The anthrax case-1: The collusion of the FBI and the media

(The series on the ethics of food will continue later this week.)

The death of Bruce E. Ivins, an anthrax researcher at Fort Detrick, Md has suddenly thrust the ignored anthrax story back into the news.

The fact that Ivins apparently killed himself just when he was about to be indicted by the FBI is being taken as a tacit admission of his guilt. I am not convinced that the case has been made. After all, the FBI previously relentlessly hounded another scientist Steven J. Hatfill with leaks to the media for the same case, so that he lost his job and could not get others. Hatfill fought back and sued the government and they were forced to settle with him in June for $5.8 million. It seems strange that the attention shifted to Ivins just after the collapse of their case against Hatfill.

The FBI and the media (especially NBC, CNN, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution) also hounded another innocent person Richard Jewell for the Olympic bombing, again based on FBI and Justice Department leaks. Eventually NBC and CNN were forced to settle with him.

A similar situation occurred with Los Alamos nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee where a series of FBI leaks passed through the New York Times and Washington Post destroyed his career. He also sued and eventually the government and the media were forced to pay him $1.8 million.

When the government sets its mind to it, it can use its powers to torment people indefinitely to try and break them. As Alexander Cockburn says in the similar persecution of Sami al-Arian, a professor of computer engineering at the University of South Florida.

There are few prospects in the justice system so grimly awful as when the feds decide never to let go. Rebuffed in their persecutions of some target by juries, or by contrary judges, they shift ground, betray solemn agreements, dream up new stratagems to exhaust their victims, drive them into bankruptcy, despair and even suicide. They have all the money and all the time in the world.

This is why the deep politicization of the US Justice Department by the Bush Administration, placing partisan political hacks in positions that should be staffed by career professionals, is so disturbing. Unlike most other government agencies, the Justice Department has the power to target individuals and make their lives hell even if they are completely innocent of any wrongdoing.

Since Ivins knew that the focus had shifted to him and that he would receive the same trial-and-conviction-in-the-public-eye-by-leaks-to-the-media method favored by the government that had destroyed the lives and careers of so many before him, he may well have decided that he did not have the stomach to deal with it, even if he was innocent. The indications are that he was a nerdy, nervous type, not someone with the kind of determination that Hatfill had for being under constant surveillance.

It is reported that cars with detectives were ostentatiously parked in front of his house, thus letting the whole neighborhood know that they had a suspicious person in their midst. Colleagues and friends were repeatedly questioned about him in ways that suggested that the authorities were trying to alienate them from him . He and his whole family were questioned by the FBI, and his family was told that Ivins was the anthrax murderer.

Over the past two years, many who knew him saw the effects of accumulating pressure as the anthrax investigation veered toward him. “He would tell stories about how he would come home and everything he owned would be in piles,” said a Fort Detrick employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity because workers there had been instructed not to talk with reporters. The employee said his files, lab samples and equipment were frequently seized by authorities.

Within the last few months, Ivins seemed to have gone into a mental tailspin that required psychiatric treatment. He could well have decided that he could not take it anymore. The main charges that he might be dangerous come from his estranged brother who had not spoken to him since 1985, and a social worker who said he had threatened her while she was treating him during his recent illness. His brother clearly hated him, telling NPR that he could not think of a single nice thing about him and that he was glad that he was dead.

But while Ivins seems to have been somewhat unorthodox in his work habits and a little eccentric in his personal behavior, they were not in ways that indicated that he was a cold-blooded killer who would also write letters seeking to lay the blame for the anthrax attacks on Muslims. They seemed to be the kinds of idiosyncracies that one often finds amongst researchers, especially scientists. Take this description:

Ivins could frequently be seen walking around his neighborhood for exercise. He volunteered with the American Red Cross of Frederick County, and he played keyboard and helped clean up after Masses at St. John’s the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church, where a dozen parishioners gathered Friday after morning Mass to pray for him.

The Rev. Richard Murphy called Ivins “a quiet man … always very helpful and pleasant.”

An avid juggler, Ivins gave juggling demonstrations around Frederick in the 1980s.

“One time, he demonstrated his juggling skills by lying on his back in the department and juggling with his hands,” said Byrne, who described Ivins as “eccentric.”

Whenever a colleague would leave the bacteriology division, Ivins would write a song or poem for that person and perform it, accompanying himself on keyboard, Byrne said.

Ivins had several letters to the editor published in The Frederick News-Post over the last decade. He denounced taxpayer funding for assisted suicide, pointed readers to a study that suggested a genetic component for homosexuality and said he had stopped listening to local radio station WFMD because he was offended by the language and racially charged commentary of its hosts.

He also commented on the growing political influence of conservative Christians, and he was willing to criticize his church.

“The Roman Catholic Church should learn from other equally worthy Christian denominations and eagerly welcome female clergy as well as married clergy,” Ivins wrote.

Byrne said Ivins appeared to be at peace and that he expressed no interest in the anthrax mailings, even after some letters were sent to Fort Detrick for analysis.

“There are people who you just know are ticking bombs,” Byrne said. “He was not one of them.”

Maybe Ivins was very good at maintaining a façade of normalcy and is the person behind the anthrax attacks. But we should be careful of maligning a man now incapable of defending himself. Now that he is dead one can expect a barrage of unsubstantiated allegations from the FBI, passed on uncritically by the media, aimed at painting him as some kind of homicidal maniac.

While the guilt of Ivins is by no means clear as yet, the media is undoubtedly guilty of misdirecting the public about the anthrax scare and using it to whip up war hysteria against Iraq. The case against the media will be examined tomorrow.

POST SCRIPT: Teach your children

One of the best songs to emerge from the 1960s, sung by Crosby, Stills, and Nash.


  1. Jared says

    Thanks Mano.

    The media has long since forgotten the meaning of ‘innocent until proven guilty’.

  2. Rian says

    One thing that I’ve noticed is that people have a marked tendency to blame the Bush Administration for all of the political ills in the country in a vacuum. While yes, the Bush Administration is one of the more egregious violators (behind the sainted Lincoln, Wilson, and Roosevelt) of our civil liberties, he would be very unlikely to pull off all of these things without the precedents re-established during the Clinton era. Do keep that in mind.

    Glenn Greenwald has an outstanding post on his own blog about the treatment of specifically ABC News on this topic.

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