While Media Spotlights One Anthrax Suspect, Another Is Too Hot to Touch

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs | September-October 2002, pages 18-19
By Delinda Curtiss Hanley

America’s mainstream press finds some stories too hot to handle. One of the most egregious examples of this is its coverage of the hunt for the perpetrator of the post-9/11 anthrax letters—a matter of concern to all Americans. After an initial flurry of reports, the media inexplicably ignored the FBI’s laborious search for the person who last fall mailed anthrax-laced letters to news organizations and the Capitol Hill offices of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (S-SD) and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-VT). 

Did the U.S. media merely lose interest after the government failed to find an Iraqi or al-Qaeda connection, and therefore could not link the postal terrorism to Sept. 11? Or was the press warned off the sensitive subject? After months of silence, in August the subject of the anthrax attacks once again hit the newspapers and network TV stations. The scientist in the spotlight, however, may be little more than a hapless “fall guy.” 

Five people died and more than a dozen more were made seriously ill from exposure to the deadly Ames variety of anthrax. Americans across the country feared opening their mail. It’s a safe bet that, had a Muslim- or Arab-American scientist been the prime suspect, press coverage would have been unrelenting.

Apparently journalists’ interests weren’t sufficiently aroused by the FBI profile of a disgruntled American bioweapons scientist who may have launched the lethal attack merely to help his career and increase government funding in his area of expertise. This homegrown terrorist murdered innocents, sowed fear across the United States, and created chaos in the U.S. and international postal services, but for 10 months he stayed out of the news. 

The still-unknown culprit also sought to throw suspicions on Muslim or Arab terrorists. First there was the timing of the letters—days after the Sept. 11 attack. The first anthrax letters, as well as some hoax letters, were mailed Sept. 18 to 25. The first public report of an anthrax case in Florida was not until Oct. 4. 

Then there was the text: the letters clearly intended to imply the writer was of Middle Eastern origin and included deliberate misspellings (the letters suggested taking “penacilin”), a Star of David, as well as threats to Israel, Chicago’s Sears Tower, and President George W. Bush. Someone obviously hoped to focus attention on an Arab scapegoat. The perpetrator added to the already terrible woes of Arabs and Muslims living in the United States post-Sept. 11. 

The letters could very well have sparked internment camps for Arab Americans, who already faced backlash from the Sept. 11 terror attacks. The U.S. might have launched a military attack on Iraq, as rumors circulated that Saddam Hussain was to blame for the anthrax attacks. Fortunately, early on federal investigators discounted the Arab terrorist theory—although plenty of outsiders still can’t give it up. 

The FBI narrowed its search for the terrorist to 200 scientists who had worked with the U.S. anthrax program in the last five years. The investigation focused on Fort Detrick’s Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Maryland, the military’s premier bioterrorism complex, and one of only four laboratories with the capability for weaponizing anthrax. Only 50 scientists had access to the Ames strain found in all the letter samples, and perhaps only 30 knew the particular technique used to weaponize the anthrax used in the letters, a technique developed in Ft. Detrick by William Patrick. The FBI interviewed former and current bioterrorism scientists, and conducted polygraph tests and home searches. 

A Feb. 26 New York Times article cast suspicion on a Somali Muslim student at an unnamed Midwestern university. It was soon confirmed, however, that the student could not have had any knowledge of Patrick’s weaponization technique. 

This August—nearly a year after the anthrax attack—the story hit the front pages again. The FBI’s second highly visible examination of Steven J. Hatfill’s apartment was conducted with reporters, cameras and a news helicopter hovering overhead. 

Although Hatfill once worked at the Fort Detrick lab, his lawyer, Victor Glasberg, said the scientist “did not do anthrax work. Steve has never worked with anthrax.” After a series of anthrax hoaxes, including a package that “coincidentally” arrived at B’nai B’rith headquarters in Washington while a terrorism seminar was under way nearby, Hatfill in 1999 did commission William Patrick to write a report on how anthrax could be sent through the mail. 

“Steve’s life has been devastated by a drumbeat of innuendo, implication and speculation,” according to an Aug. 11 Washington Post interview. FBI leaks to the press have cost Hatfill one job and suspension from another. Someone in the FBI even gave ABC News the manuscript of a novel Hatfill had been writing about biological terrorism that could have come only from Hatfield’s computer, seized in the FBI’s second search. Fed up with the FBI’s damaging leaks to the media, Hatfill held a news conference Aug. 11 to tell reporters that he is a loyal American and had nothing to do with the deadly anthrax mailings. Nevertheless, his is the only name that has appeared in print recently.

Internet articles claim the government is afraid to arrest the anthrax culprit because he knows too much about U.S. bioweapons. Is Hatfill the bioterrorist or is he a stooge? Is the government protecting one of its own? Are the media and the government using Dr. Hatfill to take the fall for another scientist?

Before the investigation of Dr. Hatfill captured national headlines, another insider scientist had come under FBI scrutiny without much media fanfare. It was easy to miss the few stories published in January 2002 about Lt. Col. Philip Zack, who, like Hatfill, also had access to a well-equipped laboratory with lax security. Zack, moreover, actually worked with military-grade anthrax at Fort Detrick. 

Dr. Zack left Fort Detrick in December 1991 amid allegations of unprofessional conduct. The Jewish scientist and others were accused of harassing their co-worker, Dr. Ayaad Assaad, until the Egyptian-born American scientist quit, according to an article in Connecticut’s The Hartford Courant, the country’s oldest newspaper in continuous publication. Dr. Assaad sued the Army, claiming discrimination after Zack’s badgering. 

Although Dr. Zack was let go, he returned frequently to visit friends, and used the Fort Detrick laboratories for “off-the-books” work after hours. After reports of missing biological specimens—including anthrax, Ebola and the simian AIDs virus—came to light, as well as reports of unauthorized research, a review of surveillance camera tapes recorded Dr. Zack entering the lab late on the night of Jan. 23, 1992, according to The Hartford Courant report. He was let in that night by Marian Rippy, a lab pathologist and close friend of Zack’s, although she now says she has no memory of the evening. She did say that Zack occasionally visited and that other friends let him in.

Inexplicably, the national press ignored these documented unauthorized visits to a top-secret government lab embroiled in the anthrax attacks. Did journalists fear being labeled anti-Semitic for casting suspicions on a Jewish scientist?

Soon after the 9/11 attack, a long, typed anonymous letter was sent to Quantico Marine Base accusing the long-suffering Assaad, Zack’s victim in 1991, of plotting terrorism. This letter was received before the anthrax letters or disease were reported. The timing of the note makes its author a serious suspect in the anthrax attacks. The sender also displayed considerable knowledge of Dr. Assaad, his work, his personal life and a remarkable premonition of the upcoming bioterrorism attack. 

After interviewing Assaad on Oct. 2, 2001, the FBI decided the letter was a hoax. While major newspapers noted that an anonymous letter had accused Dr. Assaad of bioterrorism, none followed up on it after his innocence was established. Zack’s name never surfaced again as one of the 30 suspects.

When the Washington Report asked Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, Ph.D., a biological arms control expert at the State University of New York, if the allegations regarding Dr. David Hatfill now took the heat off Lt. Col. Philip Zack, she replied, “Zack has NEVER been under suspicion as perpetrator of the anthrax attack.” 

It is hard to believe that, with his connection to Fort Detrick, Dr. Zack is not one of the 20 to 50 scientists under intense investigation.

When asked if Hatfill was part of the group that ganged up on Dr. Ayaad Assaad, Dr. Rosenberg answered, “Hatfill was NOT one of the persecutors of Assaad.” 

She is convinced that the FBI knows who sent the anthrax letters but isn’t arresting him because he knows too much about U.S. secret biological weapons research and production. But she isn’t naming names. Neither is Dr. Assaad, who did not return calls from the Washington Report.

Another person not naming names is New York Times reporter Nicholas D. Kristof. In a series of articles published on July 2, 12, and 19, however, he called the anthrax perpetrator “Mr. Z” (not “Mr. H”). Kristof’s description of “Mr. Z” sounds very much more like Dr. Zack than Dr. Hatfill. 

The New York Times journalist reported that “Mr. Z” was caught with a girlfriend after hours in Fort Detrick. According to Kristof, “Mr. Z” talked about the importance of his field and his own status in it, and often used the B’nai B’rith attack as an example of how anthrax attacks might happen. He also “had a penchant for dropping Arab names” when he discussed the possibility of anthrax attacks. 

Is the anthrax culprit, or “Mr. Z,” actually Dr. Zack or Dr. Hatfill, or another undisclosed scientist? Is Dr. Hatfill being framed while Dr. Zack stays out of the spotlight? Will the investigation simply peter out without an arrest? Are the U.S. government and the media engaging in a shameful cover-up? 

It remains to be seen whether the anthrax story will share the fate of the one-day wonders hidden on the back pages of America’s mainstream newspapers—whose publishers shy away from articles they fear may bring a spate of hate mail, charges of “anti-Semitism,” or threats to end advertising or subscriptions. 

Another too-hot-to-handle story published in the Oct. 31, 2001 Miami Herald described an FBI search for six “Middle-Eastern looking men with Israeli passports stopped in the Midwest the previous weekend.” The six men stopped by police were traveling in groups of three in two white sedans. The article noted that, despite law enforcement agencies being on high alert after the Sept. 11 attacks, the men were released—even though they had in their possession photographs and descriptions of a nuclear power plant in Florida and the Trans-Alaska pipeline. 

As a result of the scare, the Federal Aviation Administration imposed flight restrictions around nuclear plants nationwide, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission advised the nation’s 103 nuclear plants to fortify security.

This news story vanished, but an urgent terrorism alert sounded by Attorney General John Ashcroft received much media attention. Somehow the new alert now was based largely on a message transmitted by an Osama bin Laden supporter in Canada to Afghanistan. That message referred to a major event that was going to take place “down south.” Ashcroft warned that Americans at home or abroad could be struck by another terrorist attack. Fortunately, however, as of this writing that hasn’t happened.

An Oct. 26, 2001 article in The Jerusalem Post reported that five Israeli men with box-cutters, multiple passports and $4,000 cash detained in New Jersey on Sept. 11, the day of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, would be deported back to Israel for immigration violations. Those men were seen laughing and posing for photographs with the smoking Twin Towers in the background. The U.S. press also deemed that story not fit to print.

“Sharing” Intelligence

A proposed joint U.S.-Israeli anti-terror office might make things easier for other Jewish Americans or Israelis who run afoul of the law post-9/11. According to a report published in the June 29 Washington Times—but never followed up by other U.S. newspapers—Israeli Brig. Gen. David Tzur and Minister of Interior Security Uzi Landau met with U.S. officials to suggest a Washington, DC-based office to fight terrorism. The office would maintain an almost instantaneous communications link between the U.S. Department of Homeland Defense and the Israeli government on matters of homeland security. Visa policies, terrorist profiles and virtually all other internal security data—except classified intelligence—would be swapped via computer, fax and telephone. 

Landau told the Washington Times that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-TX), and Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA) are especially receptive to the idea. This alarming proposalsoon vanished from the media’s radar screen.

These same Israeli visitors eagerly provided President Bush with “evidence” that Palestinian chairman Arafat was involved in terrorism. Not surprisingly, that information did make national headlines, and drastically altered Bush’s long-awaited Middle East foreign policy speech on June 24.

Delinda Curtiss Hanley is the news editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.