POLITICS

REPORT: White House Pressured FBI To Link Anthrax Letters To Al Qaida

08/09/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

***UPDATE 8/4 3:40 PM***

ThinkProgress reports on a story in the New York Daily News saying that the White House reportedly pressed the FBI to make a connection between the anthrax letters and Al Qaida. Click here to read the story.

After the Oct. 5, 2001, death from anthrax exposure of Sun photo editor Robert Stevens, Mueller was "beaten up" during President Bush's morning intelligence briefings for not producing proof the killer spores were the handiwork of terrorist mastermind Osama Bin Laden, according to a former aide.

"They really wanted to blame somebody in the Middle East," the retired senior FBI official told The News.

***UPDATE 8/4 10:30 AM***

NPR ran a story today about how the FBI may be jumping to conclusions regarding the suicide of Bruce Ivins, the man suspected of sending letters containing anthrax to prominent US figures following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Click here to read the story.

While they had written up the case and told officials at the Department of Justice they were prepared to go forward, the department had not yet approved the case. What is more, the evidence against Ivins had not yet been presented in its entirety to a grand jury and jurors had not yet been asked to vote on an indictment. That process could have taken weeks.

There had been some media reports saying that Ivins killed himself on Tuesday because he had been told that he was going to be indicted imminently. People close to the case told NPR that the FBI had a discussion with Ivins' lawyer and had presented him with some of the evidence in the case.

But the idea at the time was to convince Ivins' lawyer that it was in his client's best interest to admit to mailing envelopes with anthrax in the fall of 2001. People close to the investigation said it wasn't so much a plea discussion as the FBI making clear that they were steaming toward an indictment of Ivins.

The FBI is expected to release more details of the case sometime this week.

Time also posted a story today saying that while the argument that Ivins may have been responsible for the letters is not without evidence, neither is it without faults. Click here to read that story.

For now, we do know that Bruce Ivins had a history of hiding relatively minor anthrax-related security breaches from his supervisors. He also was well-positioned to access anthrax, and his lab benefited enormously in money and resources from the fall-out of the anthrax attacks. Along with other scientists, he was listed as a co-inventor on two patents for an anthrax vaccine, and he could have stood to gain financially from the rise in vaccinations that followed the anthrax attacks. Days before his death, he was accused by a counselor of making violent threats.

But when it comes to the FBI and the anthrax investigation (or "Amerithrax," as the Feds so inelegantly call it), things are rarely as they first appear. Ivins had been cooperating with the FBI for six years, according to his attorney. In other cases, that's what happens when the FBI doesn't have a smoking gun but wants to wear a suspect down into confessing. But it's worth remembering that just one month ago, the federal government paid $5.8 million to Steven Hatfill, another scientist who worked at the very same research lab. Hatfill's name had been leaked to the media as a primary suspect during the years-long bioterrorism investigation. He was never arrested or charged, and when he sued the government for ruining his career, a federal judge found "not a scintilla of evidence" linking Hatfill to the mailings. Hatfill's lawyer, Thomas Connolly, said neither he nor his client had any comment on Ivins.

*** UDATE 8/1 3:00 PM ***

The New York Times' blog, The Lede, asks what might happen if the case were to be closed following this death, especially since the FBI has already been successfully sued for false accusation in this case by another suspect, Dr. Steven Hatfill. Click here to read the post.

The echoes between Dr. Hatfill and Dr. Ivins seem to resonate, leading some to wonder whether the government was once again jumping to conclusions in the case. "Is this going to be Hatfill-2?," Brad Garrett, a former F.B.I. agent who worked the anthrax case, asked ABC News.

With the Justice Department officially mum for the moment, the questions will only grow louder. It falls to the department to say whether that question at the top of this post ought to be repunctuated into a statement -- but an unnamed official told The Associated Press today that the department had not yet decided whether to declare "Case Closed."

If it does so without further explanation, at least one detail will be gleanable from the outcome. "If the case is closed soon," an official told the A.P., "that will indicate that Ivins was the lone suspect."


***

Prompted by the apparent suicide of Bruce Ivins, the FBI's lead suspect in the anthrax mailings that followed 9/11, Salon's Glenn Greenwald extensively reexamines the case today, and how the attacks were used by lead the American people to support the invasion of Iraq. Click here to read the full story.

The 2001 anthrax attacks remain one of the great mysteries of the post-9/11 era. After 9/11 itself, the anthrax attacks were probably the most consequential event of the Bush presidency. One could make a persuasive case that they were actually more consequential. The 9/11 attacks were obviously traumatic for the country, but in the absence of the anthrax attacks, 9/11 could easily have been perceived as a single, isolated event. It was really the anthrax letters -- with the first one sent on September 18, just one week after 9/11 -- that severely ratcheted up the fear levels and created the climate that would dominate in this country for the next several years after. It was anthrax -- sent directly into the heart of the country's elite political and media institutions, to then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD), Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt), NBC News anchor Tom Brokow, and other leading media outlets -- that created the impression that social order itself was genuinely threatened by Islamic radicalism.

On a related note, John McCain was among the first politicians to link the anthrax letters to Iraq, as a clip from the October 18, 2001 Late Show with David Letterman, where McCain appeared as a guest, reveals. ThinkProgress has the story.

Transcript:

LETTERMAN: How are things going in Afghanistan now?

MCCAIN: I think we're doing fine .... I think we'll do fine. The second phase -- if I could just make one, very quickly -- the second phase is Iraq. There is some indication, and I don't have the conclusions, but some of this anthrax may -- and I emphasize may -- have come from Iraq.

LETTERMAN: Oh is that right?

MCCAIN: If that should be the case, that's when some tough decisions are gonna have to be made.

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