Allison Kilkenny: Unreported

Remembering the Anthrax Attack

Posted in Uncategorized by allisonkilkenny on March 4, 2009

Glenn Greenwald

Bruce Ivins

Bruce Ivins

One of the best and smartest members in the U.S. Congress, Rep. Rush Holt, has rejected the “look to the future – not the past” Orwellian mantra, at least when it comes to the highly consequential though still unresolved anthrax attack:

HOLT INTRODUCES ANTHRAX COMMISSION LEGISLATION

Bill Would Create 9/11 Commission-Style Panel to Investigate

Rep. Rush Holt (NJ-12) today introduced the Anthrax Attacks Investigation Act of 2009, legislation that would establish a Congressional commission to investigate the 2001 anthrax attacks and the federal government’s response to and investigation of the attacks. . . . Holt has consistently raised questions about the federal investigation into the attacks.

“All of us – but especially the families of the victims of the anthrax attacks – deserve credible answers about how the attacks happened and whether the case really is closed,” Holt said. . . .

Under Holt’s legislation. . . [t]he commission would hold public hearings, except in situations where classified information would be discussed. The commission would have to consult the National Academies of Sciences for recommendations on scientific staff to serve on the Commission.

I’ve written repeatedly and at length about the huge questions that still remain with regard to the anthrax attacks, with a particular focus on the early and quite successful efforts (aided by ABC News’ Brian Ross) to blame the attacks in the public’s mind on Saddam Hussein, followed by the extremely unconvincing FBI assertion last year that it was now-deceased U.S. Army research scientist Bruce Ivins, and Ivins alone, who perpetrated that attack.  The FBI’s case is riddled with glaring inconsistencies and numerous internal contradictions, enormous evidentiary holes, and pretenses of scientific certainty that are quite dubious (my interview with a scientist specializing in biosecurity over some of the scientific holes in the FBI’s case is here).  Doubts about the FBI’s casecontinue to emerge.

Holt’s skepticism about the FBI’s claims is notable for several reasons.  It was Holt’s Congressional district from which the anthrax letters were apparently sent, and the attacks imposed a serious disruption on the lives of his constituents.  More significantly, Holt, who is a member of the House Intelligence Committee, is a trained physicist.  Before entering Congress, he taught physics as a faculty member at Swarthmore College and also headed the State Department’s Nuclear and Scientific Division of the Office of Strategic Forces during the Reagan administration.  Both his interest in this matter and his knowledge of it are at least as great as any other member of Congress.  That he maintains extreme skepticism over the FBI’s case and vehemently believes in the need for an independent investigation should, by itself, be quite compelling to any rational person (I interviewed Holt about the anthrax case in September of last year — here).

But Holt is hardly alone in the doubts he expresses about the FBI’s claim to have solved the anthrax case.  An unusually wide and diverse range of even establishment voices have expressed the same doubts.

One of the two Senate targets of the attack, Sen. Pat Leahy, flatly stated at a Senate hearing last September that he does not believe the FBI’s case against Ivins, and emphatically does not believe that Ivins acted alone.  GOP Sen. Arlen Specter, at the same hearing, told the FBI they could never have obtained a conviction against Ivins in court based on their case — riddled, as it is, with so much doubt — and he also demanded an independent evaluation of the FBI’s evidence.  GOP Sen. Charles Grassley has been a long-time skeptic of the FBI’s anthrax investigation and has expressed serious doubts about the case against Ivins (see this interview I did with Sen. Grassley last year).

The ultimate establishment organ, The Washington Post Editorial Page, issued numerous editorials expressing serious doubts about the FBI’s case against Ivins and called for an independent investigation.   The New York Times Editorial Page echoed those views.   Even The Wall St. Journal Editorial Page, citing the FBI’s “so long and so many missteps,” argued that “independent parties need to review all the evidence, especially the scientific forensics” and concluded that “this is an opportunity for Congress to conduct legitimate oversight.”

In the wake of the FBI’s accusations against Ivins, the science journal Nature flatly declared in its editorial headline — “Case Not Closed” — and demanded an independent investigation into the FBI’s case.  After the FBI publicly disclosed some of its evidence against Ivins, The New York Times reported “growing doubts from scientists about the strength of the government’s case.” The Baltimore Sun detailed that “scientists and legal experts criticized the strength of the case and cast doubt on whether it could have succeeded.”  Dr. Alan Pearson, Director of the Biological and Chemical Weapons Control Program at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation — representative of numerous experts in the field — expressed many of those scientific doubts and demanded a full investigation.

There may be legitimate grounds for doubting whether an independent, 9/11-type Commission of the type Holt proposes is the ideal tribunal to conduct a real investigation, but it is clearly the best of all the realistic options.  The only other plausible alternative — an investigation by Congress itself — is far inferior, as anyone who has observed any so-called “Congressional investigation” over the last decade should immediately recognize (here, as but one example, is the account I wrote about a House hearing last September attempting — with cringe-inducing ineptitude and total futility — to “grill” FBI Director Robert Mueller about the FBI’s case against Ivins).  How effective an independent investigative Commission like this will be will depend on the details of its structure — its subpoena powers, punishments for defiance, and the independence of its members.  That Rush Holt will play a key role, if not the key role, in overseeing its creation is a reassuring feature that the bill he introduced can be actually productive.

The importance of full disclosure of all facts surrounding the anthrax attacks cannot be overstated.  This was the opposite of a run-of-the-mill crime.  To the contrary, the anthrax attacks — by design, as everyone acknowledges — had an immense political impact on the country.  Contrary to endless claims from Bush supporters that Bush allowed no more terrorist attacks on “the homeland” after 9/11, the anthrax attack was exactly such a terrorist attack.

For reasons I’ve detailed previously, I actually believe that the anthrax attacks played a larger role than the 9/11 attack itself in elevating America’s fear levels to hysterical heights, which in turn put the citizenry into the state of frightened submission that enabled so many of the subsequent events of the Bush presidency.  The 9/11 attacks appeared to be a one-time extraordinary event, but it was multi-staged anthrax attacks — coming a mere four weeks later — that normalized and personalized the Terrorist threat.  As Atrios put it in his inimitably succinct style:

I’ve long been fascinated by the erasure of the anthrax attacks – which, in their own way, freaked out the country more than 9/11 did* – from our collective memory.

*People object when I suggest this, but while the 9/11 attacks were of course The Big Ones, anthrax was this creepy shit which was KILLING US THROUGH THE MAIL. While most people didn’t expect a plane to fly into their building, the anthrax attacks created a heightened sense of OMIGOD THIS COULD HAPPEN TO ME. 9/11 was terrible, but the anthrax attacks were terrifying to people.

And:

Anthrax was what made things like “mobile chemical weapons labs” sound so scary. Not everyone agrees, but I think more than 9/11 the anthrax freaked the country out. 9/11 was horrible, but the anthrax made it seem like we’d reached a new era where some horrible creepy shit was going to happen every day.

And then it was all forgotten.

Whatever one’s views are on the abstract 9/11-anthrax comparison, there is no question that the anthrax attacks were a major political crime.  According to the FBI, the anthrax letters were directed at U.S. Senators (Leahy and Daschle) due to their political views (specifically their opposition to the Patriot Act, their allegedly “soft on terrorism” approach, and their pro-choice views).  And perhaps most importantly, the anthrax attacks — again, according to the FBI itself — came from a U.S. Army laboratory, perpetrated by a U.S. Government scientist.  As the aforementioned Dr. Pearson put it:

If Ivins was indeed responsible for the attacks, did he have any assistance? Did anyone else at the Army lab or elsewhere have any knowledge of his activities prior to, during, or shortly after the anthrax attacks? . . . .

It appears increasingly likely that the only significant bioterrorism attack in history may have originated from right within the biodefense program of our own country.  The implications for our understanding of the bioterrorism threat and for our entire biodefense strategy and enterprise are potentially profound.

Re-read that bolded sentence, which few dispute.  The self-evident significance of this case — combined with the extreme doubts being expressed by a wide range of ideologically diverse (and bipartisan!) establishment sources, along with mainstream scientists of all types — should make quick support for Holt’s bill an easy choice.  After all, if Ivins wasn’t the culprit and/or didn’t perpetrate the attacks by himself, then it means that those who did are still unidentified.

* * * * * 

Speaking of investigations, The New York Times today suggests that yesterday’s release of those nine bluntly authoritarian Bush DOJ memos is increasing the political pressure for an investigation into crimes by Bush officials.  One would hope so (see this Andrew Sullivan post from yesterday as to why there those memos create a heightened urgency for such investigations). 

This morning, beginning at 10:00 a.m. EST, the Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing on Sen. Leahy’s proposal to create a Truth Commission to investigate detention, interrogation and surveillance crimes of Bush officials.  That hearing can be watched here.  Unraveling these strings — patiently and methodically, though relentlessly — is how one event can lead to another, how one disclosure can lead to others, and the entire ball can become unwound.

To Investigate or Not: Four Ways to Look Back at Bush

Posted in Barack Obama, politics, torture, war crimes by allisonkilkenny on February 22, 2009

New York Times

POISON DARTS Senator Frank Church, whose committee looked into intelligence abuses, shows a dart gun from a C.I.A. lab in 1975. (Henry Griffin/AP)

POISON DARTS Senator Frank Church, whose committee looked into intelligence abuses, shows a dart gun from a C.I.A. lab in 1975. (Henry Griffin/AP)

WASHINGTON — Two days after his re-election in 1864, with Union victory in the Civil War assured, Abraham Lincoln stood at a White House window to address a boisterous crowd of supporters. He spoke of the lessons of the nation’s calamitous recent history.

“In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak and as strong; as silly and as wise; as bad and as good,” Lincoln said. “Let us, therefore, study the incidents of this as philosophy to learn wisdom from, and none of them as wrongs to be revenged.”

Today there are new calls for such study, not universal but certainly loud enough, directed this time at the Bush administration’s campaign against terrorism. Interrogation techniques that the United States had long condemned as torture, secret prisons beyond the reach of American law and eavesdropping on American soil without court warrants are at the top of a lot of lists.

But as Lincoln knew, one man’s wisdom is another’s vengeance. Repeatedly in American history, and in “truth commissions” in some two dozen countries from Argentina to Zimbabwe since the 1980s, it has turned out to be a tricky business to turn the ferocious politics of recent events into the dispassionate stuff of justice and the rule of law.

A USA Today/Gallup poll this month found that 62 percent of Americans favor either a criminal investigation or an independent panel to look into allegations of torture. Still, many people, primarily Republicans, insist the Bush policies were vital to protect the country, and the Obama administration is treading gingerly. When Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the Democratic chairman of the Judiciary Committee, proposed a commission to investigate torture and eavesdropping, President Obama didn’t embrace the idea.

Already grappling with two wars and an economic meltdown, Mr. Obama said he was “more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards.” But the door was ajar; he also declared that “nobody is above the law.”

Mr. Leahy is undeterred. In an interview, he laughed and described the president’s remarks as “an enthusiastic endorsement.” He said he would work to build support for the idea in Congress.

As a senator under seven presidents, Mr. Leahy said, he has learned that the temptation to abuse powers in a crisis is bipartisan, and the commission’s review should include the role of Democrats in Congress in approving the Bush policies. The work should be done in one year, he added, to avert accusations that it was being dragged out for political gain.

Mr. Obama’s most enthusiastic supporters remain passionate about “looking backwards,” arguing that the Bush policies darkened the United States’ reputation, to Al Qaeda’s benefit. They include Representative John Conyers of Michigan, the House Judiciary chairman, who has sponsored a bill to set up an investigative panel.

Many Republicans, however, say the lofty appeals to justice and history mask an unseemly and dangerous drive to pillory the Bush administration and hamstring the intelligence agencies.

That was precisely the view of an aide in Gerald Ford’s White House named Dick Cheney when a Senate committee led by Frank Church of Idaho looked into intelligence abuses in the mid-1970s. A quarter-century later, as vice president, Mr. Cheney would effectively wreak vengeance on that committee’s legacy, encouraging the National Security Agency to bypass the warrant requirement the committee had proposed and unleashing the Central Intelligence Agency he felt the committee had shackled.

If advocates of looking back have their way, what are the options? Some past inquiries offer models, each with different potential winners and losers.

A CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION (IRAN-CONTRA)

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said at his confirmation hearing that he, like Mr. Obama, did not want to “criminalize policy differences” by punishing officials for acts they believed were legal. The same language was used in 1992 by President George H. W. Bush when he pardoned six officials charged in the Iran-contra investigation. Mr. Bush called the charges “a profoundly troubling development in the history of our country: the criminalization of policy differences.”

The Iran-contra case illustrates the obstacles to any prosecution that unfolds in a polarized political atmosphere. An independent prosecutor, Lawrence E. Walsh, worked for six years to untangle shady arms deals, defiance of Congress and a cover-up. But because of the pardons and court rulings, the key figures escaped all punishment except large legal fees and damaged reputations.

The sharpest critics of the Bush programs insist that only prosecution can restore the law to its proper place. They note that some 100 terrorism suspects have died in American custody and say a prosecution for conspiracy to torture could target both the high-level officials who approved the likes of waterboarding and lawyers who justified it.

But many legal experts believe that the Justice Department would be hard pressed to prosecute as torture methods that the department itself declared in 2002 not to be torture. And if an important goal is to determine who devised the policies, a push to prosecute might only persuade past officials to lawyer up and clam up.

A CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATION (CHURCH)

If there is a close precedent for the investigation now being debated, it is the inquiry led by Senator Church in 1975-76, which recorded in stunning detail some of the darkest chapters in American history. Its reports chronicled the C.I.A.’s bumbling attempts to assassinate foreign leaders; the N.S.A.’s watchlisting of civil rights and antiwar activists; and the F.B.I.’s campaign to drive the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to suicide.

The reports led directly to a series of reforms, including President Ford’s ban on assassinations, the creation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to approve national-security eavesdropping and the establishment of Congressional oversight of the intelligence agencies.

But some Republicans saw Mr. Church as a showboat and his committee as overreaching. To Mr. Cheney, the Church legacy was a regrettable pruning of the president’s powers to protect the country — powers he and Bush administration lawyers reasserted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

A BLUE-RIBBON PANEL (9/11 COMMISSION)

Though Mr. Leahy praised the Church Committee, his own proposal would take the investigation away from Congress in favor of “a group of people universally recommended as fair minded.” He also suggested subpoena power and, perhaps most important, a South Africa-style trade-off: immunity for officials who testify truthfully.

Investigative commissions date at least to 1794, when George Washington used one to negotiate a settlement of the Whiskey Rebellion. The 9/11 commission, a recent example, largely overcame partisanship and drew generally positive reviews.

A commission would free Congress to focus on current problems, including the economic crisis. And promises of immunity might answer concerns expressed last month by the departing C.I.A. director, Michael V. Hayden — that any investigation would discourage intelligence officers from acting boldly for fear of later second-guessing.

DOING NOTHING

Or more accurately, finishing up and rolling out the inquiries already under way. Even if the push for a broad investigation loses momentum, the Bush programs will not soon be forgotten. Among major inquiries expected to conclude soon: a report from the Justice Department’s ethics office on legal opinions justifying harsh interrogations; the criminal investigation of the C.I.A.’s destruction of interrogation videotapes; and a report by the Justice Department inspector general on the N.S.A.’s warrantless eavesdropping.

Meanwhile, thousands of documents relating to secrets of the Bush years are being sought by journalists and advocates. Mr. Obama has directed agencies to lean strongly toward disclosure.

Frederick A. O. Schwarz Jr., who served as chief counsel for the Church Committee and has called for a new commission, said there is no telling what a thorough investigation may turn up. He recalled his shock as he sat in a secure room at the C.I.A. in 1975 and read that the agency had recruited the Mafia in a scheme to kill Fidel Castro.

“It may seem that we already know a lot,” Mr. Schwarz said. “But based on my experience, I’m certain there’s a lot that went on the last eight years that we still don’t know.”

Rove Not Covered By Executive Privilege

Posted in politics by allisonkilkenny on February 16, 2009

Raw Story

roveLawyer: Rove won’t take the Fifth if he testifies

Representatives of the Bush White House are no longer advising former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove that he is protected by executive privilege as regards testimony about the alleged political prosecution of an Alabama governor.

In an exchange with Raw Story, Rove’s Washington, D.C. attorney, Robert Luskin, also said Rove won’t invoke his Fifth Amendment right to protect himself from self-incrimination, if and when he testifies about the firing of nine US Attorneys and the prosecution of the former governor.

There’s “been speculation that he would decline to answer questions on Fifth Amendment grounds,” Luskin said. “That’s a personal privilege; he will not assert it.”

Asked if he had a comment on Sen. Patrick Leahy’s (D-VT) proposed “truth commission,” in which Bush officials would be offered immunity in exchange for testimony, Luskin said, “No.”

Last year, the House Judiciary Committee subpoenaed Rove to testify about his knowledge concerning the prosecution of former Democratic Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, which they alleged was carried out on political grounds after a whistleblower said Rove had a hand in seeking the prosecution. In 2007, Rove was subpoenaed by the Senate about the firing of nine US Attorneys. 

Both times, the Bush Administration asserted that Rove was protected by executive privilege; both times, Rove did not appear. Now, with a newly-installed Democratic president, the ice under Rove appears to have thinned.

Rove was subpoenaed in January and again last week by House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI). He has been told to appear Feb. 23 for a congressional deposition.

Though it remains unclear what form Rove’s cooperation with Congress and Justice Department investigators – who continue to probe the US Attorney firings and the Siegelman case – might take, it seems increasingly likely that Rove will testify to Congress in some way. Luskin said last Thursday that no agreement had yet been reached with the committee.

Last year, Rove offered to speak in private to House Judiciary Committee investigators about the Siegelman case. He has said repeatedly that he had no involvement in the corruption prosecution mounted by a Bush-appointed US Attorney that critics say was motivated by politics. He refused, however, to testify under oath or in public, and the Committee balked. 

Luskin says Rove’s previous stance was based on advice from the Bush White House but that Bush representatives are no longer advising him on the matter.

“The only basis that Rove has ever declined to appear has been the White House claim of immunity for senior advisors to the president and executive privilege,” Luskin said. “I do think that it’s clearer now that the Siegelman matter falls outside the scope of the former claim and, on that basis, I offered to have Rove appear on this matter.”

“Previously, as to the Siegelman matter, the White House was involved in the discussions about what form Rove’s cooperation might take, hence the discussions about interviews, not public testimony, et cetera,” he said in an earlier exchange. “Rove’s most recent guidance from the White House did not express any limitations.”

Today, “I do not think there are any limitations on potential testimony about Siegelman,” Luskin added. “The circumstances – public testimony, deposition, under oath or not – would be up to the committee.”

That said, Luskin refused to commit his client to testifying publicly or under oath. 

“My circumspection now about what form Rove’s cooperation might take regarding Siegelman comes from a desire not to say anything publicly that might prejudice opportunities to reach a constructive resolution with the committee,” he said. “Rove is already on the record regarding the Siegelman allegations – they are wholly without merit – and he would obviously like to put this to rest.”

He added, “We’re continuing to engage in constructive discussions with the committee to that end, and I’d hesitate to speculate about what form Rove’s cooperation might ultimately take.”

A House Judiciary Committee spokesman declined to comment. The Committee wrote in a letter to Luskin last week that they wouldn’t accept testimony on Siegelman alone, saying that witnesses didn’t get to dictate terms.

Siegelman was convicted in 2006 on bribery charges stemming from accusations that in 1999 former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy had donated to a political fund that was lobbying for Siegelman’s lottery plan in exchange for being appointed to a key medical licensing board. 

He was released on bail last April, after a series of investigations into allegations that his prosecution had been politically motivated. At that time, one Republican whistleblower named Rove as having had a hand in pushing for the prosecution.

The charges against Siegelman were brought by US Attorney Leura Canary, who had been appointed by President Bush in 2001. Her husband, Bill Canary, was a veteran GOP operative who worked in partnership with Rove on numerous Alabama campaigns in the 1990’s, as well as for the Republican challenger who had defeated Siegelman in Alabama’s 2002 gubernatorial race.