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$5.8m payout draws line under FBI's anthrax screw-up

Seven years and a bioterror defense industry later...

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In what would appear to be an attempt to placate Kristof, Rosenberg and other newspapers jumping on the bandwagon of blaming Hatfill circumstantially, the government did turn up the heat. The Department of Justice instructed Louisiana State University not to hire Hatfill as the supervisor of its counter-terror program, one funded by government grant. A raid on Hatfill's apartment was televised. Another leaker told Newsweek anthrax-sniffing dogs had gone nuts over the unemployed scientist. (The dogs were later deemed to be unreliable witnesses.) A pond was dragged and drained, allegedly to find evidence Hatfill was said to have disposed of. And, at one point, FBI men tailing him in a car even ran over his foot.

A touch of the Olivers

The Hatfill boondoggle resulted in Rosenberg's effective separation from the Federation of American Scientists, a sober and well-known public information group which did not appreciate being attached to someone who'd gone 'Oliver Stone' with a conspiracy theory. Since then the microbiologist has not appeared in any major news stories on bioterrorism, except those mentioning her role in the Hatfill case. The obsession with "Mr. Z" appears to have smoked her reputation, a case of collateral damage in the tarring of Hatfill.

Hatfill and his lawyer subsequently moved to sue the New York Times for defamation in Kristof's columns. A judge dismissed the suit early last year in finding that Hatfill was a public official and had not shown that the newspaper had published information it reasonably may have believed to be false.

Unlike Judith Miller, who was thrown onto the tracks for bringing embarrassment on the Times for untrue stories on weapons of mass destruction, Kristof remained at his post.

In the wake of Amerithrax and 9/11, the biodefense industry took off. Although only five people had died, the anthrax mailings generated great hysteria. Newspapers, magazines and television shows filled with experts playing the fear card for all it was worth, predicting it was only a matter of time until a mass death incident resulted. Biological weapons, it was claimed, were trivially easy to make.

In the intervening seven years, biological weapons have killed zero people and been shown, somewhat empirically, not to be so easy to make after all. In any case, a great deal of the biodefense industry in the United States now works with very little oversight. Think of it as scientific welfare for those who often claim to be defending the country against a clear and present danger.

Who was responsible for the anthrax mailings? There still exists a cottage industry in theories: stories about incriminating emails between boffins at Fort Detrick, arguments over the nature of the anthrax powder and its similarity or dissimilarity to an anthrax bioweapon once made by the United States, and hoary tales about Detrick scientists stealing microbes, their personal beefs and entrances into the lab after hours. All of it pretty much unconvincing gossip.

What would seem certain is that the anthrax must be long gone, along with much of the forensic value the samples once had for the investigation - and that the FBI will need miracles, an extremely lucky break or unexpected confession to solve the case. ®

George Smith is a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense affairs think tank and public information group. At Dick Destiny, he blogs his way through chemical, biological, and nuclear terror hysteria, often by way of the contents of neighbourhood hardware stores.

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