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Remember Anthrax?

Part 2

12:00 AM, Apr 20, 2002 • By DAVID TELL
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There is purely circumstantial though highly suggestive evidence that might seem to link Iraq with last fall's anthrax terrorism. The U.N.'s former top bioweapons inspector in Iraq, Richard O. Spertzel, has told Congress about reports of a "cryptic September article in a newspaper run by Saddam's son, Uday" which promised that a "virus" would soon attack "the raven," apparently a Baath party curseword for America. Spertzel has also told Congress that Iraq has conducted military exercises simulating the dispersal of anthrax spores from crop-dusting aircraft--a subject in which both Mohamed Atta and Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged "twentieth hijacker," are known to have expressed intense interest. Last June, one of Atta's September 11 confederates, Ahmed Ibrahim Al Haznawi, walked into a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, emergency room with a painless but inflamed one-inch black lesion on his lower left leg. In retrospect, Al Haznawi's attending physician, Dr. Christos Tsonas, is convinced that the wound was cutaneous anthrax. The Department of Health and Human Services' top bioterrorism expert agrees, as do two leading researchers at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies.

And so on. The FBI has hardly said a word about why it is inclined to mistrust or make light of such signals. And what little the Bureau has offered about why it prefers to focus instead on possible American suspects isn't especially persuasive, unfortunately.

FBI handwriting experts have somehow determined that the xerox-copied taunts included with last fall's anthrax letters--"We have this anthrax. You die now. Are you afraid?"--were written by a native English-speaker, though they note without venturing an explanation that "he" used only block lettering, with slightly larger block letters at the beginning of every noun. Might it also be that "he" wasn't a native English-speaker at all, but rather someone who grew up speaking a language--like Arabic--whose alphabet has no upper or lower cases? Someone whose experience with Romance-language script was limited to his temporary residence in, say, the one Western country where nouns are always capitalized? That would be Germany, once home to Mohamed Atta and any number of other al Qaeda operatives. It is not clear whether the FBI has considered this clue.

By contrast, the Bureau and its allied "home-grown terror" theorists have clearly given a great deal of thought--too much thought--to the fact that their suspect left no potentially incriminating personal marks on last fall's letters: no fingerprints anywhere on the envelopes or xeroxes, and no saliva on the envelopes' adhesive flaps. To Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, this indicates that the mailer was a spook-like U.S. government insider, someone with "training or experience in covering evidence." Similarly, and for the same reason, the FBI believes Anthrax Man exhibited a notably "organized, rational thought process in furtherance of his criminal behavior." Actually, though, all he exhibited was a bare minimum of human brain function and an animal instinct for self-preservation. Ask yourself: Would you be willing to touch with your bare hands, much less lick with your tongue, an envelope containing two billion spores of the universe's most dangerous bacterium? The question answers itself.

Speaking on background to reporters, FBI officials have repeatedly endorsed Professor Rosenberg's interpretation of the mysterious advisory included with two of the anthrax mailings--that their recipients should begin taking "penacilin." The misspelling, Rosenberg argues, is a deliberate feint intended to distract investigators from the truth, and the prescription itself is what should lead them back: The reference to penicillin means the perpetrator was an American scientist, knowledgeable about the clinical protocols for treatment of anthrax, and eager to cure those of his fellow citizens whom he was simultaneously making very sick. But it means nothing of the kind, in fact. No true expert, benignly inspired, would nowadays prescribe penicillin for an anthracis infection. Ever since Tim Read published his Ames-strain DNA sequence in 1999, American researchers have understood that the organism's genes encode a beta-lactamase enzyme that neutralizes penicillin. American public health agencies have responded accordingly. CDC bulletins, for example, specifically recommend against reliance on penicillin in cases of systemic anthrax toxemia.

The Miss Marple of SUNY/Purchase does no better when it comes to divining an overarching motive for last fall's bacteriological assaults. The deed was done by a Pentagon budget hawk who "must have realized in advance that the anthrax attack would result in the strengthening of U.S. defense and response capabilities," Rosenberg conjectures. "This is not likely to have been a goal of anti-American terrorists." And the anti-American terrorists who flew two Boeing 757s into the side of the World Trade Center, one week before the first New Jersey-postmarked anthrax letters were mailed--those people did not suppose their actions would provoke a massive American military response? Perhaps Mohamed Atta, too, was a rogue, right-wing subcontractor for the CIA? Rosenberg's logic is elusive.

Federal investigators, for their part, arrive at much the same conclusion, though by reverse direction. The anthrax mailings were insufficiently provocative, a "senior administration official" has told the Wall Street Journal, explaining his colleagues' basic assumption: "Al Qaeda is into mass casualties, not this junior-varsity, onesy-twosey terrorism." This would make the suspect's identity contingent on the body count he achieved, something he could not possibly have predicted; the logic here seems nonexistent. What if the anthrax mailer had managed, as intended, to assassinate the majority leader of the United States Senate? Would that have been senior varsity enough for the FBI?

10) So who did send the anthrax? What are you saying?

Simply this: Based on the publicly available evidence, there appears to be no convincing rationale for the FBI's nearly exclusive concentration on American suspects. And the possibility is far from foreclosed that the anthrax bioterrorist was just who he said he was: a Muslim, impliedly from overseas, who thought the events of "09-11-01" were something to be celebrated--and who would have been doubly pleased to see "you die now."

David Tell is opinion editor of The Weekly Standard.