Doubts over the anthrax case intensify -- except among much of the media

While most independent observers express increasing skepticism over the FBI's case against Bruce Ivins, the establishment media uncritically amplifies those claims

Published August 18, 2008 12:04PM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II - Update III)

The more that is revealed about the FBI's still largely-secret case against Bruce Ivins, the more doubts that are raised about whether their accusations are true. A particularly vivid episode illustrating how shoddy the FBI's case seems to be occurred in the last several days.

Ever since the FBI accused Bruce Ivins of being the sole anthrax attacker, one of the most glaring of the many deficiencies in the FBI's case is the complete lack of evidence, circumstantial or otherwise, placing Ivins at the New Jersey mailboxes (the proverbial "scene of the crime") on either of the two dates on which the anthrax letters were sent. To respond to criticisms pointing out that huge flaw, the FBI, on August 7, leaked -- and the news media then dutifully and uncritically trumpeted -- what was supposedly a highly incriminating fact: namely, that Ivins, on September 17, the day before the first batch of anthrax letters were postmarked, took administrative leave from work in the morning and did not return until 4:00 or 5:00 p.m. that day. This time period during September 17, according to The Washington Post (which was fed the leaked scoop), was the window in which Ivins drove to New Jersey and mailed the anthrax letters:

Anthrax attack suspect Bruce E. Ivins took several hours of administrative leave from his Fort Detrick, Md., laboratory on a critical day in September 2001 when the first batch of deadly letters was dropped in a New Jersey mailbox, government sources briefed on the case said yesterday. The gap recorded on his time sheet offered investigators a key clue into how he could have pulled off an elaborate crime that involved carrying letters packed with lethal powder to a distant location for mailing, the sources said. . . .

A partial log of Ivins's work hours shows that he worked late in the lab on the evening of Sunday, Sept. 16, signing out at 9:52 p.m. after two hours and 15 minutes. The next morning, the sources said, he showed up as usual but stayed only briefly before taking leave hours. Authorities assume that he drove to Princeton immediately after that, dropping the letters in a mailbox on a well-traveled street across from the university campus. Ivins would have had to have left quickly to return for an appointment in the early evening, about 4 or 5 p.m.

CNN mindlessly though flamboyantly trumpeted the FBI's story of Ivins' administrative leave all day as though it were definitive proof that Ivins used that leave in order to drive to New Jersey that day and mail the anthrax letters. Here's but one example illustrating how CNN disseminated this dramatic claim:

But almost immediately after the FBI leaked this theory as to when and how Ivins traveled to New Jersey undetected, it was pointed out in several online venues, including here, that this timeline made no sense whatsoever -- that, indeed, the FBI's own theories were self-contradictory. In the documents that the FBI disclosed two weeks ago, it itself defined the "window of opportunity" for mailing the September 18 postmarked letters as beginning on September 17 at 5:00 p.m. (after which letters dropped in that mailbox would have received a postmark of September 18, but before which they would be postmarked September 17). Thus, based on the FBI's own facts, it would be physically impossible for Ivins -- as the FBI claimed to the Post -- to have driven to New Jersey after taking administrative leave in the morning in order to mail the anthrax letters, since he returned that day to Maryland for a 4:00 or 5:00 p.m. meeting, and thus could not have dropped the letters in the mailbox after 5:00 p.m.

So what did the FBI do in response to that rather devastating hole in its theory being pointed out? It just leaked a completely different story to the Post about when and how Ivins mailed the September 18 letters from New Jersey. Here's the FBI's new version, from the Post on Thursday:

Meanwhile, government sources offered more detail about Ivins's movements on a critical day in the case: when letters were dropped into the postal box on Princeton's Nassau Street, across the street from the university campus.

Investigators now believe that Ivins waited until evening to make the drive to Princeton on Sept. 17, 2001. He showed up at work that day and stayed briefly, then took several hours of administrative leave from the lab, according to partial work logs. Based on information from receipts and interviews, authorities say Ivins filled up his car's gas tank, attended a meeting outside of the office in the late afternoon, and returned to the lab for a few minutes that evening before moving off the radar screen and presumably driving overnight to Princeton. The letters were postmarked Sept. 18.

That the FBI is still, to this day, radically changing its story on such a vital issue -- namely, how and when Bruce Ivins traveled to New Jersey, twice, without detection and mailed the anthrax letters -- is a testament to how precarious the FBI's case is. They stood up in public two weeks ago, refused to show anyone the evidence they possess, but nonetheless proclaimed that they know that Ivins was the anthrax attacker, and that he acted alone, beyond any reasonable doubt. Yet their own theory as to how and when he sent the letters was squarely negated by their own claims, and so they had to re-leak their theory to the Post once that glaring deficiency, which they apparently overlooked, was pointed out online.

This isn't some side issue or small, obscure detail. Being able to link an accused to the scene of the crime is the centerpiece of any case. That's why the FBI leaked its "administrative leave" theory to the Post and other media, which then spent all day highlighting the "incriminating fact." Yet the FBI's own theory made no sense and was immediately debunked, and so, in response, they just changed their theory to some completely different set of speculations the way political pundits have new "breaking news" every five minutes about who the likely Vice Presidential picks are. Does that behavior allow anyone to have confidence in what the FBI is saying?

* * * * *

And let's just spend a brief moment marveling at how mindless and uncritical the establishment media is in how they report on these matters. It was The Post's Carrie Johnson and Joby Warrick who first reported the FBI's leak on August 8 that Ivins had likely traveled to New Jersey after taking administrative leave in the morning, and they reported it without an iota of critical thought, and certainly didn't point out that the FBI's own timeline was impossible on its own terms. More amazingly, it was one of those same Post reporters -- Carrie Johnson -- who on Thursday printed the FBI's brand new and mutually exclusive theory -- that Ivins traveled to New Jersey at night, after work -- without even bothering to mention the most important fact: that it was a brand new theory that contradicted the one she mindlessly passed on from the FBI the week before.

To the contrary, in touting the FBI's brand new theory, Johnson wrote that "government sources offered more detail about Ivins's movements on a critical day in the case" -- as though the FBI's abandonment of its prior claim in favor of a new one comprised "more detail." The FBI didn't offer "more detail"; it offered completely "new detail" because the last "detail" they leaked to Johnson was almost instantaneously disproven -- a fact Johnson doesn't even bother to mention. Instead, she just allows the FBI's story to change radically and then serves as a vessel for that new story as though it's further incriminating proof, rather than a reflection of the fact that the FBI still has no idea whether it was Ivins who went to New Jersey to mail those letters.

That's because The Post's role here has been and continues to be what the establishment media's role generally is -- to serve government sources and amplify their claims, not to investigate their veracity. That's how it was Saddam Hussein who was the original anthrax culprit, followed by Steven Hatfill, and now Bruce Ivins. It's how Jessica Lynch heroically fought off Iraqi goons in a firefight, how Pat Tillman stood down Al Qaeda monsters until they murdered him, how Iraq possessed mountains of WMDs, and now, how Russia has assaulted the consensus values of the Western World by invading a sovereign country and occupying parts of it for a whole week, etc. etc. All of those narratives came from the Government directly into the pages of The Washington Post, which then uncritically conveyed them, often (as in the case of the Jessica Lynch lies and WMD claims) playing a leading role in doing so.

That's what the Post is doing again with regard to the FBI's case against Bruce Ivins. It was the same Post reporters who, on August 4, breathlessly touted one of the most inane FBI leaks of all -- that Ivins was clearly some sort of mad scientist because he possessed what the Post depicted as an exotic germ machine which Ivins had no good reason to possess, a lyophilizer (!), even though possession of a lyophilizer by an anthrax researcher such as Ivins is akin to possession of a pencil by an accountant (The Post headline: "Anthrax Dryer a Key To Probe -- Suspect Borrowed Device From Lab").

Similarly, here is an Associated Press article from last week, by AP's Matt Apuzzo, purporting to report on what it admits are many "meticulously researched" questions that have been raised (including by me) about the FBI's case, yet repeatedly demonizes such skepticism with these phrases, laced throughout the article: "the ingredients for a good conspiracy theory"; "skeptics and conspiracy theorists"; "armchair investigators, bloggers and scientists"; "one of the great conspiracy theories, like whether we landed on the moon or whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone"; "anti-Jewish writers blame the attack on a Zionist plot"; "You can't prove aliens didn't mail the letters."

As always, in Establishment Media World, nothing is more insane or radical than refusing to believe every word the Government says. Even after Iraqi mushroom clouds and the whole litany of Government falsehoods, the establishment hallmark of Seriousness and Sanity is accepting the Government's word. When it says Iraq was behind the attacks, then it was. When they said Hatfill was the culprit, he was. Now that they say that Ivins is, he is, and only "conspiracy theorists" -- comparable to those who disbelieve we landed on the moon -- would question that or demand to see the actual evidence. The FBI is relying, understandably so, on their mindless allies in the media to depict its case against Ivins as so airtight that no real investigation is necessary.

* * * * *

What is most remarkable is that even with a gullible, extremely accommodating press, and even though the FBI's case is still a secret -- they have only released their own conclusions about selectively highlighted evidence, but continue to conceal the evidence itself -- questions and doubts about the FBI's case have rapidly escalated since it held its accusatory press conference on August 7.

This weekend, The New York Times reported that "growing doubts from scientists about the strength of the government's case against the late Bruce E. Ivins, the military researcher named as the anthrax killer, are forcing the Justice Department to begin disclosing more fully the scientific evidence it used to implicate him." Thus:

In the face of the questions, Federal Bureau of Investigation officials have decided to make their first detailed public presentation next week on the forensic science used to trace the anthrax used in the 2001 attacks to a flask kept in a refrigerator in Dr. Ivins's laboratory at Fort Detrick, in Maryland. Many scientists are awaiting those details because so far, they say, the F.B.I. has failed to make a conclusive case.

The circumstantial claims are proving no more convincing. As but one example, Rep. Rush Holt, despite calling for hearings after the FBI's August 7 press conference, nonetheless said in a statement after being briefed that day that the FBI's circumstantial evidence was "compelling." But now, after receiving another briefing this last week that he requested to address several unresolved questions, Rep. Holt pronounced the FBI's case less convincing that he originally thought:

Representative Rush Holt, the New Jersey Democrat who has followed the anthrax case closely and requested this week’s briefing from the F.B.I., said in an interview that he was not ready to draw any firm conclusions about the investigation. But he said: "The case is built from a number of pieces of circumstantial evidence, and for a case this important, it's troubling to have so many loose ends. The briefing pointed out even more loose ends than I thought there were before."

The NYT article identifies several individuals who believe that "some of the government's public statements appeared incomplete or misleading," while even the Post reported on Thursday that "federal investigators probing the deadly 2001 anthrax attacks recovered samples of human hair from a mailbox in Princeton, N.J., but the strands did not match the lead suspect in the case." That's what is so striking -- the FBI's case is full of huge holes even in its most favorable, unexamined, one-sided rendition, even before the FBI has been forced to disclose the evidence underlying the case, including the evidence that undercuts their claims but which they continue to conceal.

In addition to Holt, GOP Sen. Charles Grassley, long a vocal critic of the FBI's anthrax investigation, clearly believes that more questions than answers have been triggered by the FBI's accusations against Ivins. Last week, Grassley, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee with oversight jurisdiction over the FBI, wrote a letter to Attorney General Michael Mukasey and FBI Director Robert Mueller expressing serious skepticism about the FBI's case and demanding answers to many of the key questions. This sort of pressure is vital to ensure that the FBI's claims receive the critical scrutiny that they so urgently merit.

* * * * *

What's so striking here is that, when it comes to garden-variety, relatively banal crimes that have some tawdry aspect, the establishment media will investigate them endlessly. The same Washington Post that has spent weeks mindlessly reciting Government claims about the anthrax attacks just completed a 12-part series on the Chandra Levy case, in which -- as the Post itself proudly announced -- its reporters "were assigned to produce an in-depth reconstruction of the case that would reexamine all avenues of the investigation":

Yet here is the first fatal biological terror attack on the U.S. in history -- one which, by our Government's own reckoning, came from a U.S. Government facility itself. Those attacks had an incalculable impact on our political climate. The list of possible suspects, with overwhelming motives to perpetrate the attack and ample opportunity to have done so, is long and high-powered. Both the public and private bio-research industry in the U.S., which was already quite substantial before 9/11 and exploded afterwards, is shrouded in almost total secrecy and operates with virtually no oversight, despite experimenting with the world's most dangerous pathogens and bioweapons, including anthrax. And much (though not all) of the establishment media is playing its now standard role of uncritically ingesting and trumpeting Government claims (even when -- especially when -- made in secret) and investigating nothing.

As always, it's vital to emphasize that Bruce Ivins may have perpetrated those attacks and done so alone. But the more one learns about the FBI's case, the less convincing that case becomes. This week's revelation of new scientific evidence will be an important event in further assessing that case, but in all events, it is inconceivable that the FBI would be permitted to continue to conceal the evidence it possesses and to avoid having to answer very probing questions from a genuinely independent and subpoena-endowed body.

UPDATE: On an unrelated note, The Wall St. Journal has an article this morning on Accountability Now and the campaign against various Blue Dogs, such as Rep. Chris Carney. I'll have more to say about that later in the week.

UPDATE II: In a truly (and characteristically) great essay, the ex-blogger Billmon looks at many of these same themes -- how the "semi-official" press behaves, the virtual evaporation of any meaningful democratic processes in the U.S., the utter disconnect between U.S. Government pronouncements and reality -- in the context of U.S. behavior leading up to the Georgia/Russia conflict. I recommend it highly.

UPDATE III: The current issue of American Conservative features an excellent cover story by Christopher Ketcham, which details several of the leading causes for skepticism in the FBI's case against Ivins, explores many of the unresolved issues surrounding the anthrax attacks (including the false bentonite story from ABC News/Brian Ross), and documents the numerous suspects who seem far more likely than Ivins to have perpetrated the attack.

Due to my vacation last week, there will be no Salon Radio today. It will return at its regularly scheduled time (2:00 p.m. EST) on Wednesday.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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