Journalists, their lying sources, and the anthrax investigation

The death of Bruce Ivins raises far more questions than it answers

Published August 3, 2008 11:26AM (EDT)

(Updated below - Update II - Update III - Update IV)

The death of government scientist Bruce Ivins has generated far more questions about the anthrax attacks than it has answered. I want to return to the role the establishment media played in obfuscating the anthrax investigation for so long and, at times, aiding in what was clearly the deliberate deceit on the part of Government sources. This is yet another case where the establishment media possesses -- yet steadfastly conceals -- some of the most critical facts about what the Government has done, and insists on protecting the wrongdoers. Obtaining these answers from these media outlets is as important as obtaining them from the Government. Writing about ABC's dissemination of the false Iraq/anthrax story, The New Republic's Dayo Olopade wrote yesterday: "Pressure on ABC to out their sources should be swift and sustained."

The Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum argued yesterday that despite the need for journalists to use confidential sources, "the profession -- and the rest of us -- [are] better off if sources know that they run the risk of being unmasked if their mendacity is egregious enough to become newsworthy in its own right." Drum added: "I'd say that part of [Ross'] re-reporting ought to include a full explanation of exactly who was peddling the bentonite lie in the first place, and why they were doing it." Nonetheless, Drum said: "In practice, most journalists refuse to identify their sources under any circumstances at all, even when it's clear that those sources deliberately lied to them."

Drum is right that it is unusual for journalists to out their "sources" even when they are exploiting the confidentiality pledge to disseminate lies to the public, but such outing is by no means unprecedented. Last year, when I first wrote about ABC's broadcasting of this false Saddam/anthrax story, I spoke with numerous experts in "journalistic ethics," such as they are, and all of them -- journalists, Journalism Professors, and media critics alike -- agreed that while the obligation of source confidentiality is close to absolute, it does not extend to a source who deliberately exploits confidentiality to disseminate lies to the public. Under those circumstances, it's axiomatic in journalistic ethics that a reporter is not only permitted, but required, to disclose the identity of the source who purposely used the reporter to spread lies.

There are examples where even large media outlets have followed that principle. Back in 1987, Oliver North was justifying his having lied to Congress about the Iran-contra program by complaining that Congress couldn't be trusted with National Security secrets. When asked at a Senate hearing for an example, North cited what he claimed were Congressional leaks to Newsweek about key details of a U.S. military operation to intercept an Egyptian plane carrying the men believed to be the hijackers of the Achille Lauro cruise ship.

But North was lying. It was North himself -- not Congress -- who had leaked details of that operation to Newsweek. And Newsweek, knowing that North was blatantly lying to the public by blaming Congress for leaks for which North himself was actually responsible, outed North as its source. As this 1987 New York Times article reported:

In its latest issue, Newsweek noted that Colonel North testified at the Iran-contra hearings that "a number of members of Congress" made revelations about the Achille Lauro operation "that very seriously compromised our intelligence activities."

"But the colonel did not mention," the Newsweek article continued, "that details of the interception, first published in a Newsweek cover story, were leaked by none other than Colonel North himself."

The Newsweek reporter who outed North was Jonathan Alter, who at the time was that magazine's media critic. Here is what Alter wrote, in 2003, about why he did so:

The year was 1987 and Oliver North was testifying before a congressional committee investigating the Iran-contra affair. As I sat listening to him in the Senate Caucus Room, I couldn't believe my ears. North was talking about the 1985 apprehension of Arab terrorists who had tossed an elderly Jewish man in a wheelchair, Leon Klinghoffer, over the side of the cruise ship Achille Lauro. The already famous Marine colonel was accusing members of Congress of being untrustworthy because they revealed the military details of that capture. I knew that North was shamelessly accusing other people of leaking something that he, in fact, had leaked himself -- not to me, but to other reporters. He was using confidentiality as a weapon. I decided to blow the whistle in NEWSWEEK and identify him as the source. This didn't exactly make me Mr. Popularity with my colleagues or with North, who threatened to sue. But I would do it all over again.

Alter added: "The whole game of reporters and their confidential sources has gone so far in Washington that too many of us have forgotten our first obligation. It's not to the Oliver Norths of the world and the reporters protecting them. It's to readers and viewers and, yes, to the truth."

About that incident, Alter emphasized to me this morning in an email that he was not outing his own source, but another Newsweek reporter's source, but nonetheless told me: "Many other reporters were mad at me but some commentators rightly pointed out that some values -- the obligation of reporters to their readers -- superseded the reporter-source relationship, and that if you used that relationship as a cover for lying, you broke the implicit contract." That is exactly what ABC News' "bentonite" sources did in the anthrax case -- "used that relationship as a cover for lying" and thus "broke the implicit contract." ABC News is not only permitted, but obligated, to reveal to the public who did that.

In a 1987 article ambivalently discussing Alter's actions, Time's Laurence Zuckerman wrote:

But the widespread practice of granting sources anonymity has dangers of its own. It allows officials to manipulate the press without being held accountable. North's charge that Congress was responsible for leaks about the Libyan raid and the Achille Lauro had serious policy implications. It was also wrong; most stories about both events, including TIME's cover just before the Libyan raid, were based on Administration sources. Says Michael Gartner, editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal: "In this instance, where the source publicly accuses someone else of leaking a story for devious purposes, it's incumbent upon you to set the record straight."

Everette Dennis, executive director of New York's Gannett Center for Media Studies, agrees. "The standard ought always to be the public interest," he says.

Whoever fed ABC News the false "bentonite" stories weren't "sources" in any meaningful sense; they used ABC to disseminate to the public highly significant, and very consequential, lies. What possible justification is there for ABC to continue to protect the identity of those who deliberately foisted on the public such a destructive fraud?

* * * * *

The North/Newsweek episode was 20 years ago. Does anyone doubt that the relationship between the establishment media and the Government has changed significantly, become far less adversarial and far more cooperative, so that the media now serves to advance the Government's interest far more than it checks or undermines it? That the media is now so frequently a tool used by Government wrongdoers, rather than a check against them, only heightens the need for the media to reveal the identity of those who use them to spread deliberate lies or to break the law.

There are certainly cases -- critically important cases -- where reporters protect the anonymity of sources who blow the whistle on Government wrongdoing -- those who told Dana Priest about the CIA's black sites, or who told Jim Risen and Eric Lichtblau about the illegal NSA spying program. With reporting of that kind, source confidentiality is indispensable, particularly in an age where so much of what our Government does is shrouded in total secrecy, Congress couldn't be more impotent in uncovering what has happened, and whistle-blowers who anonymously disclose Government wrongdoing to reporters have become one of our only means for uncovering serious Government misconduct.

But at least as frequently, if not more so, source confidentiality is used by reporters -- as it was in the Plame case, and in the ABC anthrax reporting -- to protect and conceal the identity of Government wrongdoers, not to uncover Government wrongdoing. I defy anyone to go and read basic accounts of what the Government and media jointly did to destroy Steven Hatfill's life and then argue that such corrupt and dangerous Government-media cooperation is entitled to protection from exposure. Here's a summary of what the Government and media did from a brief filed by Hatfill in his lawsuit (.pdf) against the Government:

All of that leaking was illegal, and it destroyed the life of a completely innocent man. What possible rationale is there for protecting that process, allowing reporters to protect the government lawbreakers who used them?

Hatfill's lawyer, Mark Grannis, obviously and understandably quite disillusioned by how the establishment media works in light of its eager dissemination of government lies about his client, followed by vigorous efforts to protect -- rather than expose -- the responsible government officials, wrote an Op-Ed in the Wall St. Journal inveighing against the proposed new federal shield law as follows:

How can the arguments and behavior of journalists in a case such as this be reconciled with the profession's self-image as the public watchdog, bringing accountability to government? The public officials who leaked investigative information to [USA Today reporter Toni] Locy broke the law, ruined an innocent man, and violated the public trust. Shouldn't our watchdog bark or something?

The leakers should be fired, prosecuted, or both -- and reporters who care about government accountability should be racing each other to tell us who these miscreants are. The fact that they shut their mouths tight and run the other way suggests that the image of reporter-as-watchdog does not reflect the current place of journalism in society, whatever may have been true in the past.

Third, if the law prevents courts from ordering reporters to identify anonymous sources, what will prevent government officials from using the private information they keep on us for personal or political score-settling? What will prevent them from simply lying? What will prevent reporters from inventing anonymous sources who don't actually exist?

Fourth, how is a senator who votes for a shield law to convince his constituents that it is anything but a special favor for an influential lobby? . . . . Similarly, when the Washington Post editorialized in favor of a shield law just days earlier, its readers heaped scorn on the idea. One wrote that "if a shield law is put in place, irresponsible journalists can print anything and get away with destroying lives. There has to be some sort of checks and balances here" . . . .

Ideally journalists would ask these questions themselves. But it's not an ideal world. That's why they occasionally need to be held accountable, too.

That is really the critical point here. Source confidentiality is premised on a model of journalism where the media is adversarial to the Government, and safeguarding the anonymity of sources is the only way to find out what the Government is doing. But these days, so frequently, the media serves as an arm of the Government -- the Government uses the establishment media to disseminate propaganda and outright lies to the public (Jessica Lynch, Pat Tillman, Saddam's aluminum tubes) or even uses leaks to the media to commit crimes (as it did in the Plame case). When the journalists who are used to spread these lies or commit these crimes then conceal who it is who has done such things, they are complicit in the Government wrongdoing, key enablers of it.

By endorsing the sanctity of that Government-media relationship through shield laws and the like (which I've always supported in the past), it's actually -- perversely -- bestowing the Government with yet another tool to shield its misconduct from the public. Because the establishment media so frequently now serves as a tool used by the Government to amplify its false claims and promote its agenda, rather than as a watchdog against it, increasing the Government and media's power to keep that relationship secret is to empower the Government even further -- the exact opposite of what source confidentiality is intended to achieve [and, indeed, proposed federal shield laws provide large exceptions for national security leaks, which means that such a law would still allow the Governments to try to invade, and courts to destroy, the good kind of confidentiality (e.g., the CIA black sites and NSA leaks) while protecting the bad kind (where the Government uses the media to spread lies and other disinformation)].

* * * * *

The unanswered questions in the anthrax case are literally too numerous to chronicle. It is so vital to emphasize that not a shred of evidence has yet been presented that the now-deceased Bruce Ivins played any role in the anthrax attacks, let alone that he was the sole or even primary culprit. Nonetheless, just as they did with Steven Hatfill, the media (with some notable and important exceptions) are reporting this case as though the matter is resolved.

Given the significance of the anthrax attacks, it would be unconscionable for there to be anything other than a full-scale Congressional or independent investigation -- with a full airing of all the facts -- regarding everything that happened here. Those issues should include exploration of the following questions, many of which might well have perfectly reasonable and benign explanations, and some of which may not, but until there is a full airing, it will necessarily be the case -- and it should be the case -- that this episode will only serve to further erode whatever lingering trust there is in media and government institutions:

  • Why were White House aides given cipro weeks before the anthrax attacks, and why "on the night of the Sept. 11 attacks, [did] the White House Medical Office dispense[] Cipro to staff accompanying Vice President Dick Cheney as he was secreted off to the safety of Camp David"? [Washington Post, 10/23/2001];
  • Why, if Cheney was given cipro on the night of the 9/11 attacks, was he allegedly "convinced that he had been subjected to a lethal dose of anthrax" on October 18, and that this fear is what led him to seek refuge in "undisclosed locations" and thereafter support an array of hard-line tactics against suspected terrorists? [Jane Mayer, The Dark Side, 2008];
  • Which "high government official" told Richard Cohen to take cipro prior to the anthrax attacks (it wasn't a "source" who did so, since Cohen didn't write about it and apparently never intended to; it was just someone high up in Government passing along a helpful tip to a media friend) [Richard Cohen, Slate, March 18, 2008];
  • Did the FBI meaningfully investigate who sent an anonymous letter to the FBI after the anthrax letters were sent, but before they were made public, accusing a former Fort Detrick scientist -- the Arab-American Ayaad Assaad -- of being a "potential biological terrorist," after Assaad was forced out of Fort Detrick by a group of USAMRIID bioweapons researchers who had exhibited extreme anti-Arab animus? [Laura Rozen, Salon, 1/26/2002];
  • Why did the FBI gives its consent in October, 2001 for the remaining samples of the Ames anthrax strain to be destroyed, thereby losing crucial "genetic clues valuable to the criminal inquiry"? [San Francisco Chronicle, 11/9/2001];
  • If -- as was publicly disclosed as early as 2004 -- Bruce Ivins' behavior in 2001 and 2002 in conducting unauthorized tests on anthrax residue was so suspicious, why was he allowed to remain with access to the nation's most dangerous toxins for many years after, and why wasn't he a top suspect much earlier? [USA Today, 10/13/2004];
  • If it's really the case -- as principal Ivins antagonist Jean Duley claims -- that Ivins, as far back as 2000, had "actually attempted to murder several other people, [including] through poisoning" and had threatened to kill his co-workers at his Fort Detrick lab, then why did he continue to maintain clearance to work on biological weapons, and why are his co-workers and friends, with virtual unanimity, insisting that he never displayed any behavior suggestive of being the anthrax attacker? [Washington Post, August 3, 2008];
  • What was John McCain referencing when he went on national television in October, 2001 and claimed "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"? [Late Show with David Letterman, 10/18/2001];
  • What was Joe Lieberman's basis for stating on national television, three days after McCain's Letterman appearance and in the midst of advocating a U.S. attack on Iraq, that the anthrax was so complex and potent that "there's either a significant amount of money behind this, or this is state-sponsored, or this is stuff that was stolen from the former Soviet program"? [Meet the Press, 10/21/2001];
  • What did Pat Leahy mean when he said the following in a September, 2007 interview:
    Leahy: What I want to know -- I have a theory. But what I want to know is why me, why Tom Daschle, why Tom Brokaw?

    VDB: Right. That all fits into the profile of a kind of hard-core and obviously insane ideologue on the far Right, somebody who would fixate on especially Tom Daschle, who at that point was the target of daily, vitriolic attacks on Right-wing talk radio.

    Leahy: [Slowly, with a little shake of the head] I don't think it’s somebody insane. I'd accept everything else you said. But I don’t think it's somebody insane. And I think there are people within our government -- certainly from the source of it -- who know where it came from. [Taps the table to let that settle in] And these people may not have had anything to do with it, but they certainly know where it came from.

    [Vermont Daily Briefing, 9/5/2007];

  • Who were the "four separate and well-placed sources" who told ABC News, falsely, that tests conducted at Fort Detrick had found the presence of bentonite in the anthrax sent to Tom Daschle, causing ABC News to aggressively link the attacks to Iraq for five straight days in October, 2001? [Salon, 4/9/2007];
  • Who was responsible for the numerous leaks even before the ABC News bentonite reports linking the anthrax attacks to Iraq? [The Guardian; 10/14/2001; Wall St. Journal Editorial, 10/15/2001 ("Is Iraq unleashing biological weapons on America?"); CNN, 10/15/2001].

There are plenty of other similar questions. As I said, many of these events could have perfectly reasonable explanations, ranging from significant ineptitude in the FBI investigation to acute caution on the part of the White House in ordering cipro. But given the magnitude of this episode, the far-from-convincing case made against Ivins, and the way in which -- even by the most generous account -- the Government and media's conduct have been driven by extreme unreliability and chronic errors, who could argue against a very sweeping and serious Congressional investigation -- or a genuinely independent investigative body -- devoted to disclosing all of the facts here, along the lines of what the 9/11 Commission was charged with doing?

Congressman Rush Holt, whose Central New Jersey district contained the mail box where at least some of the anthrax letters were mailed, issued a statement on Friday pointing out that "[w]hat we learn will not change the fact that this has been a poorly-handled investigation that has lasted six years and already has resulted in a trail of embarrassment and personal tragedy." On the same day, Rep. Holt wrote to FBI Director Robert Mueller requesting that if the FBI closes the investigation, then Mueller appear at a hearing before the House Committee on Appropriations' Select Intelligence Oversight Panel, which Holt chairs, in order to answer questions about the FBI's investigation.

Perhaps that is the appropriate venue for full-scale hearings into these questions. Any investigative body ought to be endowed with far-reaching subpoena power and should use it, and should further be committed to full public disclosure of all the facts. The anthrax attacks were the first lethal biological attack on the United States. The attacker(s) sought falsely to link the anthrax to Muslim extremists, as did numerous "sources" who fed the media with such claims. The U.S. Government itself claims that the attacks came from a U.S. Army research facility, perpetrated by a U.S. Government scientist. Excluding (arguably) only the 9/11 attack itself, the consequences of the anthrax attacks were as significant as anything that has happened in this country in the last decade. Full disclosure of all key facts -- and we have nothing of the kind right now -- is indisputably vital.

UPDATE: In comments, Jestaplero, a New York state prosecutor, argues that it's highly likely that Brian Ross' "bentonite" sources are material witnesses who committed obstruction of justice (since the false Iraq story came from the same lab where the attacks originated and thus was designed to distract investigators away from the true culprits), and Ross could easily be compelled to disclose those sources for that reason alone (just as Judy Miller was compelled to disclose her sources in the Plame case).

UPDATE II: See this very persuasive statement from Dr. Alan Pearson, Director of the Biological and Chemical Weapons Control Program at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, as to all the unanswered questions that remain, and why it is so imperative that the investigation into the anthrax attacks continue (h/t Plutonium Page).

UPDATE III: I'll be on Democracy Now with Amy Goodman tomorrow at 8:10 a.m. EST to discuss these anthrax issues. Local listings and live audio/video feed are here.

UPDATE IV: The New Republic's John Judis reports that he was present at a two-day CIA conference for reporters in 2003, shortly before the attack on Iraq, and learned that various factions in the CIA were still, even as of that time, pushing the claim that Iraq was responsible for the anthrax attacks. Judis notes -- and several people have distorted this point with regard to my broader argument about ABC's Iraq/anthrax story -- that this doesn't mean that "the Bush administration" as a collective, coordinated entity was pushing the false anthrax/Iraq link, but rather, "that there was a network [of] people who were promoting a theory about anthrax that helped make the case for war." Precisely. Judis says of the Iraq/anthrax claim that "there are too many echoes of Niger and uranium," and for that reason, he "join[s] those who believe that some kind of Congressional investigation is in order."

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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