Sen. Tom Daschle, the New York Post, NBC and others last month has made no clear progress. Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge told reporters Friday the FBI was "still no closer to identifying specifically the origin of the anthrax or the perpetrators."

A new speculative profile of the anthrax attacker, released by the FBI Friday, claims the person is probably male, "a non-confrontational person, at least in his public life. He lacks the personal skills necessary to confront others. He chooses to confront his problems long distance and not face-to face," it added. The man may have "chosen to anonymously harass other individuals or entities that he perceived as having wronged him" and "prefers being by himself more often than not. If he is involved in a personal relationship it will likely be of a self-serving nature."

The FBI profile did not speculate whether the person was U.S.-born or not, but a report from CBS News revived some dormant speculation that the anthrax attacks were the work of a domestic terrorist or terrorists. CBS quotes former FBI profiler Gregg McCrary as saying the bureau has not discounted the possibility that members of al-Qaida may be linked to the attacks, but they are "also looking at the possibility of a homegrown individual, maybe the loner-paranoid type of individual as well who may be doing this."

But interestingly, the group that has perhaps done the most work monitoring domestic hate groups does not believe it was a domestic threat. "We have tended to lean away from a domestic group explanation. It's much more likely that it was a foreign or foreign-run group, or it was a domestic madman with a microbiology degree," says Mark Potok, who heads the Southern Poverty Law Center's KlanWatch. "The Daschle letter went out on Sept. 18. That means whoever sent that anthrax had to have it before the 11th. Do these domestic groups sit around stockpiling anthrax? We have not seen a shred of evidence that domestic radical groups either have anthrax or are capable of refining it to the level of the Daschle letter substance. One of the arguments I heard was well, Daschle's a liberal, must be the militias. I find that ridiculous."

While Potok plays down the likelihood that the real anthrax spores were sent by domestic radical groups, speculation about who sent the bogus anthrax threats to abortion groups has focused on antiabortion activists at home. Several of the letters were signed by the Army of God, a group that has openly called for the murder of abortion doctors.

The threat of anthrax attacks may be new to the country, but abortion groups have been dealing with them for years. While there has never been any actual anthrax sent to an abortion clinic, Planned Parenthood clinics have been dealing with anthrax threats since 1998.

Ashcroft's failure to make a statement about the current anthrax-threat letters sent to them irks abortion-rights groups, but they have a longstanding adversarial relationship with Ashcroft. In arguing against his confirmation, Planned Parenthood Federation of America president Gloria Feldt told the Senate Judiciary Committee, "The best way to predict how John Ashcroft would act as U.S. attorney general is to look at his performance in Missouri when he held office there. During the time that John Ashcroft was attorney general and then governor of Missouri, he failed to respond to the increase in anti-choice intimidation, harassment, and violence at Missouri reproductive health clinics ... Despite our best efforts to find a single public statement from him at that time, it appears that he said absolutely nothing."

Abortion rights supporters aggressively fought against Ashcroft's confirmation, in part because of his support of a Missouri law known as the Infant's Protection Act. The bill's author, Louis DeFeo of the Missouri Catholic Conference, conceded that the bill allowed deadly force against abortion providers. "I think that's justifiable in protecting a person." The late Gov. Mel Carnahan vetoed the bill, a move Ashcroft called "tragic."

While Ashcroft has not met face to face with abortion rights leaders, many of their concerns and requests have been heard by the department. After Dr. George Tiller was shot outside his abortion clinic in Wichita, Kansas, the DOJ granted abortion groups' requests for U.S. Marshall protection for Tiller. When self-avowed antiabortion terrorist Clayton Waagner escaped from a county jail in Clinton, Ill., in February, the FBI responded to requests to offer a federal reward for his capture, and placed Waagner on their Ten Most Wanted list.

Complaints about Ashcroft's silence regarding threats of violence or bioterrorism against abortion providers continue amid the current national anthrax hysteria. Hoping to capitalize on public awareness about the threat of anthrax, advocates say now is the time for a strong rebuke from the attorney general.

"This is the largest single orchestrated anthrax threat against any type of organization. And it seems to us that he sometimes goes out of his way not to mention the fact," says Vicki Saporta, executive director of the National Abortion Federation. "He needs to be very clear and send a very clear message to these anti-choice extremists."

As of Friday, there was no sign that abortion rights defenders would get either the meeting or public statement they seek. Calls by Salon to the Department of Justice went unreturned, but a member of the DOJ press office said the office had not put out any statement regarding the latest anthrax threats to abortion clinics.

Some have criticized abortion rights groups for trying to cash in on the anthrax threat, and for unfairly trying to tar Ashcroft. Responding to a New York Times column by Frank Rich which claimed Ashcroft had "gone so far as to turn away firsthand information about domestic terrorism for political reasons," conservative writer Ross Douthat lashed out in the National Review. "So let's get this straight -- with everything that's going on, Ashcroft is to be faulted because he hasn't tapped into Planned Parenthood's intelligence network?" Douthat writes. "What's next -- a story on the ACLU's underutilized Green Berets?"

But Saporta says her group's concerns are about much more than trying to score political points against Ashcroft. She says the attorney general's continued silence is jeopardizing the safety of abortion workers around the country. "We wanted a public statement before we had the second round of these letters. As we continue to have more rounds of these letters, there could be an increased likelihood that some of them could in fact contain anthrax, and then we're dealing with a very different situation," she says.

In their reactions to the new anthrax scare, abortion rights groups have also included Tom Ridge in the list of people they would like to meet with. Ridge, a pro-choice former governor of Pennsylvania, has a very different approach to and view of abortion than Ashcroft, and groups are optimistic that Ridge may ultimately give them a public meeting, or come out with a strongly worded statement specifically condemning the attacks on abortion clinics and abortion-rights organizations.

"Well, this is the first time we've asked for a meeting with Tom Ridge, and we think it could be more likely that he would meet with us," Saporta said. "Because these anthrax threat letters are part of what's going on nationally, we really do think it is important that we meet with either Tom Ridge or the attorney general or both. Because they have to be as interested as we are in stopping what's happening and apprehending the people who are responsible."

And while leaders of the abortion rights movement are frustrated by the attorney general's refusal to meet with them, they all praise the work law enforcement and the FBI have done on this latest anthrax case.

In a statement Thursday, Feldt said her organization was "pleased with the cooperation we have received from the FBI following the first round of letters we received last month. That cooperation is continuing today," Feldt said. "We are hopeful that the perpetrators will be identified, captured, and prosecuted to the full extent of the law."

Unlike the investigation into the letters that actually contained anthrax -- a case that continues to confound law enforcement and intelligence officials -- Saporta says there are "good leads" concerning the letters received Thursday. "We're hopeful they'll be able to apprehend these individuals. They were signed from the Army of God. They said, 'You didn't take us seriously last time, this time it's real. This is high quality anthrax.' So I mean there are certainly people who are visibly associated with the Army of God, and it's important not only that they're questioned, but that they tell law enforcement officials what they know about who's responsible, because they do know who's responsible for this."

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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