Unlearned lessons from the Steven Hatfill case

The Government's behavior in the anthrax investigation highlights the dangers of untested, unproven accusations

Published April 21, 2010 11:22AM (EDT)

(updated below)

Andrew Sullivan rightly recommends this new Atlantic article by David Freed, which details how the FBI and a mindless, stenographic American media combined to destroy the life of Steven Hatfill.  Hatfill is the former U.S. Government scientist who for years was publicly depicted as the anthrax attacker and subjected to Government investigations so invasive and relentless that they forced him into almost total seclusion, paralysis and mental instability, only to have the Government years later (in 2008) acknowledge that he had nothing to do with those attacks and to pay him $5.8 million to settle the lawsuit he brought.  There are two crucial lessons that ought to be learned from this horrible -- though far-from-rare -- travesty:

(1) It requires an extreme level of irrationality to read what happened to Hatfill and simultaneously to have faith that the "real anthrax attacker" has now been identified as a result of the FBI's wholly untested and uninvestigated case against Bruce Ivins.  The parallels are so overwhelming as to be self-evident.

Just as was true for the case against Hatfill, the FBI's case against Ivins is riddled with scientific and evidentiary holes.  Much of the public case against Ivins, as was true for Hatfill, was made by subservient establishment reporters mindlessly passing on dubious claims leaked by their anonymous government sources.  So unconvincing is the case against Ivins that even the most establishment, government-trusting voices -- including key members of Congress, leading scientific journals and biological weapons experts, and the editorial pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall St. Journal -- have all expressed serious doubts over the FBI's case and have called for further, independent investigations.

Yet just as was true for years with the Hatfill accusations, no independent investigations are taking place.  That's true for three reasons.  First, the FBI drove Ivins to suicide, thus creating an unwarranted public assumption of guilt and ensuring the FBI's case would never be subjected to the critical scrutiny of a trial -- exactly what would have happened with Hatfill had he, like Ivins, succumbed to that temptation, as Freed describes:

The next morning, driving through Georgetown on the way to visit one of his friends in suburban Maryland, I ask Hatfill how close he came to suicide. The muscles in his jaw tighten.

"That was never an option," Hatfill says, staring straight ahead. "If I would've killed myself, I would’ve been automatically judged by the press and the FBI to be guilty."

Second, the American media -- with some notable exceptions -- continued to do to Ivins what it did to Hatfill and what it does in general:  uncritically disseminate government claims rather than questioning or investigating them for accuracy.  As a result, many Americans continue to blindly assume any accusations that come from the Government must be true.  As Freed writes, in a passage with significance far beyond the Hatfill case:

The same, Hatfill believes, cannot be said about American civil liberties. "I was a guy who trusted the government," he says. "Now, I don’t trust a damn thing they do." He trusts reporters even less, dismissing them as little more than lapdogs for law enforcement.

The media's general willingness to report what was spoon-fed to them, in an effort to reassure a frightened public that an arrest was not far off, is somewhat understandable considering the level of fear that gripped the nation following 9/11. But that doesn’t "justify the sliming of Steven Hatfill," says Edward Wasserman, who is the Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University, in Virginia. "If anything, it's a reminder that an unquestioning media serves as a potential lever of power to be activated by the government, almost at will."

No matter how many times the Government and media jointly disseminate outright lies to the American citizenry -- remember Iraq, or Jessica Lynch's heroic Rambo-like firefight with Evil Iraqi Villains, or Pat Tillman's death at the hands of Al Qaeda Monsters, or all the gloriously successful air strikes and raids on Terrorists that never happened? -- that propagandistic process never weakens.  As a result, many Americans (especially when their party is in power) simply place blind faith in whatever the Government claims (even when the claims are issued anonymously and accompanied by no tested evidence).  Hence, the Government claims it knows that Ivins is the anthrax killer; the American media largely affirms that claim; and, for so many people, that's the end of the story, no matter how many times that exact process has so woefully misled them and no matter how many credible and even mainstream sources question it.

Third, the Obama administration is actively and aggressively blocking any efforts to investigate the FBI's case against Ivins through an Obama veto threat, based on the Orwellian, backward claim that such an investigation "would undermine public confidence" in the FBI's case "and unfairly cast doubt on its conclusions."  As explained in a letter to the Obama administration by Rep. Rush Holt, the former physicist who represents the New Jersey district from which the anthrax letters were sent:

The Bureau has asserted repeatedly and with confidence that the "Amerithrax" investigation is the most thorough they have ever conducted -- claims they made even as they were erroneously pursuing Dr. Steven Hatfill. . . . Many critical questions in this case remain unanswered, and there are many reasons why there is not, nor ever has been, public confidence in the investigation or the FBI’s conclusions, precisely because it was botched at multiple points over more than eight years. Indeed, opposing an independent examination of any aspect of the investigation will only fuel the public’s belief that the FBI’s case could not hold up in court, and that in fact the real killer may still be at large.

The anthrax attacks were one of the most significant political events of this generation -- as significant as the 9/11 attack, if not more so, in creating the climate of fear that prevailed (and still prevails) in the U.S., which, in turn, spawned so much expansion of government power.  It is worth remembering what happened in the Hatfill case in order to be reminded of just how inexcusable it is that there has been no independent investigation of the case against Ivins and that the current administration is now aggressively and quite strangely blocking any efforts to do so.

(2) More generally, it is hard to overstate the authoritarian impulses necessary for someone -- even in the wake of numerous cases like Steven Hatfill's -- to place blind faith in government accusations without needing to see any evidence or have that evidence subjected to adversarial scrutiny.  Yet that is exactly the blind faith that dominates so many of our political debates.

Throughout the Bush years, anyone who argued against warrantless surveillance, or torture, or lawless detention and rendition, was met with this response:  but this is all being done to Terrorists.  What they actually meant was:  these are people accused by the Government, with no evidence or trials, of being Terrorists.  But the authoritarian mind, by definition, recognizes no distinction between "Our leaders claim X" and "X is true."  For them, the former is proof of the latter.  Identically, those who now argue against due-process-free presidential assassinations of American citizens and charge-less indefinite detentions are met with a similar response:  but these are dangerous people who are trying to kill Americans, when what they actually mean is:  Obama officials claim, with no evidence shown and no process given, that these are dangerous people trying to kill Americans.  The authoritarian mind refuses to recognize any distinction between those two very different propositions.

No matter how many Steven Hatfills there are -- indeed, no matter how undeniable is the evidence that the Government repeatedly accused people of being Terrorists who were no such thing, even while knowing the accusations were false -- the authoritarians among us continue to blindly recite unproven Government accusations (but he's a Terrorist!) to justify the most extreme detention, surveillance and even assassination policies, all without needing or wanting any due process or evidence.  No matter how many times it is shown how unreliable those kinds of untested government accusations are (either due to abuse or error), there is no shortage of people willing to place blind faith in such pronouncements and to vest political leaders with all sorts of unchecked powers to act on them.

* * * * *

I'm currently in the process of sending out thank you emails to everyone who participated in the blog fundraiser held here last week, but since that will take a bit of time to complete, I want to express my sincere gratitude here for everyone who did so.  The support is deeply appreciated and gratifying and will help the work being done here in numerous ways.


UPDATE:  As several people noted in comments, Obama's rationale for threatening to veto an anthrax investigation (investigations would undermine the State's credibility and thus dilute its authority) is very similar to the Catholic Church's explanation for why it concealed reports of so many abusive priests (disclosure would undermine the Church's credibility and thus dilute its authority).  See, for instance, here, as well as here (Cardinal Christoph Schönborn:  "the appearance of an infallible church was more important than anything else").  That was also the same rationale invoked by Justice Scalia when enjoining the Florida recount during the 2000 election (Scalia:  a recount would "irreparably harm" Bush "by casting a cloud upon what he claims to be the legitimacy of his election").  Common to all of these suppression-justifying claims is the notion that preventing the truth from being examined and known is necessary to preserve institutional credibility and power.

On a related note:  Jim White highlights some notable comments from Steven Hatfill in an interview he recently gave on The Today Show.  It's quite striking how quickly someone turns into a raving civil libertarian as soon as they experience first-hand the effects of unrestrained government power (similar to how the Surveillance-State-loving Jane Harman instantaneously transformed into an outraged, ACLU-echoing freedom-lover upon learning that her telephone conversations -- rather than others' -- had been secretly eavesdropped on).

By Glenn Greenwald

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