FBI screwups still haunt anthrax investigation

Few incidents seem to exemplify the governmental excesses and the difficulties controlling them in the atmosphere of fear following 9-11 than the five-year investigation into the anthrax attack that took the lives of five Americans, made 17 gravely ill and was a potential threat to thousands of others.

In its frustratingly unsuccessful attempts to discover the source of the deadly bio-terrorism assault, the FBI seems not only to have failed to identify the person or persons behind it, but also to have gone off in the wrong direction after misreading the sophistication of the material. The result of that blunder has been the pure and simple ruination of innocent lives and a clear indication that the agency supposed to be the first line of defense against terrorism is no closer to solving the mystery than it was when the first germs were sent through the mail _ a fact that should frighten us all.

Meanwhile, the FBI is being sued by one of those it has tarnished while others have had to try to pick up the pieces of their lives after undergoing public humiliation brought on by bad tips and just plain incompetence. Now that the bureau has announced that it is expanding its investigation of the terrifying incident to account for the fact that the grade was not military quality as it initially thought, but a much cruder form, there are concerns about how many more civil rights it will trample.

The most prominent of the FBI’s apparent victims is Dr. Steven Hatfill, an infectious disease expert, who was named as a “person of interest” early on and who was dogged by random searches of his property and generally harassed publicly for months in an inquiry that provided not one shred of evidence against him. On at least one occasion, the press was tipped that his residence would be searched and showed up in force. Even a pond was drained to no avail in connection with the case. Hatfill’s career was shredded and he lost his teaching and research job at Louisiana State University. He has sued the Justice Department.

Another of those investigated but never charged is a former New York physician who worked in the bio-terrorism field but has vehemently maintained his innocence. The bureau searched his home two years ago and although the exercise apparently failed to turn up any evidence against him, he lost his job.

At least the fact both men had been involved in the development of biochemical weapons could provide the bureau with some reason to look into their activities. In the process, however, there clearly were excesses, not the least of which was stubborn refusal to let go when nothing was found to incriminate them. But recent news reports about the treatment of two highly respected immigrant physicians from Pakistan with no connection whatsoever to the field of bio-weaponry has stirred the ghosts of J. Edgar Hoover’s discredited COINTELPRO and sent shivers through civil libertarians.

The two doctors, brothers born in Islamabad to a family of distinguished physicians, are graduates of Johns Hopkins University. One serves as health commissioner for the city of Chester, Pa., and the other as the city’s epidemiologist. Both have made major contributions in public health and other areas to this country’s efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan working on government assignment.

Within a few days after 9-11, which was followed quickly by the Anthrax mailings, the FBI visited them, acting reportedly on a bad tip. An FBI swat team burst into their home in Chester, awakened a sleeping wife, and handcuffed her at gunpoint. According to reports, agents at the same time also smashed into a downstairs office rented by the AIDS Care Group of Chester, even handcuffing a carpenter working there. Of course, no evidence of any wrongdoing was discovered.

The harassment of the two respected public health officials has continued with agents questioning them when they travel and forcing one brother to stay out of the country to avoid the hassle. Both have been forced to reconsider their plans to become citizens of the United States despite 15 years of public service here.

Of course the FBI should be zealous in its efforts to uncover the origin of this worst sort of attack, but that zeal should be tempered with both common sense and constitutional care. Too often these days, the paranoia gets out of hand and produces actions that closely resemble the kind of disregard for basic rights and fairness seen in totalitarian societies. That was the case during the Red scare of the Cold War and it seems to be repeating itself in this one.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)


  1. Annie

    Mr. Thomasson:

    I would like to be further ahead in the anthrax investigations.

    1. If there are any others who received presumptive anthrax letters prior to the two (or three or more) mailings, perhaps that information can be reconsidered.

    2. The anthrax mailings, at least in one instance, included something other than anthrax. Were there additional letters that contained something else?

    3. Where did the bioweapons bullet come from? I was told manufacture of such baggies ceased two years prior to the anthrax attacks. Should be an easy clue to follow up on.

    4. Consideration of prior BC attacks should be undertaken. While there have been a jillion interviews and debriefings, they do not include interviews with victims of prior biological attacks in the Miami area.

    5. Some four hundred necessary interviews have not been undertaken. As it turns out, since a former lobbyist is not wholly peripheral to Amerithrax, neither are the interviews. The FBI has known this since shortly after the first anthrax letter.

    I believe the investigation, to date, has failed because the FBI, in its various functions, has not paid close attention.

    I will be surprised if it is a single white guy. I believe prior attacks are linked to the anthrax letters.

    Law enforcement in this country fails to prevent subsequent terrorist attacks by those linked together in jihad in very specific ways, failing to recognize and act upon: collaboration in certain business ventures, jihadists from extended family groups, foci of infiltration, allied groups, patterns of belligerance towards former victims.

  2. Mr. Thomasson,

    There is a LOT of bad information in what you write.

    The FBI has always known that the anthrax powder was not made via any sophisticated process. It was the media which reported otherwise, suggesting that the FBI was wrong in saying the powder could have been made by a lone scientist. The media was filled with stories about how the powder MUST have come from some super-sophisticated lab, implying that it was some secret and illegal lab set up by the Bush administration.

    The FBI also checked out Dr. Hatfill in November of 2001 and found no reason to suspect him. But, a band of conspiracy theorists started preaching that the FBI was covering up for Dr. Hatfill. They campaigned to have the FBI investigate Dr. Hatfill more thoroughly (and more publicly) for SEVEN MONTHS, even getting the New York Times to join in, until the staffs of senators Daschle and Leahy finally called the FBI on the carpet and virtually forced the FBI to do a public investigation of Dr. Hatfill.

    The FBI should never have allowed themselves to be pressured that way, but they did. They can be blamed for bending to the pressure, but they cannot be justly blamed for falsely accusing Dr. Hatfill of being the anthrax mailer.

    The whole matter of the anthrax attacks was MISREPORTED by the media from day one. They assumed the FBI was lying, and they reported BAD information instead. Just read the articles. There are literally HUNDREDS of them.

    At one point, ABC News simply MADE UP a story about there being bentonite in the anthrax.

    It’s the MEDIA which should be held up for scrutiny for their BAD reporting of the anthrax investigation. The FBI cannot be blamed for what the MEDIA falsely reported.

    Ed Lake

  3. I should have also mentioned that the “New York Physician” who you mention and whose life was destroyed by the FBI’s investigation was also a result of the pressure applied upon the FBI by that band of conspiracy theorists and their followers in the media (particularly the New York Times) and Congress.

    That physician had an indirect connection to Dr. Hatfill (he attended a one day training session with the scientist who was Dr. Hatfill’s mentor), and that is why he was investigated and his life was destroyed.

    The band of conspiracy theorists were also behind the FBI’s draining of that pond in Maryland, which subjected the FBI to a lot of ridicule.

    These facts have always been known, but have become firmly established via depositions in Dr. Hatfill’s various lawsuits.

    One of the conspiracy theorists was sued by Dr. Hatfill, and that lawsuit (which also involves Vanity Fair magazine, Readers’ Digest magazine and Vassar College) could be resolved any day now.

    Ed Lake