Biodefense researcher Bruce Ivins committed suicide last week after he was informed by the FBI that he would likely face charges in connection with the 2001 anthrax attacks. Salon's Glenn Greenwald believes, regardless of Ivins' guilt or innocence, media have failed to cover this story skeptically.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. KERRY NOLAN: Brooke Gladstone is out this week. I'm Kerry Nolan. [CLIPS] MALE CORRESPONDENT: Prosecutors say Army scientist Bruce Ivins was the anthrax killer. FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: There are 20 pieces of evidence.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The prime suspect committed suicide. MALE CORRESPONDENT: A remarkable news conference this afternoon at the Department of Justice — MALE CORRESPONDENT: The government declares Dr. Bruce Ivins as the only person responsible for those anthrax attacks. MALE CORRESPONDENT: But with the suspect now dead, the government will never have to prove that case in court. [END CLIPS] KERRY NOLAN: The FBI and Justice Department's evidence against microbiologist and bio-defense researcher Bruce Ivins was compelling and convincing, enough evidence, they said, that they believed they could prove his guilt to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.
Of course, there will be no jury trial because Ivins committed suicide last week. And while the government's case against him is a strong one, they've been perhaps forced to make it in the media.
But the media narrative around the anthrax case hasn't always been one of a sociopathic scientist. Salon.com's Glenn Greenwald is a critic of the media coverage over the years and says regardless of Ivins' guilt or innocence, the media have failed in covering this story skeptically, going back to 2001. GLENN GREENWALD: Much of the discussion in the media early on, was very much along the lines of this is the second phase of the attacks by Islamic terrorists on the United States, and early on there emerged the question as to whether or not specifically Iraq was behind the anthrax attack. And that came to dominate how these attacks were discussed early on. KERRY NOLAN: Now, in October of 2001, the ABC News investigative unit did a story about the anthrax letters. They used anonymous sources in that piece, linking the type of anthrax in the letters to Saddam Hussein's regime. In your view, how did the ABC story shape the media narrative about the anthrax letters in those early days? GLENN GREENWALD: Beginning on October 26th, 2001, ABC touted this claim that tasks that were performed at Fort Dietrich revealed the presence of what ABC called a chemical additive known as bentonite that ABC claimed was the telltale sign of the Iraqi biological weapons program.
And as a result, all sorts of people for years after that, when advocating for war in Iraq, cited the ABC story as proof that the anthrax attacks very likely may have come from Saddam Hussein. KERRY NOLAN: We could dedicate our whole interview just to this. ABC's Brian Ross has responded, saying that they reported what their sources believed to be true at the time.
But let's move on, and let's talk a little bit about how the coverage has evolved since 2001. I'm thinking specifically about when Steven Hatfill became a person of interest. GLENN GREENWALD: What the government and the media jointly did to Steven Hatfill is a disgrace. I mean, they literally destroyed his reputation by continuously depicting him as the almost‑certain murderer who perpetrated the anthrax attacks on the United States.
Over and over and over again, the FBI would leak to a whole slew of journalists, all sorts of claims that allegedly demonstrated that Hatfill was the only person of interest that the FBI was even looking at.
They did things like, alert ABC News ahead of time when they searched his apartment wearing bioweapon suits, to create these pictures around Steven Hatfill's residence of the government going in with these, you know, very dramatic outfits.
All along, there was zero evidence linking Steven Hatfill to the anthrax attacks. It was a lynch mob that was achieved through anonymous leaks which journalists then uncritically reported until the country was convinced that he was the killer. KERRY NOLAN: Well, let's fast‑forward a little bit from that to Bruce Ivins. KERRY NOLAN: From the very first moment that The Los Angeles Times broke the story that Bruce Ivins had committed suicide, apparently, and was the latest lead suspect in the FBI's investigation, there has been a concerted effort on the part of the FBI to depict him as this very unattractive personality so that any accusations thereafter will find a receptive public.
And what the media has done, by and large, with some important exceptions, has been to just regurgitate what the government has been leaking. For example, in The Washington Post, there was an article that rather vocally touted what they depicted as this almost smoking‑gun type of evidence, which was that Bruce Ivins in 2001 had obtained what The Washington Post described as a sophisticated piece of machinery called a lyophilizer, which, according to The Post, enables somebody to take wet samples of anthrax and convert them into the type of dry spores that was sent to Tom Daschle and Pat Leahy.
And, according to The Post, this was a device that Bruce Ivins had no reason in the course of his work to use.
Now, in fact, I interviewed several different experts who essentially said that for a researcher like Ivins, researching anthrax vaccines, a lyophilizer is essentially the equivalent of an accountant using a pencil. KERRY NOLAN: Is it possible that media coverage in this 24‑hour culture can be measured and subtle? GLENN GREENWALD: You know, I think that the problem is that what we see now is there's this premium on being fast and first. And what that means is simply running with whatever government sources say, and then not stopping along the way to investigate or get any countervailing perspective. KERRY NOLAN: Glenn Greenwald, thank you so much for being with us. GLENN GREENWALD: My pleasure, thank you. KERRY NOLAN: Glenn Greenwald is a former constitutional lawyer, now a columnist for Salon.com.
As I mentioned, ABC's Brian Ross did address the controversy over his 2001 story linking the anthrax attacks to Iraq. In an interview with the website TVNewser this week, Ross says ABC News was not lied to by their sources and that ABC reported what their sources, who were, quote, "current and former government scientists," thought to be true at the time. We'll link to that interview on our site.