Who first wrongly linked anthrax to Iraq -- and why?
In the wake of the apparent suicide of an alleged suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks, fresh questions are being raised about the extent to which those attacks were used by the Bush administration as part of the push for both draconian anti-terror legislation and eventual war with Iraq.
Blogger Glenn Greenwald has suggested, "By design, those attacks put the American population into a state of intense fear of Islamic terrorism, far more than the 9/11 attacks alone could have accomplished."
Greenwald has also raised questions about the source of claims being pushed by ABC News in late October 2001 that government tests had shown the anthrax contained bentonite, an additive used only by Iraq. These claims, which were later found to be completely false, played an important role in spreading the idea of an Iraq-anthrax link.
However, the idea of such a link was already in circulation a week earlier when, according to Think Progress, John McCain was using the anthrax attacks to argue for war with Iraq. McCain told David Letterman on October 18, "The second phase 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."
RAW STORY has found that, although there had been active online speculation about an Iraqi source for the anthrax by the first week of October, the first suggestion that official investigations were focusing on that nation appears to have come in an article published in the Guardian on October 14.
Under the headline, "Iraq 'behind US anthrax outbreaks' - Pentagon hardliners press for strikes on Saddam," David Rose and Ed Vulliamy wrote, "American investigators probing anthrax outbreaks in Florida and New York believe they have all the hallmarks of a terrorist attack - and have named Iraq as prime suspect as the source of the deadly spores. Their inquiries are adding to what US hawks say is a growing mass of evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved, possibly indirectly, with the 11 September hijackers."
Rose and Vullaimy noted a (since-debunked) report that Mohamed Atta had met with an Iraqi agent in Prague, writing, "According to sources in the Bush administration, investigators are talking to Egyptian authorities who say members of the al-Qaida network, detained and interrogated in Cairo, had obtained phials of anthrax in the Czech Republic. Last autumn Mohamed Atta is said by US intelligence officials to have met in Prague an agent from Iraqi intelligence called Ahmed Samir al-Ahani, a former consul later expelled by the Czechs for activities not compatible with his diplomatic mission."
They added that, "It was confirmed yesterday that Jim Woolsey, CIA director from 1993 to 1996, recently visited London on behalf of the hawkish Defence Department to 'firm up' other evidence of Iraqi involvement in 11 September. Some observers fear linking Saddam to the terrorist attacks is part of an agenda being driven by US hawks eager to broaden the war to include Iraq, a move being resisted by the British government."
The next day, the Wall Street Journal picked up the story, but without the Guardian's skepticism, suggesting that the most likely suspect was al Qaeda using supplies obtained from Iraq.
"U.S. officials let Saddam know during the Gulf War that if he used such agents against U.S. forces he would get a destructive response," explained the Journal. "But that doesn't mean he, or his agents, might not want to unleash the weapon from a deniable distance, or via third parties. His anti-American animus hasn't lessened since his Gulf defeat. And Czech government sources have reported that Atta, the hijacking mastermind, met at least once with Iraqi diplomat Ahmad Samir Al-Ani in Prague."
On the same day, CNN quoted former UN weapons inspector Richard Butler as saying, "What we've got to be certain about above all is whether it came from a country supporting these terrorists as a matter of policy, such as Iraq, which we know has made this stuff. And there's a credible report, not fully verified, that they may indeed have given anthrax to exactly the group that did the World Trade Center. ... It's possible that many months ago anthrax, a small quantity of it, was handed over in Prague to Mohamed Atta ... and the person who handed it over in Prague was an Iraqi."
These reports, and the use of the since-discredited claim that Mohammed Atta had visited Prague the previous year, appear closely allied with the aims of the Pentagon at that time. Former White House counter-terrorism adviser Richard Clarke has reported that Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz were discussing the possibility of war with Iraq as early as the afternoon of September 11.
Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh has further indicated that the Office of Special Plans (OSP) was created in the fall of 2001 "in order to find evidence of what Wolfowitz and his boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, believed to be true—that Saddam Hussein had close ties to Al Qaeda, and that Iraq had an enormous arsenal of chemical, biological, and possibly even nuclear weapons that threatened the region and, potentially, the United States."
Former CIA director James Woolsey, described in the Guardian story as trying to "firm up" evidence of Iraqi involvement in 9/11 on behalf of Pentagon hawks, was working closely at that time with the Office of Special Plans and is now known to have been sent to London by Paul Wolfowitz. In 2002, Woolsey became a founding member of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq.
Ron Brynaert provided additional research for this article.