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Context of 'October 14, 2001: Iraqi Government Is Suspected in Anthrax Attacks'

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The five fatal victims of the anthrax attacks, from to right: Josep Curseen Jr., Thomas Morris, Ottilie Lundgren, Robert Stevens, and Kathy Nguyen. The five fatal victims of the anthrax attacks, from to right: Josep Curseen Jr., Thomas Morris, Ottilie Lundgren, Robert Stevens, and Kathy Nguyen. [Source: Reuters and Associated Press] (click image to enlarge)Two waves of letters containing anthrax are received by media outlets including NBC and the New York Post (see September 17-18, 2001), and Democratic senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy (see October 6-9, 2001). The letters sent to the senators both contain the words “Death to America, Death to Israel, Allah is Great.” Five people die:
bullet October 5: Robert Stevens, 63, an employee at the Sun, a tabloid based in Florida.
bullet October 21: Thomas Morris Jr., 55, a postal worker in Washington, DC.
bullet October 22: Joseph Curseen Jr., 47, a postal worker in Washington, DC.
bullet October 31: Kathy Nguyen, 61, a hospital employee in New York City.
bullet November 21: Ottilie Lundgren, 94, of Oxford, Connecticut.
At least 22 more people get sick but survive. Thirty-one others test positive for exposure. As a result of these deaths and injuries, panic sweeps the nation. On October 16, the Senate office buildings are shut down, followed by the House of Representatives, after 28 congressional staffers test positive for exposure to anthrax (see October 16-17, 2001). A number of hoax letters containing harmless powder turn up, spreading the panic further. [South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 12/8/2001; Associated Press, 8/7/2008] Initially it is suspected that either al-Qaeda or Iraq are behind the anthrax letters (see October 14, 2001, October 15, 2001, October 17, 2001, and October 18, 2001). [Observer, 10/14/2001; BBC, 10/16/2001] However, by November, further investigation leads the US government to conclude that, “everything seems to lean toward a domestic source.… Nothing seems to fit with an overseas terrorist type operation (see November 10, 2001).” [Washington Post, 10/27/2001; St. Petersburg Times, 11/10/2001]

Entity Tags: Iraq, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Patrick J. Leahy, Tom Daschle, Al-Qaeda

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 2001 Anthrax Attacks, US Domestic Terrorism

The Observer reports that investigators of the anthrax attacks (see October 5-November 21, 2001) believe Iraq is the prime suspect. One CIA source says, “They aren’t making this stuff in caves in Afghanistan. ‘This is prima facie evidence of the involvement of a state intelligence agency. Maybe Iran has the capability. But it doesn’t look likely politically. That leaves Iraq.” [Observer, 10/14/2001] However, this theory only remains the predominant one for a few days. On October 19, the New York Times is dismissive of the Iraq theory and suggests al-Qaeda or a disgruntled American loner could be behind the attacks instead (see October 19, 2001). In November, the American loner theory will become predominant (see November 10, 2001). But in late 2002, with war against Iraq growing increasingly likely, the Iraq theory appears to make a comeback (see October 28, 2002).

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, 2001 Anthrax Attacks

The contents of the anthrax letter to the New York Post.The contents of the anthrax letter to the New York Post. [Source: FBI]The New York Times suggests there could be a link between the recent anthrax attacks (see October 5-November 21, 2001) and the 9/11 hijackers. The Times reports that investigators “say they suspect that the rash of contaminated letters is related to the Sept. 11 attacks and are investigating the possibility that al-Qaeda confederates of the hijackers are behind the incidents.… Senior government officials said investigators were focusing on the ability of the hijackers or their accomplices to obtain highly refined anthrax from a foreign or domestic supplier. While they have not ruled out the possibility that another criminal could be behind the anthrax attacks, investigators are looking intensely at evidentiary threads linking the letters to the hijackers.”
Little to No Evidence behind this Theory - FBI agents are said to have recently searched the Jersey City home of three men arrested on suspicion of links to the 9/11 attacks after learning they kept some magazines and newspaper articles about biological warfare there. These men include Ayub Ali Khan and Mohammed Azmath. Both men will later be cleared of having any al-Qaeda ties (see October 20, 2001). The hijackers did show some interest in crop dusters, which could be used in a biological attack, but a senior government official says no actual evidence has appeared linking any of the hijackers to the anthrax attacks in any way.
Domestic Loner Theory - The article notes that the FBI is also pursuing a competing theory, “that a disgruntled employee of a domestic laboratory that uses anthrax carried out the attacks.” However, no evidence has emerged yet to support this.
Iraq Not Likely - The article is dismissive of theories that Iraq or another foreign government was behind the attacks. It notes that the anthrax letters used the Ames strain of anthrax, and experts say the Iraqi government never obtained that strain. For instance, former UN weapons inspector Richard Spertzel says, “The Iraqis tried to get it but didn’t succeed.” [New York Times, 10/19/2001]

Entity Tags: Richard Spertzel, Mohammed Azmath, Syed Gul Mohammad Shah

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, Domestic Propaganda, 2001 Anthrax Attacks

Th Los Angeles Times reports, “The FBI is increasingly convinced that the person behind the recent anthrax attacks is a lone wolf within the United States who has no links to terrorist groups but is an opportunist using the Sept. 11 hijackings to vent his rage…” The FBI is said to base this conclusion on “case studies, handwriting and linguistic analysis, forensic data and other evidence.” FBI investigators say they are looking for “an adult male with at least limited scientific expertise who was able to use laboratory equipment easily obtained for as little as $2,500 to produce high-quality anthrax.” They believe he is an “anti-social loner” who “has little contact with the public and carries deep-seated resentments but does not like direct confrontation.” However, these investigators admit that psychological profiling is a rough science, especially since they have little more than a small number of words written on the anthrax-laced letters. The letters appear to have tried to frame Muslims for the attacks. For instance, each letter contains the phrase “Allah is great.” Investigators say they are not completely ruling out an overseas connection to the letters, such as an Iraqi or Russian connection, but they consider it very unlikely. Investigators have not explained why they are so confident the attacks were caused by only one person. [Los Angeles Times, 11/10/2001]

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 2001 Anthrax Attacks, US Domestic Terrorism

The Washington Post reports in a front-page story, “A significant number of scientists and biological warfare experts are expressing skepticism about the FBI’s view that a single disgruntled American scientist prepared the spores and mailed the deadly anthrax letters that killed five people last year.” More than a dozen experts suggest investigators should “reexamine the possibility of state-sponsored terrorism, or try to determine whether weaponized spores may have been stolen by the attacker from an existing, but secret, biodefense program or perhaps given to the attacker by an accomplice.” These experts suggest that making the type of anthrax used could take a team of experts and millions of dollars. The article focuses on the possibility that Iraq could be to blame, and mentions that unnamed senior Bush administration officials believe Iraq was behind the attacks (see October 28, 2002). However, even though the Post claims “a consensus has emerged in recent months among experts,” only one expert, Richard Spertzel, is named who supports the Iraq theory. Spertzel was the chief biological inspector for the UN Special Commission from 1994 to 1998. He says: “In my opinion, there are maybe four or five people in the whole country who might be able to make this stuff, and I’m one of them. And even with a good lab and staff to help run it, it might take me a year to come up with a product as good.” [Washington Post, 10/28/2002] Although the article doesn’t mention it, the other scientists Spertzel say could make the anthrax are renowned bioterrorism expert William Patrick and several unnamed scientists at Dugway Proving Ground, the US Army’s bioweapons laboratory in Utah, that Patrick trained in anthrax production in 1998. [Vanity Fair, 9/15/2003] This renewed focus on an Iraq-anthrax link coincides with the US push to go to war with Iraq, and will fade after the Iraq war starts.

Entity Tags: Richard Spertzel, Federal Bureau of Investigation, William C. Patrick III

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, 2001 Anthrax Attacks

Outgoing Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, one of the key architects of the Iraq occupation, is bemused by the fact that, despite his predictions and those of his neoconservative colleagues, Iraq is teetering on the edge of all-out civil war. He has come under fire from both political enemies and former supporters, with Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) accusing him of deceiving both the White House and Congress, and fellow neoconservative William Kristol accusing him of “being an agent of” disgraced Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (see November 6-December 18, 2006). Feith defends the invasion of Iraq, calling it “an operation to prevent the next, as it were, 9/11,” and noting that the failure to find WMD is essentially irrelevant to the justification for the war. “There’s a certain revisionism in people looking back and identifying the main intelligence error [the assumption of stockpiles] and then saying that our entire policy was built on that error.” Feith is apparently ignoring the fact that the administration’s arguments for invading Iraq—including many of his own assertions—were built almost entirely on the “error” of the Iraqi WMD threat (see July 30, 2001, Summer 2001, September 11, 2001-March 17, 2003, Shortly After September 11, 2001, September 14, 2001, September 19-20, 2001, September 20, 2001, October 14, 2001, November 14, 2001, 2002, 2002-March 2003, February 2002, Summer 2002, August 26, 2002, September 3, 2002, September 4, 2002, September 8, 2002, September 8, 2002, September 10, 2002, September 12, 2002, Late September 2002, September 19, 2002, September 24, 2002, September 24, 2002, September 28, 2002, October 7, 2002, December 3, 2002, December 12, 2002, January 9, 2003, February 3, 2003, February 5, 2003, February 8, 2003, March 22, 2003, and March 23, 2003, among others).
Cultural Understanding Did Not Lead to Success - Feith says he is not sure why what he describes as his deep understanding of Iraqi culture did not lead to accurate predictions of the welcome the US would receive from the Iraqi people (see November 18-19, 2001, 2002-2003, September 9, 2002, and October 11, 2002). “There’s a paradox I’ve never been able to work out,” he says. “It helps to be deeply knowledgeable about an area—to know the people, to know the language, to know the history, the culture, the literature. But it is not a guarantee that you will have the right strategy or policy as a matter of statecraft for dealing with that area. You see, the great experts in certain areas sometimes get it fundamentally wrong.” Who got it right? President Bush, he says. “[E]xpertise is a very good thing, but it is not the same thing as sound judgment regarding strategy and policy. George W. Bush has more insight, because of his knowledge of human beings and his sense of history, about the motive force, the craving for freedom and participation in self-rule, than do many of the language experts and history experts and culture experts.”
'Flowers in Their Minds' - When a reporter notes that Iraqis had not, as promised, greeted American soldiers with flowers, Feith responds that they were still too intimidated by their fear of the overthrown Hussein regime to physically express their gratitude. “But,” he says, “they had flowers in their minds.” [New Yorker, 5/9/2005; Scoblic, 2008, pp. 228-229]

Entity Tags: US Department of Defense, Carl Levin, William Kristol, Douglas Feith

Timeline Tags: Iraq under US Occupation

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