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About that Anthrax

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About that Anthrax...

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updated: June 9, 2003

Warbaby says:

Between Bush and the press, most Americans believed that Iraq had something to do with the anthrax attacks.  Actually, it was the other way around -- the anthrax had a lot to do with deciding to attack Iraq.

Immediately following the anthrax attacks of September and October 2001, there was considerable speculation about the possibility the attacks were "state sponsored."  In plain language, people wanted to know if the attacks were:

  • domestic terrorism
  • international terrorism
  • or an act of war by a foreign government

The letters which contained the anthrax all bore the heading "9-11" and contained language suggesting the person who wrote them was a Muslim.  There was also the remarkable coincidence that Mohammed Atta, the leader rented an apartment in Florida from the wife of an employee at American Media, Inc -- the site of the first fatality.  Following the discovery of the letters sent to the US Senate, there was considerable controversy over whether the powder was "weaponized" and if so, possibly the product of a state-sponsored weapons program.

Bob Woodward's book, Bush At War describes the following White House discussion of October 17, 2001:

They turned to the hot topic of anthrax.  The powder in the letter mailed to Senator Daschle's office had been found to be potent, prompting officials to suggest its source was likely an expert capable of producing the bacteria in large amounts.  Tenet said, "I think it's AQ" --meaning al Qaeda.  "I think there's a state sponsor involved.  It's too well thought out, the powder's too well refined.  It might be Iraq, it might be Russia, it might be a renegade scientist," perhaps from Iraq or Russia.

Scooter Libby, Cheney's chief of staff, said he also thought the anthrax attacks were state-sponsored.  "We've got to be careful on what we say." It was important not to lay it on anyone now.  "if we say it's al Qaeda, a state sponsor may feel safe and then hit us thinking they will have a bye because we'll blame it on al Qaeda."

"I'm not going to talk about a state sponsor," Tenet assured them.

"It's good that we don't," said Cheney, "because we're not ready to do anything about it."

Two weeks later, the White House remained convinced the 9/11 attacks and the anthrax were somehow related to each other.  This passage, also from Bush At War, took place on November 3, 2001 during a meeting of the National Security Council:

"The bad guys are looking for good news in the next few days," [Deputy CIA director John E. McLaughlin] told them.  The threat reports were escalating again.

The news on both fronts was bad -- little progress on the ground in Afghanistan and a big possibility of another attack at home.  And that attack may have already started with the mailing of anthrax spores.  The day before, Bush had referred to a "two front war."

All of this information was wrong.  By December 2001, the FBI had sufficient evidence to narrow the search for the anthrax attacker to U.S. biological weapons research personnel.  Handwriting and linguistic analysis of the letters indicated they were written by an American or possibly a Canadian -- but definitely not by a Muslim.  The strain of bacteria was a rare one, restricted to biological weapons research programs of the U.S. and a few key allies.  The stories about "weaponization additives" in the anthrax (supposedly linking the attacks to Iraq) were shown to be false -- though that information was never publicly disclosed by official sources.  Radioisotope dating proved the anthrax was not from old stocks, but had been made in the last two years or less.  The epidemological evidence showed it was made before 9/11.  A glovebox believed to be used to prepare the letters has been found in a pond not too far from Washingington DC.

None of this had the least effect on the delusions in the National Security Council, the Pentagon, the State Department or the White House.  A year after the FBI had categorically ruled out a foreign state or terrorist organization as the source of the attacks, Secretary of State Colin Powell appeared before the United Nations and continued to do a "nudge-nudge, wink-wink, say-no-more" song and dance suggesting Iraq possessed biological weapons that were perhaps linked to the anthrax attacks.

The simple-minded explanation of the Bush administration's unwavering belief in the Iraqi WMD threat is that they were callous, cynical and stupid liars.  We are told the statements about Iraq's possession of stockpiles of chemical, biological and (sigh, yes) even nuclear weapons were conscious lies told by people who knew and understood the true facts of the matter.

If this were the case -- the administration believed one thing and said another -- we wouldn't be in such a mess as we are in.  There is a certain amount of comfort to be had by wishing the people in charge know what they are doing (however foul and dishonest their deeds might be.)  It is far easier to sell the political line that people lied than to show they were and continue to be in the grip of a delusion.

However, the old dictum that things are always worse than they seem is coming true with a vengeance.  Looking at the entire situation vis-a-vis the events leading up to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the facts suggest that not just the allegations of Iraqi WMD stockpiles were delusional, but also much of the military and political planning for the war and occupation were built on untrue assumptions.  And that these assumptions were held firmly even when they were shown to be dangerous to achieving military and political success.

So wind the tape back to early October 2001, when the country was reeling with distress and anguish from the 9/11 jetliner attacks by al Qaeda.  In the immediate aftermath of the attacks the official position of the Bush administration was that 9/11 was an "act of war."  Once said, this became the reality despite all the evidence that 9/11 was not an act of war on the part of a hostile state, but a crime committed by a terrorist network which sought to control, overthrow, blackmail or manipulate states.

Having committed the nation to war -- without anything approaching a valid causus belli -- Bush moved towards a realm of unreality from which he could not retreat.

The second blow of the anthrax attacks -- intentionally framed to suggest a Muslim attacker -- pushed Bush over the edge.  Once committed, Bush could not back up; no more than Kaiser Wilhem after he made his Nibelungentreue commitment to Austria and trapped himself into starting WWI.  To waver would show weakness and weakness was worse than defeat. 

Bush "misspoke" himself of a "Crusade."  Rumsfeld promised "a new Hundred Years War." Cheney predicted a conflict that would last "as long as the Cold War," half a century at least.  Samuel Huntington's slyly racist thesis of a "clash of civilizations" became the apocalyptic vision of the hour. 

And so we were, like it or not, condemned to war without end.

And what of the anthrax attacker?  The FBI has fumbled and fiddled for over a year and a half.  Supposing they ever bring the culprits to trial, will the motive of pushing the country into war on false pretenses figure in the prosecution?  Will historians draw parallels between the anthrax which sickened and killed five innocent people and the pistol that felled Archduke Ferdinand of Austria?  Were the hawks panicked into breathing deeply of their own exhaust -- opting for delusion and the sleep of reason?  If we were stampeded into war because fear and uncertainty overwhelmed our leadership, it is even more tragic and shameful than the petty charge that they connived at starting the war for base and petty political gain.

John G. Stoessinger's classic work, Why Nations Go To War, spells out the lessons of the wars of the 20th century.  Here is one of the points he makes about the role of delusion in the road to war:

Thus, on the eve of war, at least one nation misperceives another's power.  In that sense, the beginning of each war is a misperception or an accident.  The war itself then slowly, and in agony, teaches the lesson of reality.