David Willman’s new book, The Mirage Man, dives deeply into the anthrax mailings that took place shortly after 9/11 and further panicked an already-distraught American public. He hones in on Dr. Bruce Ivins as the perpetrator, and details a strong case implicating the Army bio-weapons expert, who committed suicide three years ago as investigators closed in on him. A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Los Angeles Times before leaving the newspaper to work on this book, Willman will soon return to the paper’s Washington bureau. Battleland conducted an email exchange with him:
Did Bruce Ivins do it?
The totality of evidence that I have reviewed points convincingly toward him.
You argue that the anthrax case helped push us into war with Iraq — please explain.
Coming on the heels of the September 11 attacks, the anthrax mailings amounted to a gift in the lap for those both within and outside the Bush administration who were determined to drive Saddam Hussein from power. Several prominent figures in the administration, notably Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Def Sec Paul Wolfowitz, had signed a letter in 1998 to then-President Clinton, asserting that Saddam must be toppled.
During my research for this book, Wolfowitz acknowledged to me that he had assumed that Iraq sponsored the 2001 anthrax letter attacks. Rumsfeld made presentations to congressional committees within months of the launch of war suggesting that Iraq was complicit in the mailings. On February 5, 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell appeared before the United Nations to make the case for confronting Iraq. Powell held a pinkie-size vial of white powder while pointing out that “less than a teaspoon” of dry anthrax had killed two U.S. postal workers and caused significant havoc in Washington. “Saddam Hussein,” Powell said, “has not verifiably accounted for even one teaspoonful of this deadly material.” Powell’s remarks invited the public to link Iraq to the letter attacks. And as Tom Ridge, Bush’s Homeland Security Secretary, told me, “There were certain people at the White House who were absolutely certain” that Saddam was behind the mailings.
In retrospect, Ridge told me, those opinions “amounted to conclusions without facts.” I also note in The Mirage Man that on the night of October 10, 2002, Senator Tom Harkin of South Dakota, a liberal Democrat, was among those who gave voice to the impact of the letter attacks before casting his vote in favor of authorizing the president to launch war: “I understand the grave danger posed to America and the whole international community by weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a reckless dictator like Saddam Hussein. Since the terrorist hijackings and anthrax attacks in America last year, which wantonly took the lives of more than 3,000 people, all Americans are rightly concerned about the safety of our homeland.”
President Bush commented cryptically in his fall 2010 memoir, “The biggest question during the anthrax attack was where it was coming from. One of the best intelligence services in Europe told us it suspected Iraq.”
Why is the Army still experimenting with anthrax and things like that?
As a direct consequence of the anthrax letter attacks, Congress passed and then-President George W. Bush signed into law legislation that adds billions of dollars a year of federal support for research on anthrax and other pathogens that could be used in another biological attack. The Army is continuing to conduct such research, and now so are the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a component of the National Institutes of Health. Such research also is ongoing at well over 200 other labs operated by universities or private interests. The objective of all this research is to develop new products, such as vaccines or antibiotics, that might better protect us in the event of an attack.
Does this kind of work make us any safer—or does it put us more at risk?
By drastically increasing the number of labs—and in doing so enlisting thousands more researchers to handle anthrax and other deadly pathogens, the federal government is gambling that new medical “countermeasures” might emerge. And perhaps they will. In the meantime, however, these efforts have immediately increased the opportunity for another wayward insider to abscond with a deadly germ and unleash it on the American public.
What is the one thing that surprised you as you wrote this book?
What surprised me most is that, despite the myriad signs of his instability, the United States Army at no point sought to evaluate Bruce Ivins’s mental fitness to handle anthrax. Even though Ivins disclosed on routine Army medical forms that he was taking medication for mental disorders, officials never dug deeper.
My research found that Army officials, rather than trying to assess Ivins’s well-being, deferred to his status as a respected, Ph.D. scientist and avoided doing anything that might have disturbed his privacy. I learned the Army does things altogether differently regarding personnel who handle nuclear or chemical warfare materials: At the first hint of potential instability, any employee handling these materials is pulled from sensitive duties and a concerted effort is made to identify the scope of the related circumstances.
You fault the press in your book. Tell us about that.
It was obvious from the outset that I couldn’t write honestly about the anthrax letter attacks without taking into account wildly inaccurate media accounts that both sowed and amplified confusion about what happened. Some of this confusion persists, and it inhibits the learning and application of essential lessons. For instance, on October 26, 2001, Brian Ross of ABC News broke what the network billed as a major exclusive, claiming that tests found that the anthrax mailed to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle had been treated with an additive, bentonite, a signature of Saddam Hussein’s bio-warfare program.
Other news organizations published similar accounts. On May 1, 2002, JAMA, the influential Journal of the American Medical Association, published an article stating—with no footnote or cited basis of any kind—that the anthrax used in the letter attacks had been “treated to reduce clumping” and was of “weapons grade.” My research found that these accounts were inaccurate: no tests found bentonite in the anthrax sent through the mail, and the powder was in no way treated to reduce clumping, a weaponizing process that would have strongly suggested sponsorship by Iraq or another foreign bio-warfare program.
To this day, neither ABC nor JAMA has retracted those inaccurate accounts. In response to my questions, Ross said that his sources, unnamed, had been “very wrong.” Another facet of media coverage that I focused on were the many accounts that pilloried Steven Hatfill, who ultimately won a $5.82 million legal settlement and a letter of exoneration from the government.
Among the most glaringly wrong accounts were columns written in 2002 by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times. Kristof, initially referring to Hatfill anonymously, wrote that, “His anthrax vaccinations are up to date, he unquestionably had the ability to make first-rate anthrax.” Soon thereafter, Kristof wrote that the FBI “knows that Mr. Z” gave the antibiotic Cipro to others at an “isolated residence” which might be among “safe houses operated by American intelligence.”
Sworn testimony and other information I reviewed showed that, in fact, Hatfill did not have up-to-date anthrax vaccinations as of the fall of 2001 and that, as a virologist, he had at no point been known to have handled anthrax, a bacterium. I also found no evidence that Hatfill gave Cipro to anyone—let alone at an isolated residence with possible ties to a shadowy intelligence network. On August 28, 2008, Kristof wrote in his column, “I owe an apology to Dr. Hatfill.” However, neither Kristof nor the New York Times acknowledged factual errors.
Why did you write The Mirage Man?
I took on this project for a couple of related reasons. Though overshadowed by the September 11 attacks, the anthrax mailings stand as perhaps the most consequential crimes in American history. Yet I found in my research that U.S. national security policy has not applied the essential lessons to be learned from the mailings: The evidence shows we were attacked by a savvy, well-positioned insider.
I found that even the most basic facts and circumstances surrounding the anthrax attacks remain badly confused. For instance, the totality of evidence that I reviewed provided no credible indication that a foreign government or terrorist group played any role whatsoever. The evidence also shows clearly that the anthrax powder was not chemically treated—a crucial fact because such “weaponization” would suggest the involvement of a rogue, state-sponsored bio-warfare program.
Here’s what I have in mind when I cite the serious, direct consequences of the mailings: The Patriot Act was rushed to passage in a panicked atmosphere. Baseless claims of Saddam Hussein’s complicity led to the exploitation of the mailings as a pretext for launching war against Iraq. Finally, in direct response to the anthrax letters, there has been a proliferation of bio-containment labs and, through “Project BioShield,” billions of additional federal dollars are supporting development of medical products to combat pathogens that could be used for biological terrorism.
Nonetheless, proposals to seriously tighten controls over who handles these pathogens—and how the work is conducted—have been successfully opposed by defenders of Bruce Ivins and other leaders of the bio-defense community. My hope is that The Mirage Man can help the public and policy makers by distinguishing between verifiable facts and baseless speculation.