TIME CAPSULE

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.

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23 Responses to “TIME CAPSULE”

  1. Cassie Says:

    Jesus christ Ed, stop scaring the shit out of me.

  2. beau Says:

    Yeah, but the paranoia was balanced by the rockin out to the BahaMen, Linkin Park, Shaggy and RKelly!

    What a time to be alive.

  3. HoosierPoli Says:

    An old white American guy who was part of the investigation of himself and fed ABC news false information suggesting the anthrax was Iraqi.

    So at least part of the case for war against Iraq was in fact criminal obstruction.

  4. Elder Futhark Says:

    Oklahoma City. Obviously, Middle Eastern terrorists. 'nuff said?

  5. Elder Futhark Says:

    Oh, Cassie, Cassie, Cassie. If you want, I could REALLY scare the shit out of you with declassified stuff. And the secret stuff? Oh my!

  6. Hazy Davy Says:

    Actually, those years were *weirder* than that.
    (At the same time, didn't we have the happy-face pipe bomber who thought he was some interdimensional-traveller…a kid who was so high, it was embarrassing that it took a few weeks to catch him. During that few weeks, of course Osama was purported to be drawing happy faces across the country with bombs.)

    ObL and Iraq were the easy bogeymen, and they were blamed for the Anthrax stuff, the D.C. sniper, the happy-face bomber, and Dick Cheney's bouts with constipation. If you really had no leads as a crime investigator, you could just say "ObL", and people nodded along and said "I knew it!"

  7. SeaTea Says:

    I'm with HoosierPoli. This part: "Results of the investigation were initially distributed to the public via ABC News claiming "four well placed sources" attesting to the fact that "trace amounts of the chemical additives bentonite" were found in the anthrax samples, and that this was the chemical signatures of Iraqi-made anthrax. It has been confirmed that bentonite was never actually found in the anthrax samples." is what scares the shit out of me.

    How easy it would be to have someone do something like this to make the case for war with Iraq more concrete, then get rid of them afterward.

  8. lm Says:

    How can we "share" your posts on facebook?

  9. Ed Says:

    Huh. I used to have links at the bottom of every post. I had a plugin that took care of that. Must have forgotten to update it.

    For now, I guess you have to do the old fashioned thing and copy/paste the URL.

  10. Ed Says:

    Fixed.

  11. Graham Says:

    Another fine point in a fine and literate and intelligent blog.

    However may I make a suggestion?

    Would you please consult a dictionary and aquaint yourself with the difference in meaning between two very important concepts: "disinterest" and "uninterest."

    Thank you.

  12. OneMadClown Says:

    With all due respect Graham, Ed's (and a great many others) usage is well established.

    From Dictionary.com:

    —Usage note
    Disinterested and uninterested share a confused and confusing history. Disinterested was originally used to mean “not interested, indifferent”; uninterested in its earliest use meant “impartial.” By various developmental twists, disinterested is now used in both senses. Uninterested is used mainly in the sense “not interested, indifferent.” It is occasionally used to mean “not having a personal or property interest.”
    Many object to the use of disinterested to mean “not interested, indifferent.” They insist that disinterested can mean only “impartial”: A disinterested observer is the best judge of behavior. However, both senses are well established in all varieties of English, and the sense intended is almost always clear from the context.

  13. Matthew Says:

    Graham, I'd like to send you an online coupon to order some aloe from Amazon, because I do believe that you just got fucking burned.

  14. Crazy for Urban Planning Says:

    Ed – you are spot on – that period (I would extend it to the Hurricane Katrina disaster) may be as close to all out fascism the country as gone. Every day I'm amazed that these "terrorist acts" don't happen more often. It would be so easy to have another D.C. sniper incident or for someone to start blowing up shopping malls, highway overpasses, any number of basically unguarded places that would cause a great deal of inconvenience for all of us. I hope what we can learn from those years is that inconveniences are not reasons for us to start wars.

  15. Ed Says:

    From his IP, Graham appears to be Australian and it is possible that the conventions of usage in Aussie English are more rigid.

  16. Matthew Says:

    Well, I'll switch that online coupon so that it's good at http://www.target.com.au then, since there is no Australian Amazon.

  17. Chris Says:

    You forgot:
    Airplane engine falling off of jet in NYC (Answer-oops, we forgot to tighten the bolts/air turbulence)

    Exploding manholes in downtown DC (Answer- gas leak and sparking telecom lines/steam leaks)

    'UFO' over Minneapolis (Answer- weather balloon that nobody reported launched or lost)

    What I loved about those years was the multiple choice answers. It was a Chose Your Adventure story for everyone. We shall go to war to A) stop terrorism pg.4 B) stop a sponsor of terror pg.7 C) spread democracy pg. 12

    *Yes, really. All these stories were in major dailies like Wash. Post, Star Trib., CNN

  18. waldo Says:

    I'd only read three words of the post when I thought Anthrax. There's many doubts as to whether the case was really solved.

    Point:17) Anthrax
    Mailings of weapons-grade anthrax – which caused a practical suspension of the 9/11 investigations – were traced back to US military stock. Soon after the attacks began in October 2001, the FBI approved the destruction of the original samples of the Ames strain, disposing of perhaps the most important evidence in identifying the source of the pathogens used in the mailings. Were the anthrax attacks timed to coincide with the Afghanistan invasion? Why were the letters sent only to media figures and to the leaders of the opposition in the Senate (who had just raised objections to the USA PATRIOT Act) ~
    http://www.911truth.org/article.php?story=20041221155307646

    http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Front_Page/LB25Aa01.html Also.

    Personally I don't think the case was properly resolved though I don't believe the official explanation for 9/11 either.

  19. waldo Says:

    And talking of Glenzilla

    Apr 21, 2010 04:22 EDT
    Unlearned lessons from the Steven Hatfill case

    http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/

  20. grendelkhan Says:

    For me, the densest moment of early-2000s insanity was Glenn Reynolds crowing that Americans had been greeted as liberators, that the war had been won, and that "claims of a 'quagmire' were wrong".

    In his 2006 defense of that post, he claims that American casualties are falling as Iraqis "pick up the slack", and that, darn it, he was right all along and has absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. But then, he'd say that. Back in 2003, everybody seemed to believe him.

    "TRIBES" : Hurricane Katrina :: That Instapundit post : Iraq War

  21. grendelkhan Says:

    I should also point to Glenn Greenwald's collection of circa-2003 nuttiness. As he put it: "Going back and reading it really creates the sensation of people who were living in a world that combines the worst elements of Disney World and Pravda."

  22. beau Says:

    Thanks, grendel. Great links. I honestly think my brain had suppressed some of that in order to protect me.

    Also, Reynolds' response mentions Oz's own Andrew Bolt. Google this name. Just for shits and giggles.

    Most Australian conservative bobbleheads are of the English, lords n' ladies school. Not Bolty. He's our Reynolds, our O'Reilly. No bow too long, no backhanded, whispered insinuation too grubby. His favorite thing in the world? Calling anyone who disagrees with him Nazis.

    The Australian Greens Party? – Nazis (Hitler had some ideas about animal rights and homeopathy. Case closed).

    Climate change Crowd? – Nazis (Green shirt rallies "eerily similar to Nuremburg". Case closed again! Man, he's good!).

    And the title of his latest book collecting his wildly inaccurate and/or completely fictional columns? "Still Not Sorry".

    Fitting, no?

  23. beau Says:

    Damn, in my exitement I forgot to mention how much Andrew *heart* the war in Iraq, and anything and everything that came out of the Bush White House. That was the point.

    Damn.