Anthrax! Saddam!...oops, never mind


Forgive me for sticking with the heavy stuff two days in succession, but the decision seems appropriate, if only as a corrective to the most recent Republican juvenilia. Besides, a substantive news story did surface yesterday in Washington, where the FBI and federal prosecutors unsealed evidence to buttress their conclusion that government scientist Bruce Ivins "was the only person responsible" for the deadly anthrax attacks that freaked out most Americans back in 2001.

The story, at first glance, appears to be about that and nothing more. Ivins, who killed himself last week as the authorities were closing in, is now viewed by the feds - in their words, "beyond a reasonable doubt" - as the culprit who killed five people, injured 17 others, and unnerved millions more in the tense domestic aftermath of 9/11.

But there's another important dimension to this story, even though it went unmentioned in the wire reports yesterday. I've taken the liberty of writing the paragraph that should have received prominent play:

The announcement about Ivins - that an American, acting alone, had staged these terrorist attacks - contrasts sharply with the early speculation, fanned by conservative idealogues and anonymous government sources in 2001 and 2002, that Saddam Hussein plotted the anthrax scare and provided the toxins. Proponents of war in Iraq cited this purported link as a rationale for invasion, even though there was no conclusive evidence at the time. The official announcement about Ivins is further proof that the case for war was seriously flawed.

That's the real significance of the Ivins announcement. It stands as a refutation of the war fever that swept the nation, post-9/11, when the Bush administration and its neoconservative allies focused on Saddam as a guy worth punching out. Tying Saddam to the anthrax scare - by suggestion and indirection - was merely part of the fight prep.

And so it went. Shortly after the attacks began in the autumn of 2001, ABC News announced that "four well-placed and separate sources," clearly government sources, had found a possible link to Saddam. According to ABC at the time, government lab tests on the killer powder revealed the presence of bentonite, a chemical additive known to be "a trademark of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's biological weapons program...only one country, Iraq, has used bentonite."

Well, to make a long story short, the bentonite scoop turned out to be wrong, and nearly seven years later, journalism watchdogs are still calling on ABC to reveal its sources, so that the public can determine whether the leakers just made an innocent mistake, or whether they intentionally dreamed up a bentonite finding in order to target Saddam. Either way, however, the damage was done, because the purported Saddam-anthrax link soon became a staple of the conservative media and think tanks during the runup to war.

For instance, consider this passage from Rupert Murdoch's Weekly Standard magazine, in the spring of 2002: "There is purely circumstantial though highly suggestive evidence that might seem to link Iraq with last fall's anthrax terrorism."

Highly suggestive evidence that might seem to link...That's a bad case of innuendo overload - but not quite as bad as President Bush's passing reference in his 2002 State of the Union speech, where he mentioned that "the Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax," thus suggesting that perhaps the autumn '01 attacks were Saddam's handiwork, without ever explicitly saying so.

By the way, a Senate Republican named John McCain was also doing his bit for the war fever. In October 2001, for instance, he appeared on David Letterman's show (McCain was always a celebrity, and he worked it hard, long before Barack Obama came along and afflicted him with celebrity-envy). That night, the "maverick" teased TV viewers with the possibility of an anthrax-Saddam link. McCain had no idea whether such a link actually existed, but he just put it out there anyway. He said:

"The second phase (of the war on terror) is Iraq. There is some indication, and I don’t have the conclusions, but some of this anthrax may — and I emphasize may — have come from Iraq...If that should be the case, that’s when some tough decisions are gonna have to be made."

So perhaps the ideal coda to the Bruce Ivins story would be an admission from the war hawks (including McCain) that they were wrong to agitate for an Iraq invasion based in part on the presumption, or supposition, or faith-based wish, that Saddam had plotted the anthrax attacks. Fat chance, of course, that anybody would ever admit such error.

And one final thing, although it probably does not need to be said:

After we invaded Iraq and our half-a-trillion dollar expenditures began, we never did find any anthrax in Iraq. As the feds made clear yesterday, it was all right here.