Salon Radio: Charles Grassley on the anthrax investigation

The GOP senator describes his dissatisfaction with the FBI and reveals the hearings to be held by the Judiciary Committee.

Published August 20, 2008 3:42PM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II)

For today's edition of Salon Radio, I spoke with GOP Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa who, to his credit, has been the leading critic in the Senate of the FBI's anthrax investigation. Sen. Grassley wrote an August 7 letter to Attorney General Mukasey and FBI Director Mueller complaining about the FBI's secrecy and botched investigation and demanding answers to multiple key questions.

In the interview, Sen. Grassley reveals that the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Pat Leahy (of which Grassley is a member), will now hold hearings to investigate the FBI's case against Bruce Ivins. Grassley demands that the FBI send officials who are able and willing to answer all questions, and also calls for full and complete public disclosure of all of the evidence in the FBI's possession regarding its investigation. I also discuss with Grassley whether the environment created by Congress over the last seven years (first under GOP control and now under Democratic control) -- whereby the Executive has virtually unlimited power and Congress has meekly relinquished its prerogatives -- is to blame for the FBI's stonewalling and refusal to account thus far to Congress for what it has done in the anthrax case.

The interview is roughly 15 minutes, and a transcript will be posted shortly.

UPDATE: Nature, the preeminent journal of science, has an Editorial today (headlined: "Case Not Closed") echoing Sen. Grassley's demand for "a full congressional or independent enquiry into this case"; arguing that "the absence of such a full disclosure can only feed suspicions that the FBI has again targeted an innocent man in this case"; and pointing out -- regarding the FBI's partial, one-sided disclosure of scientific claims earlier this week -- that "neither the conclusions drawn from the scientific analysis, nor such crucial legal elements as the veracity of the provenance and handling of samples, have been tested in court. So far only one side of the story has been heard: that of the prosecution."

UPDATE II: The transcript is here.

This interview can be heard here.

Glenn Greenwald: My guest this morning is Charles Grassley, the Republican Senator from Iowa, who, among other things, is a member of the Senate Finance and Judiciary Committees, and we're speaking today about the numerous question surrounding the anthrax investigation. Senator Grassley, thanks very much for joining me this morning.

Charles Grassley: Thank you very much. Glad to be with you, and thank you for your interest in this issue.

GG: Absolutely. You've been very persistent in demanding answers from the FBI about the anthrax investigation - answers which haven't really been forthcoming. I want to begin with a general question. There are lots of unsolved, garden-variety cases that the FBI works on. Do you look at the anthrax attacks as being of greater significance than the ordinary crime, meriting more accountability, more Senate oversight, and if so can you talk about why you see it that way?

CG: Yeah, I think it is very much more important because, one thing, as a member of Congress and an attack on an institution of our government, through which the anthrax was when senators were attacked, ought to be something that has high priority, because if people get away with that, there's other things that can be done, even other anthrax things that can be done, and consequently somebody might do it, and it could have the effect of shutting down a branch of government, which has an impact on the entire nation as a whole. And also I see it from the stand-point of a test of the FBI's credibility.

GG: Speaking of that, on August 7th, just a couple weeks ago, you wrote a letter to Attorney General Mukasey, and FBI Director Mueller, in which you stated:

This has been a long investigation, full of missteps and mistakes. There's been too much secrecy up to this point, and it deserves a full and thorough vetting. There are clearly a lot of unanswered questions, and it's time to start a dialog so we get answers.

And you then listed 18 questions that you have about the investigation, the last one of which was, quote: "What additional documents will be released, if any, and when will they be released?" Now, first of all, have you received a response from either the Justice Department or the FBI to that letter?

CG: No, and I assume one of the reasons I haven't is because in the meantime, the FBI has consented to a hearing that Senator Leahy's having, and a hearing is one instrument of doing it. At the time I wrote the letter, I didn't know whether there'd be a hearing or not, and I wanted to make sure, as one individual senator who's not chairman of the Judiciary Committee, that I would do my own oversight and get answers to questions. It could be that the forum for answering my letter would be the hearing, but I want to make sure my 18 questions are answered one way or the other, and I want to ensure that every document's out.

If this case is solved the way the FBI wants us to believe that it's been solved, is it closed? And if it's closed, then everything ought to be brought out into the open. One of the problems we have right now is, with the FBI, there's just too much secrecy. Getting all the documents out, getting all the information out is important.

I just recently read where Senator Daschle, who is one of the people hit by anthrax, was briefed and news reports seem to indicate some level of satisfaction. We're all entitled to a level of satisfaction; the entire country wants to know that the FBI is doing its job, and that their lives, from anthrax being in letters, is not in danger. So, getting all this information out, less secrecy - there's no reason for any point not to be answered.

GG: Absolutely, and that's interesting about the hearing that will be before the Judiciary Committee; I hadn't read about that. Two questions about that: will that be a hearing designed to fully examine both the circumstantial and scientific aspects of the FBI's accusations against Bruce Ivins, and is it your expectation that that hearing will be a public hearing, so that not only Senators but also the American people can learn about whether or not this is a really credible case that the FBI has put together?

CG: Obviously, I think it should be, but I can't really answer your question whether that's what's intended by Senator Leahy, and I probably ought to refer you to Senator Leahy on that issue. But it would be my intent to get all that information out, either through the hearing, or through answers to my letters.

GG: One of the big unanswered questions that I think a lot of people have been asking - and you're right, Senator Daschle said he found some of the evidence convincing, though he and others, including scientific experts and Congressman Holt, who were briefed on the same material, said there were a lot of questions still.

And one of the big question marks you allude to in your letter is: could an anthrax researcher, working at Fort Detrick like Bruce Ivins, really have, on his own, created what the FBI originally said was this high-level, weaponized anthrax, coated with silica, that they had trouble for years even creating themselves? Do you have some thoughts about whether or not someone like Bruce Ivins would have been able to create anthrax like that? And aren't there a lot of other private and public institutions that do research into very high-grade anthrax that ought to be looked at carefully?

CG: I don't have the information to answer your question, but that information, now that the case is closed, ought to be available to the entire public. At the very least it ought to be entitled to anybody that's got oversight of the FBI if there's some reason that the entire public should not be notified of it. And I can't think of any interest other than national security interest that it should not be totally open to the public, that same information.

One of the things that we have a problem here with, considering information that our staffs have gotten in briefings, or Congressman Holt got in briefings, compared to what Senator Daschle got in briefings - we're finding that the people that have come to the Hill may not be fully informed to answer all of our questions, and that's why maybe there's a difference between what Senator Daschle got reported to him, and what my staff got reported to me, and Congressman Holt. It's just stupid for the FBI to be sending people to the Hill that can't answer any question that's been asked.

GG: Now, one of the hallmarks of the government's campaign against terrorism over the past seven years has been to use fairly aggressive techniques against suspected terrorists, many of which have been controversial. They've done things like detain US citizens without charges, of course there are some "enhanced interrogation techniques" that have been highly controversial. Very aggressive maneuvers on the part of the federal government whenever there's suspected terrorism involved. And yet here you have a case where there's clearly terrorism, that's clearly what the anthrax attacks were, no matter who did them, and yet the government seems to have gone to the opposite extreme; that is, to almost have been very lax.

They claim now that they've had this mountain of evidence compiled against Dr. Ivins for several years at least, and yet there's no indication that they switched their focus away from Steven Hatfill to him, they didn't even detain him or cut off his access for quite some time to the most dangerous pathogens at Fort Detrick.

Do you have any insight as to why the FBI, by their own claims, seem to have had this evidence against Ivins for so many years and yet did very little if anything to remove him from access to the lab, or even detain him?

CG: Pure speculation on my part, but in the middle of this investigation, they set up a whole new team to look at it. And probably the answer to your question is the incompetence of the first team, and presuming the competence of the second team if they've solved the case, and in between a lot of lost time.

GG: That new team was a team that was put in at the end of 2006 or early 2007, is that the change that you're talking about?

CG: I don't know whether it's... it could have been 2005 and 2006, so I don't know for sure.

GG: Right. The last issue I wanted to ask you about - you've complained, and I think rightfully so, that the FBI has been very secretive about this investigation, hasn't answered inquiries, hasn't revealed very much at all, even still about the evidence that they possess. A lot of the controversies over the last seven years have been very similar in nature - that the executive branch has done things in secret, refused to really account to the legislative branch for what they've been doing, and both and Republicans and Democrats have seemed to have gone along with that.

Do you agree that over the last seven years there's been a significant increase in executive power and executive secrecy at the expense of Congress, and isn't that part of why the FBI feels like it can just ignore inquiries from Congress, and keep such important matters to itself?

CG: I think that throughout the executive branch of government, not just in this administration, but in too many administrations, Republican or Democrat, there has been an effort to not fully cooperate with Congress on hearings. Now, that would tend to be a statement on my part, blaming the executive branch entirely, but I also, as a person who's been very aggressive in oversight myself, feel that all of Congress has come up short of doing the proper checks and balances of government that our Constitution requires, and doing that through more aggressive oversight.

So, it could look like the executive branch under both Republicans and Democrats has been more aggressive assuming power etc. etc., but it could be as well, and from my standpoint it is, an issue of Congress not being aggressive enough doing its job and protecting its own prerogatives.

GG: Absolutely. Do you perceive that that sense exists among your colleagues, and that trend is starting to reverse a little bit, that Congress is willing to reassert itself a little bit more in terms of compelling cooperation with its own prerogatives?

CG: Yeah, and some of that's because there's a Democratic Congress and we have a Republican president. Now the real test of that is, and you will remember this next year if we have an Obama presidency - we're surely going to have a Democratic Congress - are they going to be as aggressive in oversight of the new administration as they are of a Republican administration?

Now, if we have a McCain presidency, and a Democratic Congress, I expect not a whole lot of change to be made. But I found after twelve years of Republicans, through Reagan and Bush, I was doing a lot of oversight, being applauded by Democrats, and when we had a Clinton presidency, I found that the Democrats were a little less willing to oversight their own party's president.

GG: Well, how about during the five years the Republicans controlled the Congress during the Bush presidency - would you say there was any form of meaningful or aggressive oversight when the Republicans controlled the Congress and the White House?

CG: The criticism that I've just given to Congress as a whole applies to the five years that the Republicans held the Congress. I hope it doesn't apply to Chuck Grassley, because I think I've been fairly consistent in my oversight whether we had Republicans or Democrats.

GG: Right. Well, you've certainly been outspoken and a leading member of the Senate in demanding what I think are very needed questions regarding this anthrax investigation, and I'm glad to hear there's going to be a hearing before the Judiciary Committee and I certainly hope you keep up your efforts to demand from the FBI a genuine and full accounting of what they claim took place here with these attacks, and I really appreciate your taking the time today.

CG: I think your interest in this and the publicity that you help give to it along with other journalists helps the process along.

GG: Thanks very much, Senator. I appreciate it.

[Transcript courtesy of Thames Valley Transcribe]

By Glenn Greenwald

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