The unresolved story of ABC News' false Saddam-anthrax reports

In October 2001, ABC News broadcast highly inflammatory and false reports linking Saddam to the anthrax attacks. Who was behind those claims, and why has ABC not retracted its stories?

Published April 9, 2007 2:53PM (EDT)

(updated below - updated again)

At the end of the post I wrote last week about ABC News and Brian Ross' new report that Iran could have nuclear weapons by 2009, I noted that ABC and Ross -- back in October and November 2001 -- were the driving force, really the exclusive force, behind news reports strongly suggesting that Iraq and Saddam Hussein were responsible for the anthrax attacks on the U.S. There are several very important issues arising from those events which I strongly believe merit real attention. This post is somewhat lengthy because it is vital to set forth the facts clearly.

Last week, I excerpted several of the Saddam-anthrax reports from ABC and Ross -- here and here -- but there are others. ABC aggressively promoted as its top story for days on end during that highly provocative period of time that -- and these are all quotes:

(a) "the anthrax in the tainted letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was laced with bentonite";

(b) bentonite is "a troubling chemical additive that authorities consider their first significant clue yet";

(c) "only one country, Iraq, has used bentonite to produce biological weapons";

(d) bentonite "is a trademark of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's biological weapons program"; and,

(e) "the anthrax found in a letter to Senator Daschle is nearly identical to samples they recovered in Iraq in 1994" and "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."

At different times, Ross attributed these claims to "three well-placed but separate sources" and, alternatively, to "at least four well-placed sources."

All of those factual claims -- each and every one of them, separately -- were completely false, demonstrably and unquestionably so. There is now no question about that. Yet neither ABC nor Ross have ever retracted, corrected, clarified, or explained these fraudulent reports -- reports which, as documented below, had an extremely serious impact on the views formed by Americans in those early, critical days about the relationship between the 9/11 attacks, the anthrax attacks and Iraq. There are two vital questions that ABC News should answer:

(1) How can ABC News just let these Saddam-anthrax reports -- as false as they were consequential -- remain uncorrected and unexplained, even through today?

(2) More importantly, Ross claimed at the time, and there is no reason to doubt it, that these false reports -- clearly designed to blame Iraq for the anthrax attacks in the eyes of Americans -- were fed to him by "at least four well-placed sources." Who were the well-placed, multiple sources feeding ABC News completely fictitious claims linking Saddam Hussein to the anthrax attacks, including false claims about the results of government tests? What possible justification is there for concealing the identity of those who manipulated ABC to disseminate these fictitious claims?

ABC's linkage of Saddam and the anthrax attacks

As noted, many of the ABC/Ross reports were quoted in the links above, but it is hard to overstate how prominently ABC touted this story. Peter Jennings led off his October 26, 2001 World News Tonight program with this:

We're going to begin this evening with what we believe is a meaningful lead in the most sensitive anthrax case so far, despite a very recent denial by the White House.

ABC News has learned what made the anthrax so dangerous in the letter to Senator Tom Daschle was a particular additive which only one country, as far as we know, that's a very important caveat, only one country as far as we know, has used to produce biological weapons. We'll go to the White House in just a moment, but first with what we do know, ABC's Brian Ross. Brian.

Ross then said:

The discovery of bentonite came in an urgent series of tests conducted at Fort Detrick, Maryland, and elsewhere. This is what bentonite looks like under a microscope, a substance which helps keep the tiny anthrax particles floating in the air by preventing them from sticking together. It's possible other countries may be using it, too, but it is a trademark of Saddam Hussein's biological weapons program.

Jennings then added at the end of the story -- remember this is October, 2001:

This news about bentonite as the additive is being a trademark of the Iraqi biological weapons program is very significant. Partly because there's been a lot of pressure on the Bush administration inside and out to go after Saddam Hussein. And some are going to be quick to pick up on this as a smoking gun. There is a battle about Iraq that's been raging in the administration.

Although Ross noted in that original report with Jennings that the finding of bentonite was from an "initial test," that qualifier was quickly eliminated over the next several days on ABC, as Ross and various ABC anchors claimed definitively that the anthrax "was laced with bentonite"; that "the anthrax found in a letter to Senator Daschle is nearly identical to samples they recovered in Iraq in 1994"; that "ABC News has learned that the anthrax in the letter mailed to the Senate contained an additive called bentonite," and on and on.

The impact of ABC's Saddam-anthrax reports

It is vital to recall how significant the anthrax attacks were in this country, and what a paramount role it played in how Americans viewed the terrorist threat generally and Saddam Hussein specifically. As Atrios has noted many times, the anthrax attacks seem to have been flushed down our collective memory hole, but other than 9/11 itself, that event -- and the media's coverage of it -- did more to spawn the next several years of Bush worship and support for his mindless militarism than anything else.

As but one very illustrative example, The Washington Post's liberal columnist, Richard Cohen, supported the invasion of Iraq, came to regret that support, and then explained what led him to do so, in a 2004 column entitled Our Forgotten Panic:

I'm not sure if panic is quite the right word, but it is close enough. Anthrax played a role in my decision to support the Bush administration's desire to take out Saddam Hussein. I linked him to anthrax, which I linked to Sept. 11. I was not going to stand by and simply wait for another attack -- more attacks. I was going to go to the source, Hussein, and get him before he could get us. As time went on, I became more and more questioning, but I had a hard time backing down from my initial whoop and holler for war.

Really -- just contemplate that for a moment. One of the country's leading political pundits, writing in some of the most influential opinion-making space in this country, supported an invasion of Iraq because he believed that Saddam Hussein was connected to both the anthrax attacks and, by implication, the 9/11 attacks.

And why wouldn't Cohen -- along with millions and millions of Americans -- believe that, given that the venerable ABC News was leading off its Peter Jennings broadcast, in the aftermath of the attacks, claiming that they had strong evidence of a connection between Saddam and the anthrax attacks, and then repeating that claim, definitively, over the next several days, never to retract it?

While Andy Card infamously claimed that the "marketing product" for the Iraq invasion was not unveiled until September, 2002, the Bush White House and various war supporters had, in fact, been giving speeches and writing articles basically from the very first week after the 9/11 attacks which had, as their primary and clear purpose, convincing Americans of the need to invade Iraq. And anthrax was at the center of that campaign.

The Iraq/anthrax report from ABC was used by all sorts of warmongers throughout 2002 to suggest that Saddam was responsible for the anthrax attacks. The Weekly Standard (wherever there is a fraud on Americans designed to justify Middle East wars, Bill Kristol and friends are to be found somewhere nearby) published two lengthy articles attacking the FBI for focusing on a domestic culprit and -- relying almost exclusively on the ABC/Ross report -- insisted that Saddam was one of the most likely sources for those attacks.

In November, 2001, they published an article (via Lexis) which began:

On the critical issue of who sent the anthrax, it's time to give credit to the ABC website,, for reporting rings around most other news organizations. Here's a bit from a comprehensive story filed late last week by Gary Matsumoto, lending further credence to the commonsensical theory (resisted by the White House) that al Qaeda or Iraq -- and not some domestic Ted Kaczynski type -- is behind the germ warfare.

The Weekly Standard published a much lengthier and more dogmatic article in April, 2002 again pushing the ABC "bentonite" claims and arguing: "There is purely circumstantial though highly suggestive evidence that might seem to link Iraq with last fall's anthrax terrorism." The American Enterprise Institute's Laurie Mylroie (who had an AEI article linking Saddam to 9/11 ready for publication at the AEI on September 13) expressly claimed in November, 2001 that "there is also tremendous evidence that subsequent anthrax attacks are connected to Iraq" and based that claim almost exclusively on the report from ABC and Ross.

And when President Bush named Iraq as a member of the "Axis of Evil" in his January, 2002 State of the Union speech -- just two months after ABC's report, when the anthrax attacks were still very vividly on the minds of Americans -- he specifically touted this claim: "The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax, and nerve gas, and nuclear weapons for over a decade" -- the only reference in the State of the Union address to the unsolved anthrax attacks.

And even now -- because ABC has never retracted or corrected its false claims -- various war supporters from Michael Barone to The Wall St. Journal Editorial Page to Michelle Malkin and other generic war supporters continue to insist that the FBI is at fault for not focusing on a Middle East state sponsor, and, in the case of Malkin and others, that the FBI is ignoring "evidence" of Saddam's connection to those anthrax attacks -- the "evidence" being the still unretracted ABC/Ross reports.

The numerous false (and still uncorrected) claims from ABC and Ross

That the ABC/Ross reports are completely false is now beyond reasonable dispute. As Cernig noted several days ago, an FBI anthrax investigator, Douglas Beecher, published an August, 2006 article in Applied and Environmental Microbiology which expressly concluded that there were no additives found in the anthrax:

A widely circulated misconception is that the spores were produced using additives and sophisticated engineering supposedly akin to military weapon production. This idea is usually the basis for implying that the powders were inordinately dangerous compared to spores alone (3, 6, 12; J. Kelly, Washington Times, 21 October 2003; G. Gugliotta and G. Matsumoto, The Washington Post, 28 October 2002).

The persistent credence given to this impression fosters erroneous preconceptions, which may misguide research and preparedness efforts and generally detract from the magnitude of hazards posed by simple spore preparations.

That led The New York Times reporter covering the anthrax case, William Broad, to report as follows (full Times Select article here):

Seeking to clear up public confusion, an FBI official has reiterated the bureau's judgment that the anthrax in the letter attacks five years ago bore no special coatings to increase its deadliness and no hallmarks of a military weapon.

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.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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