While Media Spotlights One Anthrax Suspect, Another Is Too Hot to Touch

By Hanley, Delinda Curtiss | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September/October 2002 | Go to article overview

While Media Spotlights One Anthrax Suspect, Another Is Too Hot to Touch


Hanley, Delinda Curtiss, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Delinda Curtiss Hanley is the news editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

America's mainstream press finds some stories too hot to handle. One of the most egregious examples of this is its coverage of the hunt for the perpetrator of the post-9/11 anthrax letters--a matter of concern to all Americans. After an initial flurry of reports, the media inexplicably ignored the FBI's laborious search for the person who last fall mailed anthrax-laced letters to news organizations and the Capitol Hill offices of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (S-SD) and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-VT).

Did the U.S. media merely lose interest after the government failed to find an Iraqi or al-Qaeda connection, and therefore could not link the postal terrorism to Sept. 11? Or was the press warned off the sensitive subject? After months of silence, in August the subject of the anthrax attacks once again hit the newspapers and network TV stations. The scientist in the spotlight, however, may be little more than a hapless "fall guy."

Five people died and more than a dozen more were made seriously ill from exposure to the deadly Ames variety of anthrax. Americans across the country feared opening their mail. It's a safe bet that, had a Muslimor Arab-American scientist been the prime suspect, press coverage would have been unrelenting.

Apparently journalists' interests weren't sufficiently aroused by the FBI profile of a disgruntled American bioweapons scientist who may have launched the lethal attack merely to help his career and increase government funding in his area of expertise. This homegrown terrorist murdered innocents, sowed fear across the United States, and created chaos in the U.S. and international postal services, but for 10 months he stayed out of the news.

The still-unknown culprit also sought to throw suspicions on Muslim or Arab terrorists. First there was the timing of the letters--days after the Sept. 11 attack. The first anthrax letters, as well as some hoax letters, were mailed Sept. 18 to 25. The first public report of an anthrax case in Florida was not until Oct. 4.

Then there was the text: the letters clearly intended to imply the writer was of Middle Eastern origin and included deliberate misspellings (the letters suggested taking "penacilin"), a Star of David, as well as threats to Israel, Chicago's Sears Tower, and President George W. Bush. Someone obviously hoped to focus attention on an Arab scapegoat. The perpetrator added to the already terrible woes of Arabs and Muslims living in the United States post-Sept. 11.

The letters could very well have sparked internment camps for Arab Americans, who already faced backlash from the Sept. 11 terror attacks. The U.S. might have launched a military attack on Iraq, as rumors circulated that Saddam Hussain was to blame for the anthrax attacks. Fortunately, early on federal investigators discounted the Arab terrorist theory--although plenty of outsiders still can't give it up.

The FBI narrowed its search for the terrorist to 200 scientists who had worked with the U.S. anthrax program in the last five years. The investigation focused on Fort Detrick's Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Maryland, the military's premier bioterrorism complex, and one of only four laboratories with the capability for weaponizing anthrax. Only 50 scientists had access to the Ames strain found in all the letter samples, and perhaps only 30 knew the particular technique used to weaponize the anthrax used in the letters, a technique developed in Ft. Detrick by William Patrick. The FBI interviewed former and current bioterrorism scientists, and conducted polygraph tests and home searches.

A Feb. 26 New York Times article cast suspicion on a Somali Muslim student at an unnamed Midwestern university. It was soon confirmed, however, that the student could not have had any knowledge of Patrick's weaponization technique. …

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