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I don't often do the Glenn Reynolds-style "Here's something someone else wrote – read the whole thing heh" posts but I've had the urge to reproduce a particular story in full. It will be difficult to explain the period between 9/12/2001 and the 2004 Election to future generations. It's sort of like the Red Scare or any other political-moral panic; you had to live through it to understand the extent to which the mass public bought into things that look patently stupid, even quaint, in hindsight.
The following is a Wall Street Journal editorial (from the board, not a single author) from 10/15/2001, right on the heels of one of the most fascinating news stories of our lifetime: the anthrax letter attacks on major media outlets and the offices of Pat Leahy and Tom Daschle. The fascinating thing, in my opinion, is the extent to which the incident dominated the news cycle for about 3 months and then completely disappeared. When it was finally resolved many years after the fact, not one media outlet or political figure offered a mea culpa for what they said and did during the initial hysteria. Consider the following (with a couple of my bolds; original here):
The usual government and media suspects are advising Americans not to "panic" amid the latest anthrax mailings, and of course that's right. The risks to any single person are small enough that it makes little sense to stockpile Cipro or buy a gas mask. But we hope all the cautionary words don't deflect attention from the genuinely scary prospect here: State sponsorship.
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft says it is "premature" to declare any link among the three anthrax mailings to three different American states, or any one of them to the September 11 attacks. And, yes, it is possible that three copycats decided, independently, that now was the time to airmail the anthrax they had somehow stockpiled for just such a terror occasion.
But it's not very likely. The more rational hypothesis is that these were organized acts of terror, and that the anthrax wasn't produced in random basements.
Several circumstantial links to Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network are already known. Some of the World Trade Center hijackers, including suspected ringleader Mohamed Atta, visited an airfield near the site of the Boca Raton, Florida, anthrax mailings.
The anthrax package sent to a Microsoft office in Reno, Nevada, was mailed from Malaysia, another al Qaeda haunt. One of the September 11 hijackers, Khaled Almihdhar, visited Malaysia earlier this year, appearing in a surveillance tape with another suspected associate of bin Laden. The terrorist's followers also met in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, in January 2000 as part of the plot to bomb the USS Cole in Yemen later the same year.
As for the package sent to NBC in New York, it was postmarked on September 18 from Trenton, New Jersey. That state, especially Jersey City, was the home of the first attempt to destroy the World Trade Center in 1993, a plot also linked to bin Laden associates.
More generally, as Dick Cheney said last Friday on PBS's "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," "We know that [bin Laden] has over the years tried to acquire weapons of mass destruction, both biological and chemical weapons." Mr. Cheney added that the U.S. has obtained "copies of the manuals" that al Qaeda "actually used to train people" in how "to deploy and use these kinds of substances."
Which brings us to who might have supplied bin Laden's gang. The likeliest answer is some government. Growing your own anthrax isn't difficult but turning it into a useful weapon is. Terrorist bands have in the past tried to use anthrax as a weapon, notably in Japan, but failed. Liquid anthrax is useless for terror and keeping airborne anthrax spores in the proper form to kill isn't easy.
The U.S. cases have apparently all involved a powdered form of the disease. And this weekend's left-wing British Guardian newspaper cites intelligence sources as saying that, "Making powder needs repeated washings in huge centrifuges, followed by intensive drying, which requires sealed environments. The technology would cost millions." Bin Laden couldn't be doing all this in Afghan caves.
The leading supplier suspect has to be Iraq. Saddam Hussein used weapons-grade anthrax against his own Kurdish population with lousy results, before turning to more efficiently lethal chemical weapons. U.S. intelligence sources believe Saddam has stockpiled thousands of pounds of biological agents, including anthrax. U.S. officials let Saddam know during the Gulf War that if he used such agents against U.S. forces he would get a destructive response.
But that doesn't mean he, or his agents, might not want to unleash the weapon from a deniable distance, or via third parties. His anti-American animus hasn't lessened since his Gulf defeat. And Czech government sources have reported that Atta, the hijacking mastermind, met at least once with Iraqi diplomat Ahmad Samir Al-Ani in Prague.
We rehearse all this because the best defense against anthrax attacks isn't passing out Cipro to every American. It is to go on relentless offense against the terrorist sources. In this sense the anthrax scare has boomeranged on the terrorists. American public support for the bombing in Afghanistan has actually risen since the first anthrax reports.
Ending this war won't end terror, of course. Saddam or no, others will want to use anthrax or the like, and even after this week we still believe the greatest threat is nuclear terrorism. Americans are simply going to have to live from now on with a certain level of risk. The good news is that most Americans have been doing precisely that, with 110,000 showing up at Michigan Stadium as usual this autumn weekend.
New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani put it well the other day when he said that Americans should begin to behave the way the British did during the London blitz: Cope with the danger when it appears but otherwise go cheerfully about your lives. Meanwhile, the government has to do everything possible to destroy the anthrax threat at its state-sponsored source.
And that, son, was what 2001 and 2002 were like. This passed for an argument – and a good one, one that originated from and was persuasive at the highest levels of the media and government. Of course the editorial board was right about the "state sponsorship" part. The perpetrator was an old white American guy – not a Muslim terrorist, not an ex-KGB mercenary, not the Animal Liberation Front – working for the Department of Defense at Fort Detrick, where he had unrestricted access to the good shit. That the eventual outcome of this situation could have received so little attention in the media (and that the public could be so disinterested in demanding an explanation) is nothing short of amazing.
You'd think they would feel guilty enough to offer a "Whoops! Ha ha, we really screwed the family dog on that whole anthrax incident we used to amplify the Iraq War drumbeat. Turns out it was an American! Isn't that weird?" story. Instead they assumed we forgot about it and proceeded to do likewise.