!! History Commons Alert, Exciting News

Context of 'August 6, 2008: ABC News Reporter Denies Misconduct in 2001 Stories about Anthrax Attacks and Iraq'

This is a scalable context timeline. It contains events related to the event August 6, 2008: ABC News Reporter Denies Misconduct in 2001 Stories about Anthrax Attacks and Iraq. You can narrow or broaden the context of this timeline by adjusting the zoom level. The lower the scale, the more relevant the items on average will be, while the higher the scale, the less relevant the items, on average, will be.

The contents of the anthrax letter addressed to Tom Brokaw. The contents of the anthrax letter addressed to Tom Brokaw. [Source: FBI]A letter addressed to news anchor Tom Brokaw at NBC News is mailed from Princeton, New Jersey. It is postmarked September 18, 2001, which means it is dropped into a mailbox either some time after 5 p.m. on September 17 or some time before 5 p.m. on September 18. The letter contains deadly anthrax spores and a short message in slanting block letters:
bullet 09-11-01
bullet THIS IS NEXT
bullet TAKE PENACILIN NOW
bullet DEATH TO AMERICA
bullet DEATH TO ISRAEL
bullet ALLAH IS GREAT
There is no return address and the word penicillin is misspelled. The letter is opened on October 12, turned over to the FBI the same day, and tests positive for anthrax the next day. Several days later, an employee at the New York Post is diagnosed with cutaneous anthrax. An unopened letter is found at the Post’s editorial office, addressed to “Editor.” It also is found to contain real anthrax and the exact same message as the Brokaw letter, and was postmarked on the same day and from the same location. That same week, an employee at CBS News and the infant son of an ABC News employee are diagnosed with anthrax infections, but no letters are found in their New York offices. It is presumed those letters are mailed with the other two, but are thrown away. Also, several employees at a Florida building containing the offices of the Sun, a tabloid, get sick with anthrax infections. However, no letter is found there either. The victims at the Sun suffer from the more deadly inhalation anthrax instead of cutaneous anthrax, suggesting that letter could be sent separately. That letter appears to be directed at the National Enquirer, another tabloid owned by the same company as the Sun, but was redirected to the Sun due to a recent relocation of the Enquirer’s offices. [New York Times, 12/5/2001; Vanity Fair, 9/15/2003] A second wave of anthrax letters follows in early October (see October 6-9, 2001).

Entity Tags: CBS News, New York Post, NBC News, National Enquirer, Tom Brokaw, ABC News

Timeline Tags: 2001 Anthrax Attacks, US Domestic Terrorism

The message of the anthrax letter addressed to Tom Daschle.The message of the anthrax letter addressed to Tom Daschle. [Source: FBI]On October 9, two letters containing deadly anthrax spores are postmarked. One letter is sent to Senator Tom Daschle (D-SD) and the other is sent to Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT). The letters are sent from a mailbox in Trenton, New Jersey. They could be sent any time after 5 p.m. on October 6 (the last pick up on the day, a Saturday), and before 5 p.m. on October 9. (There is no pickup on October 7, a Sunday, and October 8 is Columbus Day.) The letter to Daschle is opened by one of his staffers on October 15 (see October 15, 2001). It contains the message:
bullet 09-11-01
bullet YOU CAN NOT STOP US.
bullet WE HAVE THIS ANTHRAX.
bullet YOU DIE NOW.
bullet ARE YOU AFRAID?
bullet DEATH TO AMERICA.
bullet DEATH TO ISRAEL.
bullet ALLAH IS GREAT.
The writing is the same slanted, block style used in the earlier wave of anthrax letters (see September 17-18, 2001), and the content of the message is very similar. The letter to Leahy is mis-routed and not discovered until mid-November (see October 15, 2001). It contains the exact same message. Unlike the earlier wave of letters, both of these letters contain return addresses, but to bogus addresses in other New Jersey towns. The anthrax in the letters is also deadlier than the anthrax in the earlier letters. [Vanity Fair, 9/15/2003]

Entity Tags: Patrick J. Leahy, Tom Daschle

Timeline Tags: 2001 Anthrax Attacks, US Domestic Terrorism

Maj. Gen. John Parker.Maj. Gen. John Parker. [Source: Public domain]On October 25, 2001, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge tells reporters that the anthrax used in a letter sent to Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD) was “highly concentrated” and “pure” and that a binding material was used, resulting in small spore clusters that are more easily spread. In contrast, the anthrax in a letter sent to the New York Post was coarser and less concentrated. Both letters used the same Ames strain of anthrax bacterium. (The Post letter was part of a less sophisticated first wave of letters (see September 17-18, 2001) and the Daschle letter was from the second wave (see October 6-9, 2001).) On October 29, Major General John Parker, commanding general of USAMRIID, the US Army’s top bioweapons laboratory, makes similar comments at a White House briefing. He says silica was found in the Daschle letter anthrax and the anthrax spore concentration in the Daschle letter was ten times that of the New York Post letter. The presence of a binding agent like silica supports theories that the anthrax used in the attacks was “weaponized” (highly sophisticated and deadly) and more likely made by a government team than a single individual. But in 2006, the FBI will reverse course and say there was no silica or any other type of binding agent in any of the anthrax letters (see August 2006). An anonymous former government official will later claim, “Those judgments were premature and frankly wrong.” He will say that top government officials with no scientific background received briefings from people who also were not scientists and “the nuances got lost.” [Chemical and Engineering News, 12/4/2006] But the idea of the data being lost in translation does not jibe with Parker’s comments at the time, especially since Parker is a qualified scientist. For instance, he says, “I have looked at the specimen under the microscope, both the electron microscope and the scanning microscope, and I can say that the sample was pure spores.” [ABC News, 11/1/2001]

Entity Tags: Tom Ridge, John Parker

Timeline Tags: 2001 Anthrax Attacks, US Domestic Terrorism

On October 26, 2001, Peter Jennings starts ABC News’s World News Tonight evening news broadcast with the comment: “We’re going to begin this evening with what we believe is a meaningful lead in the most sensitive anthrax case so far, despite a very recent denial by the White House. ABC News has learned what made the anthrax so dangerous in the letter to Senator Tom Daschle was a particular additive which only one country, as far as we know, that’s a very important caveat, only one country as far as we know, has used to produce biological weapons.”
Bentonite - ABC News reporter Brian Ross then adds: “The discovery of bentonite came in an urgent series of tests conducted at Fort Detrick, Maryland, and elsewhere. [Bentonite is] a substance which helps keep the tiny anthrax particles floating in the air by preventing them from sticking together. It’s possible other countries may be using it, too, but it is a trademark of Saddam Hussein’s biological weapons program.”
Significance - Jennings ends the story by commenting: “This news about bentonite as the additive is being a trademark of the Iraqi biological weapons program is very significant. Partly because there’s been a lot of pressure on the Bush administration inside and out to go after Saddam Hussein. And some are going to be quick to pick up on this as a smoking gun. There is a battle about Iraq that’s been raging in the administration.”
Repeated - The story is repeated by ABC over the next several days, especially by Ross. Qualifications in the initial story are dropped over the next few days as Ross definitely claims that the anthrax “was laced with bentonite” and “the anthrax found in a letter to Senator Daschle is nearly identical to samples they recovered in Iraq in 1994.” On October 28, Ross claims, “[D]espite continued White House denials, four well-placed and separate sources have told ABC News that initial tests on the anthrax by the US Army at Fort Detrick, Maryland, have detected trace amounts of the chemical additives bentonite and silica.” [ABC News, 10/29/2001; Salon, 4/9/2007; Salon, 8/1/2008]
ABC News Keeps Promoting Story despite White House Denial - On October 29, ABC News notes that White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer has denied that bentonite was found on the letters. Fleischer says that no test or analysis has shown the presence of bentonite, and “no other finding contradicts or calls into question” that conclusion. But ABC News continues to push the story and quotes former UN weapons inspector Tim Trevan, who says that bentonite “means to me that Iraq becomes the prime suspect as the source of the anthrax used in these letters.” ABC News even brings up the alleged meeting between 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta and an Iraqi spy in Prague, and quotes former UN weapons inspector Richard Butler: “There are reports that one of the things that may have happened at that meeting was that [Atta] was given by the Iraqi some sample of anthrax.… We do not know if that is true. I believe it is something that should be investigated.” [ABC News, 10/29/2001]
Dropped, Sort Of - ABC News finally drops the story on November 1, when Ross reports: “The White House said that despite initial test results which we reported suggesting the presence of a chemical called bentonite, a trademark of the Iraqi weapons program, a further chemical analysis has ruled that out. The White House says there are chemical additives in that anthrax including one called silica.” Yet this account is not entirely correct, because the White House denied the story from the very beginning, as ABC News made clear in their first stories on the subject, and their quoting of White House Press Secretary Fleischer. [TVNewser, 8/6/2008] But an ABC News article the same day by Gary Matsumoto continues to push the bentonite theory, despite acknowledging that lab results do not show signs of bentonite. He argues that perhaps a different form of bentonite was used that did not show the usual signs. He also argues that perhaps the anthrax was coated with silica, which would be another sign of high sophistication and possible government involvement in the attacks. This is the theory the White House is pushing (see October 25-29, 2001), although it too will eventually be discredited by the FBI (see August 2006). [ABC News, 11/1/2001]
Iraq's Link to Bentonite Questioned - In October 2002, the Washington Post will reveal that early in the anthrax investigation, “US authorities dismissed the possibility that Iraq could have sponsored the attacks because investigators determined that the spores had been coated with silica to make them disperse quickly, rather than the mineral bentonite, regarded by the US Army Medical Research and Materiel Command as Iraq’s additive of choice.” Furthermore, “Iraq’s alleged preference for bentonite appears to be based on a single sample of a common pesticide collected by UN authorities from Iraq’s Al Hakam biological weapons facility in the mid-1990s.” [Washington Post, 10/28/2002]
Common Clay - Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald will later note: “The very idea that bentonite is ‘a troubling chemical additive,’ let alone that it is some sort of unique Iraqi hallmark, is inane. Bentonite is merely a common clay that is produced all over the world, including from volcanic eruptions.” A geology professor comments: “It is not ‘a chemical additive’ and it is not unique to Iraq. It is widespread and common, and readily available wherever you can get ‘drilling mud.’” [Salon, 4/9/2007]
No Correction - But even though it emerges that bentonite was never actually detected in the anthrax samples, ABC News will not correct its story until after it is heavily pressured to do so in late 2008 (see August 6, 2008).

Entity Tags: Tim Trevan, Richard Butler, Glenn Greenwald, Gary Matsumoto, Peter Jennings, Ari Fleischer, ABC News, Brian Ross

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion, Domestic Propaganda, 2001 Anthrax Attacks, US Domestic Terrorism

The envelope to the Patrick Leahy letter.The envelope to the Patrick Leahy letter. [Source: FBI]Newsweek reports that “government sources” say a “secret new analysis shows anthrax found in a letter addressed to Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy was ground [or milled] to a microscopic fineness not achieved by US biological-weapons experts.” The letters to Leahy and Sen. Tom Daschle are believed to have contained a more sophisticated form of anthrax than those in the other letters. Newsweek says these two letter were “coated with a chemical compound unknown to experts who have worked in the field for years; the coating matches no known anthrax samples ever recovered from biological-weapons producers anywhere in the world, including Iraq and the former Soviet Union.” [Newsweek, 4/7/2002] The belief that these two anthrax letters used a very sophisticated form of anthrax is widespread by this time (see October 25-29, 2001). However, from 2006 onwards, the FBI will assert there was no coating or milling on any of the anthrax letters at all (see August 2006).

Timeline Tags: 2001 Anthrax Attacks

Magnified anthrax cells.Magnified anthrax cells. [Source: T. W. Geisbert / USAMRIID]In August 2006, an article by Douglas Beecher is published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology, a well-respected peer-reviewed scientific journal. Beecher is a microbiologist in the FBI’s hazardous materials response unit who has been working on the FBI’s investigation of the 2001 anthrax attacks since the investigation began. His article represents the first official FBI explanation about the anthrax used in the attacks. Releasing the evidence in a peer-reviewed journal will give it more credence if cited in a later court trial. [Chemical and Engineering News, 12/4/2006] At first, the article is little-noticed by the media, but the Washington Post will highlight it in a front-page story a month later. The Post will also say that others in the FBI have come to the same conclusions Beecher has. [Washington Post, 9/25/2006]
Controversial Paragraph - Beecher focuses on the anthrax letter mailed to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), since it had never been opened and thus remained the least contaminated. The anthrax in the Leahy letter and the letter to Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD) has been considered deadlier than the other anthrax letters because victims were infected by inhalation and not just by touch. Most controversially, Beecher states that a “widely circulated misconception is that the spores were produced using additives and sophisticated engineering supposedly akin to military weapon production.” Up until this time, it had been widely reported that these two letters had been “weaponized,” meaning the anthrax in them had been coated with a substance (usually reported as silicia) to make it float in the air and thus deadlier to handle.
No Supporting Evidence - But while Beecher makes this surprising claim, he gives no evidence to back it up. The comment is made in passing in the discussion section of the article and there are no footnotes or explanation related to it. Several months later, L. Nicholas Ornston, editor-in-chief of the microbiology journal, says, “The statement should have had a reference. An unsupported sentence being cited as fact is uncomfortable to me. Any statement in a scientific article should be supported by a reference or by documentation.” Beecher and the rest of the FBI make no further public comments to support his assertion, but the FBI begins describing the anthrax as non-weaponized from this point onwards.
Highly Pure Anthrax, but No Coating or Milling - Several months later, two scientists will claim they saw the anthrax from one of these letters not long after the attacks and did not see any signs of coating or milling. However, what they did see was an exceptionally high purity to the anthrax, in which the high level of debris in the earlier anthrax letters was removed, making it deadlier and possibly more able to float through air. [Chemical and Engineering News, 12/4/2006]

Entity Tags: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Douglas Beecher, L. Nicholas Ornston

Timeline Tags: 2001 Anthrax Attacks

In the face of pressure after the death of anthrax attacks suspect Bruce Ivins, ABC News responds to criticism of its false stories in October 2001 linking the anthrax attacks to Iraq (see October 26-November 1, 2001). ABC News, particularly its reporter Brian Ross, repeatedly pushed a story claiming that initial analysis of the anthrax used in the attacks showed that it contained bentonite, and that this was a signature of anthrax used by the Iraqi government. In fact, no tests ever showed any signs of bentonite in the anthrax, and bentonite was not a signature of Iraqi anthrax in any case (see October 26-November 1, 2001). Ross responds to questions about his reporting, but to the obscure media outlet TVNewser instead of on ABC News itself. He says: “In the end, you’re only as good as your sources. My sources were good, we just got information that became outdated before they could update. My point of view is viewers of World News knew early that week we had been wrong to say bentonite.” In 2001, Ross claimed his story was backed by four independent sources. Now, he reveals, “Our sources were current and former government scientists who were all involved in analyzing the substance in the letter.” But he says that anthrax suspect Ivins was not one of those sources: “No he was not. If it was Ivins, I would report that in a second.” He continues to maintain that ABC News was not lied to and initial tests had simply given a mistaken result, confusing bentonite for silica. [TVNewser, 8/6/2008]

Entity Tags: ABC News, Bruce Ivins, Brian Ross

Timeline Tags: Domestic Propaganda, 2001 Anthrax Attacks

Ordering 

Time period


Email Updates

Receive weekly email updates summarizing what contributors have added to the History Commons database

 
Donate

Developing and maintaining this site is very labor intensive. If you find it useful, please give us a hand and donate what you can.
Donate Now

Volunteer

If you would like to help us with this effort, please contact us. We need help with programming (Java, JDO, mysql, and xml), design, networking, and publicity. If you want to contribute information to this site, click the register link at the top of the page, and start contributing.
Contact Us

Creative Commons License Except where otherwise noted, the textual content of each timeline is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike