Sunday, September 17, 2006


By William Fisher

President Bush’s speechwriters have just about worn out their lexicon of scary words and phrases to regale us with tales of all the terrorist plots he has disrupted since 9/11. But one word has apparently been expunged from the White House dictionary: Anthrax.

It has been four years since letters laced with the deadly white powder were mailed to the offices of then-Senate Democratic leader Thomas A. Daschle and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, as well as to media companies in Florida and New York. The letters included denunciations of Israel and America and were written in childish capitals.

Two D.C. postal workers, a Florida journalist, a New York hospital worker, and an elderly Connecticut woman died. Seventeen others were sickened and the House, Senate, Supreme Court buildings, and numerous postal facilities were contaminated and shut down. The mailings led the nation to the brink of mass hysteria. The Washington Post reports that, including cleanup costs, the damage was more than a billion dollars.

The Post’s Alan Lengel reports that the search for the anthrax-mailer led to “one of the most exhaustive investigations in FBI history.” But, after some 8,000 interviews and 5,000 subpoenas in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and Africa, he writes, the investigation “has yielded no arrests and is showing signs of growing cold as officials have sharply reduced the number of agents on the case.”

With a $2.5 million reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction, the
FBI says it is still working hard with forensics experts and scientific
researchers from law enforcement agencies, the intelligence community,
university laboratories and private corporations, to find the culprit.

“The prevailing theory,” Lengel writes, is that “The culprit is a U.S. scientist who had access to the high-grade anthrax and the knowledge of how to physically manipulate it and use it as a weapon.”

That theory has been around virtually since the beginning of the investigation, when authorities narrowed down the type of anthrax to a strain called Ames. But they have been unable to identify the lab of origin. After ruling out a possible al-Qaida link, the FBI focused on domestic “home-grown” terrorists.

The FBI initially suspected the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, housed at Fort Detrick in the Frederick, Maryland, area. Two years ago, the FBI spent about $250,000 and three weeks draining a pond in Frederick, acting on a theory that someone might have discarded materials there. But that exercise yielded nothing.

Yet is was that same theory that prompted the Justice Department and then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft in 2002 to publicly name “a person of interest” -- Steven J. Hatfill, a physician and bioterrorism expert who worked at Fort Detrick from 1997 to 1999.

But four years after he was “outed,” Hatfill has not been charged with any crime, has denied any involvement, has lost his job, and has issued legal writs against the government and media organizations.

Hatfill’s designation as a “person of interest” should call our attention once again to one of the Justice Department’s most pernicious practices. It is no less shameful than law enforcement’s penchant to capture headlines by calling high-profile press conferences to publicly trumpet someone’s arrest before he or she is charged with an offense based on a judicial finding of probable cause.

Rewind to 1996, when the FBI identified as a “person of interest” a security guard named Richard Jewel, who alerted authorities to the presence of a suspicious package at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, where a bomb exploded shortly afterwards, killing a bystander and causing a fatal heart attack to a foreign journalist. Instead of being hailed as a hero whose action saved many lives, the hapless Jewel was universally condemned and relentlessly harassed by the media, which painted him as a gung-ho cop wannabee. The FBI finally fessed up to his innocence – but never apologized. Oh well, another day at the office, and another life ruined.

But back to the President’s dictionary.

We have no way to verify the President’s claims of success in thwarting terrorist plots through the secret “alternative methods” of interrogation used by the Central Intelligence Agency – precisely because they are secret. The alleged terrorists have been held incommunicado in secret prisons whose existence Mr. Bush finally conceded after months of denials and “no comments.” Nor has anyone told us what these CIA “alternative methods” involve; we hear only that waterboarding and hypothermia are prominent in the interrogation repertoire, though the President continues to insist that “The United States doesn’t torture.”

(Which makes it even more bizarre that he now insists on amending Common Article Three of the Geneva Conventions.)

Absent the decision of the Supreme Court, few of us would have the foggiest idea what Common Article Three is. The Court said, in essence, that there are some things that The Decider simply cannot decide. One of them is how to treat people suspected of committing terrorist acts. The other is how to bring them to justice.

Cutting through the legalese, the President’s response to both is still “trust me.” But Mr. Bush has lost that battle. He has squandered the virtually universal trust the world had in him following 9/11. In so doing, he has dealt a deadly blow to America’s reputation in the world. And, arguably, he has made it more, not less, difficult for our country to win a war of ideologies against those who would attack and kill us.

So “trust me” is just not working anymore. Which is why we’re not likely to hear the president talking about Anthrax any time soon.