Sunday, August 03, 2008

9-18 Conspiracy Theories

This is getting creepy. I have always been scornful of 9-11 conspiracy theorists, and remain so today. But now Glenn Greenwald, who I have always respected, is beginning to sound almost like a 9-11 conspiracy theorist when talking about the anthrax attacks that followed. Are even respectable people sinking into paranoia, or is something genuinely sinister happening here?

To recap, a week after the 9-11 attacks (September 18), major newspapers and new networks received envelopes containing anthrax spores and threatening letters saying "9-11-01" and "Death to America. Death to Israel. Allah is great." In October, similar letters were sent to Democratic Senators Tom Daschle (the Majority Leader) and Patrick Leahy (Chairman of the Judiciary Committee). In the overheated atmosphere of the time, most people suspected Arab terrorists. When the second batch of letters appeared to contain weapons-grade anthrax, many people blamed Saddam Hussein. However, further FBI investigation determined that the anthrax was a US strain developed at the Army Medical Research Institute at Ft. Detrick, and the water used the process it came from the northeastern United States. The attack came from inside.

None of this so far is the stuff of paranoia. Recall the distinction between real conspiracies and imagined ones. Real conspiracies are characterized by (1) a limited number of participants, (2) limited duration and (3) limited objectives. They also create positive evidence of their existence. Sending out the anthrax appears to have been an inside job, but it required only a single participant (one participant doesn't even rate as a conspiracy). The time between the 9-11 attacks and the second anthrax mailing was about one month. The mailer's objective is unknown, but it appears to have been to intensify the fear of Arab terrorism. The sender may have seen himself as trying to awaken a still-complacent nation to its true danger. And whoever send out the anthrax did, indeed, create physical evidence that the spores were American in origin and probably came from Ft. Detrick. The FBI never managed to solve the mystery, but at least decisively debunked claims that the anthrax came from overseas.

In the aftermath of the anthrax mailings, the White House constantly urged the FBI to find a link to Al-Qaeda. Government officials and commentators in outlets such as the Guardian, the Wallstreet Journal and CNN speculated that Iraq might be behind the attacks. This appears to have been speculation rather than conspiracy. Many Bush Administration hawks and conservative commentators were determined to have a war with Iraq and eager to attribute just about anything to Saddam Hussein. And the speculation is not entirely unreasonable. If the anthrax was, after all, weapons grade, there are only a limited number of sources and Iraq had, after all, made biological weapons in the past.

Things start looking more sinister on October 26, 2001, when ABC News reported actual evidence implicating Iraq. According to ABC, lab reports showed the presence of bentonite in the anthrax, and only Iraq weaponized anthrax with bentonite. The report was false. There was not bentonite in the anthrax. And here is where it becomes disturbing. The source of the report was three or four independent sources in the investigation at Ft. Detrick. As Glenn Greenwald points out, the sources making these false reports came from the same place that the anthrax originated. Our conspiracy has now jumped from a single member to four, and the motive is now beginning to look like an attempt to encourage war with Iraq. Suddenly the targets take on added significance. The attack was aimed, not at random Americans, but at the elite, people who would have real influence on whether to invade Iraq. And the targets were two Democratic leaders and the purportedly liberal MSM, people who might otherwise have opposed the invasion, but were more likely to get on board if they felt personally targeted.

Or maybe something less sinister was happening. Maybe the four anonymous individuals at the lab were simply repeating false reports they received from the actual anthrax mailer. Maybe they were in shock and denial about being the source. Or maybe they were trying to protect a friend and colleague.

In any even, the White House quite truthfully denied reports of bentonite in the anthrax. Naturally the usual suspects proclaimed the ABC report as proof Saddam Hussein was behind the attacks and blasted the White House for failing to come out and say so. Nothing very conspiratorial about that. Certain neoconservative hawks were determined to have their war with Iraq no matter what and eagerly seized on anything to support them. White House motives are a bit more intriguing. Were they simply making an innocent denial of a false rumor? Or was it a clever calculation that an unofficial report, officially denied, would carry more weight than an official statement? Or simply fear of being caught lying?

But even assuming the worse so far, we have only a conspiracy of four members wanting war with Iraq and taking actions to reinforce hawks' pre-existing notions and undermine doves' potential resistence. The fact that warhawks did, indeed, allow their prejudices to be confirmed is no evidence of any conspiracy on their part.

But it really starts to get disturbing when Greenwald quotes columnist Richard Cohen as saying that an unnamed "high government official" warned him to take Cipro against anthrax shortly before the anthrax mailings. Now this is starting to look alarming. As blogger Atrios says:

Years later it apparently does not occur to American's Funniest Pundit to ask why a "high government official" was warning media figures to start popping Cipro in the aftermath of 9/11. I can see why, at the time, the obvious interpretation would be that there was intelligence about possible biological attacks. But now that we know that the US gov't believes that anthrax came from the inside, shouldn't Cohen be a wee bit curious about what this warning was based on?
This is so alarming it starts to look like tinfoil hat territory. So, trying to avoid sinking into utter paranoia, let us consider the possibilities:
  1. It was purely a coincidence. The government was in a generally paranoid mood following 9-11 trying to imagine all possible terrorist attacks. Anthrax was one such possiblity.
  2. Someone at Ft. Detrick heard the government was getting paranoid about anthrax and started getting ideas. (And, in fact, if the government was paranoid about anthrax, it would almost certainly have been putting Ft. Detrick, an Army medical research lab, on alert).
  3. The anthrax plotter(s) were actively feeding the paranoia by spreading rumors before the attack. (And perhaps also sought to reduce casualties by encouraging people to take Cipro).
  4. There was a wider conspiracy.

My own inclination is to be skeptical of (1) and (4) and to favor either (2) or (3). But whatever the case, Glenn Greenwald is right. Perhaps there was only one anthrax plotter, who misled his colleagues. Maybe there were several. Or maybe the tinfoil hat crowd are less crazy than we think. But we really need to be investigating not only the origins of the anthrax, but also the origins of the tips about anthrax in order to discover how many people were involved. Or even respectable people may start sinking into paranoia.

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