How Bruce Ivins Toppled Saddam

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Glenn Greenwald reacts to the suicide of the anthrax letter suspect (blogged by Matt Welch) with a flashback to the hysteria that greeted the attacks in 2001.

During the last week of October, 2001, ABC News, led by Brian Ross, continuously trumpeted the claim as their top news story that government tests conducted on the anthrax—tests conducted at Ft. Detrick—revealed that the anthrax sent to Daschele contained the chemical additive known as bentonite. ABC News, including Peter Jennings, repeatedly claimed that the presence of bentonite in the anthrax was compelling evidence that Iraq was responsible for the attacks, since—as ABC variously claimed—bentonite "is a trademark of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's biological weapons program" and "only one country, Iraq, has used bentonite to produce biological weapons."

ABC News' claim—which they said came at first from "three well-placed but separate sources," followed by "four well-placed and separate sources"—was completely false from the beginning. There never was any bentonite detected in the anthrax (a fact ABC News acknowledged for the first time in 2007 only as a result of my badgering them about this issue). It's critical to note that it isn't the case that preliminary tests really did detect bentonite and then subsequent tests found there was none. No tests ever found or even suggested the presence bentonite. The claim was just concocted from the start. It just never happened.

That means that ABC News' "four well-placed and separate sources" fed them information that was completely false—false information that created a very significant link in the public mind between the anthrax attacks and Saddam Hussein.

If you could dial the Wayback Machine to late 2001, you could find a lot of these linkages that never panned out.

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  1. Uh, bentonite is a clay with a wide variety of uses. If its use is a hallmark of Saddam Hussein, then I’m totally a Ba’ath secret agent.

  2. More:

    Much of bentonite’s usefulness in the drilling and geotechnical engineering industry comes from its unique rheological properties. Relatively small quantities of bentonite suspended in water form a viscous, shear thinning material. Most often, bentonite suspensions are also thixotropic, although rare cases of rheopectic behavior have also been reported. At high enough concentrations (~60 grams of bentonite per litre of suspension), bentonite suspensions begin to take on the characteristics of a gel (a fluid with a minimum yield strength required to make it move). For these reasons it is a common component of drilling mud used to curtail drilling fluid invasion by its propensity for aiding in the formation of mud cake.

    Bentonite can be used in cement, adhesives, ceramic bodies, and cat litter. Bentonite is also used as a binding agent in the manufacture of taconite pellets as used in the steelmaking industry. Fuller’s earth, an ancient dry cleaning substance, is finely ground bentonite, typically used for purifying transformer oil. Bentonite, in small percentages, is used as an ingredient in commercially designed clay bodies and ceramic glazes. Bentonite clay is also used in pyrotechnics to make end plugs and rocket nozzles, and can also be used as a therapeutic face pack for the treatment of acne/oily skin. Clearasil, an acne cream, uses bentonite as an agent to absorb excess sebum, clearing pores.

  3. So, Ivins was both Robert Morris (both of them at once) and Ozymandias? Unless, of course, he was Vince Foster instead.

  4. Ivins was both Robert Morris (both of them at once) and Ozymandias?

    He has a frown, wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command?

  5. Or maybe he was Budd Dwyer.

  6. Clearasil, an acne cream, uses bentonite

    I understand Uday and Qusay had zits. And they didn’t take the teasing well at all.

  7. It would be kind of funny if ABCNews’s “source” was none other than the perp. But it’s quite possible that never had a source, that they just made it up. A lot of news is fabricated.

  8. My nonsense decoded:

    – Either he was both the perpetrator of the crime and the primary accusor (the older Robert Morris accused Cliff Stoll of executing the first famous Internet Worm, when in fact it was done by the younger Robert Morris)
    – Or he orchestrated it all as a manipulation of public opinion (Ozymandias in The Watchmen orchestrated a [spoiler redacted])
    – Or his death could be interpreted as a cover up (Vince Foster, nuf said)
    – Or he was quite probably falsely accused, but realized that he was totally fucked and offed himself (Budd Dwyer was convicted and sentenced to jail when he decided to kill himself)

  9. cat litter

    Oh my god, my cat’s a terrorist!

  10. If the sources lied to ABC (and actually exist), ABC should have no problem naming them now.

  11. And Greenwald is correct in his assessment that this should be a huge media scandle.
    ABC (and whoever planted the story) really needs to answer for this.

  12. If you could dial the Wayback Machine to late 2001, you could find a lot of these linkages that never panned out.

    What do you mean by ‘if you could’? You do mean this ( http://www.archive.org ) Way Back Machine, right?

  13. Guys like Jack Ruby don’t grow on trees, you know.

    Suicide was the only option.

  14. This story is false , the government is lying as usual. If Ivins did it 7 years ago he did not act alone.

  15. This story is false , the government is lying as usual. If Ivins did it 7 years ago he did not act alone.

    That’s your 11:00 hour non sequitur, folks.

    (Central time.)

  16. Let’s set the record straight here. The issue of additives in the spores sent is still a HIGHLY CONTROVERSIAL one. It needs to be thoroughly debated:

    The forensic science evidence behind the anthrax attacks is highly controversial and needs to be properly debated by scientists qualified not only in microbiology but also the physics and chemistry of aerosol powders.
    FBI scientist Douglas Beecher published a highly controversial paper in August 2006 – claiming, without data, that the spores contained no additives. This is the opposite of what was reported by US Army labs.

    Details are given here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2001_anthrax_attacks

    The August 2006 issue of Applied and Environmental Microbiology contained an article written by Dr. Douglas Beecher of the FBI labs in Quantico, VA.[22] The article, titled “Forensic Application of Microbiological Culture Analysis to Identify Mail Intentionally Contaminated with Bacillus anthracis spores ,” states “Individuals familiar with the compositions of the powders in the letters have indicated that they were comprised simply of spores purified to different extents.” The article also specifically criticizes “a widely circulated misconception” “that the spores were produced using additives and sophisticated engineering supposedly akin to military weapon production.” The harm done by such things is described this way: “This idea is usually the basis for implying that the powders were inordinately dangerous compared to spores alone. The persistent credence given to this impression fosters erroneous preconceptions, which may misguide research and preparedness efforts and generally detract from the magnitude of hazards posed by simple spore preparations.” However, after this article had appeared the editor of Applied and Environmental Microbiology, L. Nicholas Ornston, stated that he was uncomfortable with Beecher’s statement in the article since it had no evidence to back it up and contained no citation.[23]

    In August 2007 Dr. Kay Mereish, UN Chief, Biological Planning and Operations, published a letter in Applied and Environmental Microbiology titled “Unsupported Conclusions on the Bacillus anthracis Spores”.[25] This letter, published in the same journal as FBI scientist Douglas Beecher (see paragraph above), points out that the statements made by Dr. Beecher in his article on the lack of additives were not backed up with any data. She suggested that Dr. Beecher publish a paper with analytical data showing the absence of silica or other additives. Such data would include SEM images of the pure spores as well as EDX spectra and EDX images showing the absence of any foreign additives such as silica or the elements silicon and oxygen. Dr. Mereish referenced a 2006 CBRN, Counter-Proliferation and Response meeting in Paris where a presenter announced that an additive was present in the attack anthrax that affected the spore’s electrical charges.

  17. scandle, scandal. whatever.

  18. From the current NYT story on Ivins’ death:

    “A federal law enforcement official said that Mr. Ivins was regarded as a legitimate suspect in the case and that agents were nearing a possible arrest.”

    In other words, they weren’t planning to arrest him, they were nearing a time when they might possibly arrest him (maybe), particularly now that he’s dead so that he can’t sue them. Your Justice Department at work.

    By the way, the Times’ lead is “With investigators close to filing charges in connection with the string of anthrax deaths in 2001, a senior biodefense researcher took his own life earlier this week, a lawyer for the scientist said on Friday.”

    Obviously, Ivins’ lawyer was not the source for the opening statement “With investigators close to filing charges …”. The Times provides no source for that statement, and does not repeat it in the body of the article. Your New York Times at work.

  19. Update: The Wash Post article posted today is much more specific, saying that Ivins’ lawyer is an expert in death penalty cases who was appointed as Ivins’ lawyer. It sounds like the Times wasn’t able to talk to anyone.

  20. A lot of news is fabricated.

    More likely it was rumor running amuck during a time of hysteria. Never assume conspiracy when incompetence is sufficient. See Hurricane Katrina reporting for another good example.

  21. Oh my god, my cat’s a terrorist!

    Everybody’s cat is a terrorist. That’s their job.

  22. We need to know a lot more about who Bruce Ivins was, particularly his political sympathies and passions.

  23. Something VERY FISHY here……Why would this guy WANT to KILL the National Enquirer Photo Editor?? Was He Whaco?? or Maybe HYPER ZIOCON?? Inquiring MINDS wanna Know!!!!!!!!!!! What would HE have against ANY of the FIVE targets??? +++Let’s look the targets and their timing.

    Sept. 18, 2001: Trenton Mailing of anthrax letters to NBC and NY Post and probably to the National Enquirer.
    Oct. 9, 2001: Trenton Mailing of anthrax letters to Daschle and Leahy. I’m NOT buying THIS “OFFICIAL” Story!! Suicide?? Oh Yeah..So convenient, no need to explain the strange CHOICE of the FIVE TARGETS……What WOULD, DID Ivins (is that a Jewish name?? Jus WONDERIN) HAVE against SENATORS Leahy & Daschle?? You Think this might OPEN up A BIGGER (better more believable) STORY???????

  24. As for the guy’s politics, you might be able to divine something from his letters to the editor for our local-ish paper here.

    I can’t really, seems pretty centrist on initial scan, but someone else might.

  25. Nothing like the appearance of dead bodyz to get the juces flowing. Any story can get a lift from a corpse or two. Sad that the press is so horizontal on anything bush connected. Front page Headline in NY Times “Move on, nothing to see here”..I guess that court decision on Rove has got them a bit unnerved, WTF!!

  26. Surprise, the media screwed up again.

    This story is fairly irrelevant. The bentonite claim was never taken seriously by the White House, which pretty well dismissed it out of hand.

    As far as is known, only one country, Iraq, has used bentonite to produce biological weapons, but officials caution that the presence of the chemical alone does not constitute firm evidence of Iraqi involvement.

    White House spokesman Ari Fleischer had denied that bentonite was found on the letters, but another senior White House official backed off Fleischer’s comments, saying “at this point” there does not appear to be bentonite.

    Fleischer added that no test or analysis has concluded that bentonite is present in the Daschle anthrax, and “no other finding contradicts or calls into question” that conclusion.

    http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=92270&page=1

    In any case, as was pointed out at the time, any lab could have done it with bentonite.

    Experts say the bentonite discovery doesn’t rule out a very well-equipped lab using the Iraqi technique. In fact, commercial spray dryers that Iraq used to produce its biological weapons were bought on the open market from the Danish subsidiary of a U.S. company for about $100,000 a piece.

    So, no, this has nothing to do with the invasion. And I’m sure Greenwald won’t be discussing the numerous financial links between AQ and Saddam, which the media now assiduously ignore while mindlessly repeating the “no operational links” mantra.

  27. Why would he want to kill?
    Justification for war.
    Justification for the expansion of the Bioweapons industry. Look at the Expansion of Detrick since the attacks. Funny enough in the Environmental Impact Statements for the expansion they state several times that things like the letter attacks won’t happen because they screen their scientists. (I am a local, I read them)

  28. also after what happened to Olsen back in the good old days who says this guy did not have help taking the pills.

  29. Something VERY FISHY here……Why would this guy WANT to KILL the National Enquirer Photo Editor?? Was He Whaco?? or Maybe HYPER ZIOCON?? Inquiring MINDS wanna Know!!!!!!!!!!! What would HE have against ANY of the FIVE targets??? +++Let’s look the targets and their timing.

  30. Funny enough in the Environmental Impact Statements for the expansion they state several times that things like the letter attacks won’t happen because they screen their scientists.

    Why would they address murder in their EIS? That’s like saying “We will hire an urban planner, but in hiring that urban planner we won’t reduce the average intelligence of the area and end up with a racist assbite because we screen them.” Ok, this is admirable, and should be applauded, but what does it have to do with an EIS?

  31. I always include a “no murders will result” clause in my SWPPPs.

  32. I’ve got a small jar of bentonite right here. I didn’t get it from Saddam and Iraq, I got it from the homebrew supply store down the street. It’s a common clarifying agent, removing suspended proteins from beer and wine. http://www.benshomebrew.com/wine-making/wine-additives/bentonite.html

  33. I remember when Other Matt used to include arguments relating to something I wrote in his personal attacks on me.

    But it didn’t take too long to break him of that habit. Now he just yells “poopyhead” and runs away.

  34. I suspect foul play (murder most foul). Ivans was probably in on the whole anthrax attack with a number of others and at the behest of some group who really wanted war against Iraq. Either he let slip that he was going to spill the beans and his former masters killed him, or he got fingered to FBI to take the fall (and then was killed by his former masters) OR the FBI was getting too close and when indicted was killed by his former masters.

    All to make him look guilty and take the spotlight off the real culprits. Our own Lee Harvey Oswald.

  35. Ivans was probably in on the whole anthrax attack with a number of others and at the behest of some group who really wanted war against Iraq.

    Jeebus on jet-ski.

    The anthrax letters were mailed within a few days of 9/11, as near as I can tell. The Chimpluminati were not exactly short on support for war that week, you might recall.

  36. TallDave misses the point as usual.

    If there was no bentonite in the anthrax, and if ABC told the truth about having sources, then four government sources deliberately lied to ABC, and used those lies to try to direct public outrage about these attacks against Saddam.

    You may be quite right that even if bentonite was there it wouldn’t have proven anything. You may be quite right that the White House wasn’t really interested in the bentonite claims. But that’s really irrelevant to the story at hand.

    The story at hand is that there were four highly-placed government sources who decided to lie to ABC about these attacks. I think it’s worthwhile to be interested in who they were and why they lied. I realize that you don’t really care, of course.

    If anything, if it were true that the White House didn’t care about the bentonite claims and that the bentonite wouldn’t connect the attacks to Iraq anyway, then it just makes the story that was fed to ABC that much more of a lie.

  37. R C Dean,

    Preparation for the Anthrax attack most likely pre-dated the 9/11 attacks. So either it was a separate unrelated attack (just mysteriously well-timed) or it was being conducted somehow in conjunction with the attack.

    Maybe there was a standing order to send them out whenever the next terror attack happened – they just didn’t know if it would be a car bombing, subway gassing, or planes flying into buildings. If a car bombing it would be insufficient to drive the public wild. A bombing AND a poison letter attack is much more effective.

    Maybe the same people who orchestrated the 9/11 attack orchestrated the anthrax since they did not know that the buildings would fall.

    Or maybe not.

    Who do you think carried out the anthrax attack? You and your Samizdata folks still railing against global jihad and see a mullah under every bed?

  38. For libertarians, you guys have a remarkably high opinion of government competence.

    It is late Friday afternoon, so drink!.

  39. You and your Samizdata folks still railing against global jihad and see a mullah under every bed?

    Oh no you didn’t!

    Seriously, folks, let’s not give the government more credit than it is due. The most conspiracy I can accept is Fluffy’s version; any more and you’re getting Truthery. And even Fluffy’s is a bit far-fetched.

  40. I remember when Other Matt used to include arguments relating to something I wrote in his personal attacks on me.

    Where are you referring to, joe? On this thread the only comment I made was about the appropriate or inappropriate nature of including “potential murder” on an EIS. Had nothing to do with you, unless you were posting under a ghost name.

  41. I always thought the key to the case was the photo editor. Somebody had it out for him and sent the other letters to muck up the trail.

  42. I always liked the idea that some jihadi was told to attack “the American media,” so he looked in the Florida phone book and found “American Media, Inc.” (publishers of the National Inquirer) and mailed them the anthrax.

  43. Make that “Enquirer.”

  44. “”””More likely it was rumor running amuck during a time of hysteria. Never assume conspiracy when incompetence is sufficient.”””

    “””White House spokesman Ari Fleischer had denied that bentonite was found on the letters, but another senior White House official backed off Fleischer’s comments, saying “at this point” there does not appear to be bentonite.”””

    Not like anyone in the Whitehouse has leaked false information to the press before. Ari propagated lies to our face. Even the President lied to our face about Rumsfeld’s departure. Why should anyone believe them?

  45. the Anthrax Attacks of 2001 were a conspiracy which is now being covered up. they probably go all the way up to Cheney. Yuk, yuk.

  46. Probably not. But I just don’t trust people who have openly lied to me.

  47. Probably not covering up a conspiracy, but it would be reasonable to consider that the ABC sources were connected to the Whitehouse. They have proven themselves able and willing to pass out incorrect information to media sources.

  48. Never assume conspiracy when incompetence is sufficient.

    The appearance of “incompetence” could provide cover for conspiracy.

  49. It could. But then you would be arguing that this Whitehouse was highly competent and very capable of thinking through the consequences of it’s actions.

  50. The news coverage of the suicide death of Bruce Ivins, a suspect in the notorious Anthrax case is notably dispassionate. It serves as a stark contrast with the frenzied reports by sections of the media dubbing the biological agent to be the work of some sinister men spread from the Iraqi deserts to the Afghan mountain caves and Aral sea shore in between. Would the BBC now ask Tom Mangold to trace back his footsteps to the origin of this mischief? Here’s a link for anybody wishing to revisit the imaginative episode of BBC’s Panorama on this topic:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/static/audio_video/programmes/panorama/transcripts/
    transcript_28_10_01.txt

  51. “”” But then you would be arguing that this Whitehouse was highly competent and very capable of thinking through the consequences of it’s actions.””””

    Who says it has to be highly competent? They are competent. I have many bad names for those currently in the Whitehouse, but they’ve known exactly what they are doing.

    I guess if you want to use the conspiracy, you could say they conspired to strengthen the executive branch, conspired to put conservative judges on the SCOTUS, and conspired to get rid of Saddam.

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