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August 05, 2008

White House officials allegedly pressured FBI to blame anthrax attacks on Al Qaeda

An interesting item from Saturday's New York Daily News:

WASHINGTON - In the immediate aftermath of the 2001 anthrax attacks, White House officials repeatedly pressed FBI Director Robert Mueller to prove it was a second-wave assault by Al Qaeda, but investigators ruled that out, the Daily News has learned.

After the Oct. 5, 2001, death from anthrax exposure of Sun photo editor Robert Stevens, Mueller was "beaten up" during President Bush's morning intelligence briefings for not producing proof the killer spores were the handiwork of terrorist mastermind Osama Bin Laden, according to a former aide.

"They really wanted to blame somebody in the Middle East," the retired senior FBI official told The News.

On October 15, 2001, President Bush said, "There may be some possible link" to Bin Laden, adding, "I wouldn't put it past him." Vice President Cheney also said Bin Laden's henchmen were trained "how to deploy and use these kinds of substances, so you start to piece it all together."

But by then the FBI already knew anthrax spilling out of letters addressed to media outlets and to a U.S. senator was a military strain of the bioweapon. "Very quickly [Fort Detrick, Md., experts] told us this was not something some guy in a cave could come up with," the ex-FBI official said. "They couldn't go from box cutters one week to weapons-grade anthrax the next. [NYDN]

This item relies on anonymous sources. I'd like to a name attached to these claims.

The source's account seems plausible in light of the Bush administration's extensive record of public deception on matters pertaining to national security.

It's interesting that the anonymous source is saying that the pressure was to link the attacks to Al Qaeda and not to Saddam Hussein.

We know there was a neoconservative propaganda effort to tie the anthrax to Iraqi weapons programs via false claims that the anthrax used in the US attacks contained traces of an additive found only in anthrax made in Iraq.

These false claims originated with anonymous sources cited by ABC News. They claimed to have knowledge of tests conducted at Fort Detrick. Note that the FBI's current prime suspect in the anthrax attacks, the late Dr. Bruce Ivins, was employed as a bioweapons specialist at Fort Detrick at the time.


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I have no doubt that the Bush administration tried to manipulate the Amerithrax incident to benefit their invasion plans. I can easily believe that the FBI was hamfisted in its latest efforts to solve this case. However, both statements above do not necessarily mean that the FBI didn't "get its man."

Early profiles of the case supported the view that this was an insider job, at the least, a McVay-type disgruntled loner as opposed to an al Qaeda effort. Terrorists don't focus on Democratic candidates and major media centers unless they're domestic-grown in the United States. The quality of the anthrax and other circumstantial evidence all pointed to a person at either Detrick or Dugway. Because the case was largely circumstantial, the FBI was (perhaps unfairly) pressing the Ivins family and friends.

Bottom line, there is a great chance that this is the right guy. I'll wait for the DoJ briefing before saying that for sure. Again, this doesn't absolve the Bush administration or the FBI, but it should be a good thing that we don't see a repeat of the Amerithrax incident.

I'm sure this would have been only the first part. Try to link the attacks to al Qaeda and if that worked, try to link al Qaeda to Iraq. When they couldn't link it to al Qaeda, they decided to try to link to Iraq directly.

Overall, it's pretty interesting that many of his co-workers defend him and bring up technical counter-arguments for some of the FBI's claims. See the end of the following article.

The FBI claims that he was uncharacteristically putting in long hours around the time of the Anthrax attacks, as well as having a prior history of writing to news and politicians, are interesting. But they are fairly circumstantial. Research scientists can put in long hours if they feel they are close to a breakthrough or need to show some progress to get a continuation on a grant.

Personally, I find it really convenient that all this information, which should have made it fairly easy to narrow down to him, was only put together in the last bit of the Bush presidency. First they waste years chasing down Steven Hatfill, and then this comes out just in time to allow the tying up of loose ends to avoid it being continued under a possible Democratic administration?

The DNA does indicate that Ivins would have been the source of the germ strain used, but that doesn't mean he is responsible or acted alone. Given his history of mental issues, I do wonder if Ivins was involved with others who manipulated him and his desire to develop a vaccine, until he finally realized he had no proof of what really happened and was being set up for the fall guy.

His history makes him a good candidate for being a useful patsy, and the Hatfill prosecution could have been useful to lull him into a fall sense of security so that any evidence he might have of third parties could be cleaned up. After this long, many phone call logs from that period have probably been discarded by now, so it's a little late to find out who he might have been talking to at that time.

Yeah, it sounds a little tinfoil hat. But how many things about the Bush administration that people labeled as tinfoil hat material as much as 5 years ago have turned out to be true?* These guys have shown themselves so adept at "The Big Lie" that not even this seems beyond them. Given the current official butcher's bill, which couldn't have come as a big surprise, I can't see a few more casualties (particularly Democratic congressmen and liberal newsmen) causing any hypothetical Bush admin perpetrators to lose any sleep.

* Manufactured WMD "evidence", forged Iraq-al Quaeda links, outing Valerie Plame, politicizing the US Attorney hirings, a focus on Iraqi oil control with sweetheart contracts for American and British companies, Blackwater and KBR/Halliburton corruption and administration links, and on, and on... all to start a poorly run and probably unnecessary war that killed thousands of American servicemen, wounded ten of thousand more, killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, and displaced millions as refugees.

There's nothing unusual about the headline claim here. "After Al Qaeda Staged Terrorist Attack on USA, White House Pressured FBI to Connect Subsequent Bioterrorism with Al Qaeda." For the moment assuming no special knowledge on the part of the White House, it would have been entirely natural to expect that the second attack came from the people behind the first attack. If it was clearly a high-tech bioweapon, the natural supposition would be state sponsorship, or (if one knew it to be US technology, and it's not clear how long it took to determine that) espionage. When 3000 people have just been killed in an assault by a terrorist organization, and then people start dying from anthrax in the mail, the first of them in the very county where the terrorists practised their hijacking skills, your first hypothesis is not going to be, "Maybe it's some other group of terrorists, joining in the fun!"

There even exists a purported account of highest-level deliberations surrounding the anthrax. In Chapter 17 of Woodward's Bush At War, the NSC meeting for 17 October 2001 is described. George Tenet says of the anthrax letters that he thinks they come from al Qaeda, and he thinks there's a state sponsor. He lists Iraq, Russia, and a "renegade scientist" from a state-run biowarfare program, as possible sources of technical know-how. Cheney, Libby and Tenet all concur that the possibility of state sponsorship should not be mentioned in public just yet.

As for the rumors about bentonite having been the anti-clumping agent in the letters, it is impossible to tell for now whether those rumors were spread in bad faith. There have been contradictory stories about the potency and chemical recipe behind the anthrax from the very beginning, and to some extent they may originate in earnest confusion. See Richard Preston's The Demon in the Freezer, chapter "The Anthrax Skulls", for an account of some of what went on: One group tested the anthrax and found it to be more effectively aerosolized than anything the USA ever made, another group autoclaved their sample and found it to be clumpy and relatively primitive. If you look at Greenwald's article for April 11, 2007, you'll find that ABC News reported "bentonite", then "bentonite and silica", and that the White House consistently denied there was any discovery of bentonite. If we ever find out who ABC's sources were, prepare to hear that it was all a matter of erroneous secondhand reports rather than an attempt to frame Iraq.

Having long purveyed a complicated conspiracy theory about the anthrax letters, after perusing today's FBI data dump I was coming around to the idea that maybe Ivins did it after all. I had always thought it rather unlikely that a rogue scientist should fortuitously happen to be sitting on a pile of smuggled-out anthrax spores, waiting for a good chance to use them, and then decide within days of 9/11 that now was the time to put them to use. That had allowed me to discount some apparent oddities, like the targeting of Daschle and Leahy, secondary political figures and therefore unlikely targets for a foreign terrorist. But the FBI apparently alleges that Ivins took the spores from his lab after 9/11, a possibility I had not considered... So, I was working towards a simpler default hypothesis when I ran across the fact that Ivins was a registered Democrat! Which throws the angry hater-of-liberals theory into confusion again. Perhaps he changed his political views later in life, without changing his registered affiliation.

Then again, it looks like Ivins had been seriously imbalanced for a long time and had gotten away with enough crap over the years that it's not inconceivable he acted alone.

However, with that many clues (and people volunteering him as a candidate for the attacks as far back as 2002) it's even more suspicious that it took the FBI so long to do anything about him.

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