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by Alexander Cockburn

The Anthrax Letters: Five deaths, Five grams, Five Clues

A significant number of Americans have a profound belief in government conspiracies. Against all the evidence, the conspiracy buffs feel that the incompetent bozos collectively known as "the government" have superhuman powers of organization and cunning.

I'm not talking here about identifiable conspiracies, like taking away our money in the form of taxes or death duties or fixing the inflation indicators to exclude energy costs, thus heading off otherwise mandatory Social Security increases. I'm talking about truly elaborate plots.

The conspiracists believe that Bush and Cheney masterminded the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. The 10,000 or so government employees supposedly in on the secret have kept their mouths shut ever since.

Now, just shy of the seventh anniversary of 9/11, a mystery linked to those attacks has burst once again into active life, prompting a hail of speculation about just how far Bush and Cheney were prepared to go in inflaming public fears.

The mystery concerns the envelopes of white powder containing anthrax spores that were mailed out to prominent Americans, starting Sept. 18. In the post-9/11 mailings, five died. The crudely written notes accompanying the anthrax spores said "Death to America, Death to Israel, Allah is Great."

Within hours, the Bush administration was leaking stories to the effect that analysis of the anthrax in the envelopes disclosed the presence of bentonite -- so the anonymous sources insisted to their favored outlet, Brian Ross of ABC News -- and that this chemical footprint was characteristic of products from the bio-terror labs of Saddam Hussein. (Bentonite is widely used in the United States in applications ranging from oil drilling to clarifying wine.)

ABC's stories about bentonite-laced anthrax spores were hugely effective in helping prep public sentiment for passage of the Patriot Act, giving the White House dictatorial and thus unconstitutional powers. Longer range, the stories helped justify the attack on Iraq.

The lead government agency investigating the anthrax envelopes was the FBI, and the bureau was under huge pressure to come up with a suspect. It duly did so, and its suspicions ran athwart the pointers to Baghdad. Soon, a fresh tide of leaks to The New York Times and a few other sources fingered Steven Hatfill, who had worked at the end of the 1990s as a civilian researcher at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, the Department of Defense's medical research institute for biological warfare defense at Fort Detrick, M.D.

The Department of Justice disclosed that in March of this year it had taken Hatfill off the suspects list and was compensating him for false allegations, giving the 54-year-old $5.8 million, with a down payment of 2.825 million in cash and $150,000 a year for 20 years.

But the FBI had another suspect, Bruce E. Ivins, a career anthrax researcher at Ft. Detrick. With Hatfill out of the picture, the heat was on Ivins, and he buckled. On July 29, he died from a mix of Tylenol and codeine, diagnosed as a suicide.

Ivins, in the aftermath of his death, has been the target of a torrent of disobliging stories, many of them apparently inspired by the FBI, to the effect that he was a drunk and a time bomb of resentments. The inference, as with Hatfill, is that with his alleged dispatch of the anthrax-filled envelopes, he was setting up Muslims as the originators of the anthrax attacks.

Those -- and I count myself among them -- who most emphatically do not believe that George Bush and Dick Cheney masterminded the 9/11 attacks have much less difficulty in agreeing with those who suggest the government played a sinister role in setting up ABC News with its inaccurate reports, acting -- as one critic, Glen Greenwald, has written -- as "fabricators and liars who purposely used ABC News to disseminate to the American public an extremely consequential and damaging falsehood."

Will ABC's Ross 'fess up to who fed him the stories? I doubt it. He's been a useful conduit for government leaks on matters such as the utility of water boarding as a vital weapon in the war on terror. He'll keep his mouth shut, even as public cynicism government and the press, soars.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor   August 15, 2008   (

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