Trouble me

>> Thursday, August 07, 2008

Last week, Boing Boing linked to a piece by Glenn Greenwald in Salon about the apparent mystery behind ABC News' 2001 reports that "well-placed" and "separate" sources had informed ABC that there was clear evidence linking Iraq to the anthrax that was mailed to members of Congress and the media in 2001. I finally had a chance to read the piece today, along with several other entries on Greenwald's blog over at Salon.

The crucial thing as far as ABC is concerned is this: if ABC News in fact had "well-placed sources" leaking information (later shown to be false) about the results of the tests performed on the anthrax, those sources were almost certainly connected to Fort Detrick, where the anthrax was tested. Fort Detrick, where the FBI now says the anthrax actually originated. Fort Detrick, where official FBI suspect Dr. Bruce Ivins was employed.

And it turns out that's only a starting point for the questions that the FBI allegations appear to be raising. If Ivins was a long-term suspect and believed to by unstable, why wasn't his clearance yanked? Is there anything stronger than the circumstantial evidence that was released the other day? While motive is actually a fairly incidental issue that only has to be proven when it's part of a crime involving specific intent, does the FBI have any indications whatsoever; in particular, is there anything more substantial than e-mails that show alleged mental stress written by a man who appears from other writings to have been relatively level-headed--a religious conservative with liberalish leanings on female ordination, capital punishment and homosexuality?

And is there any reason we should think the government has done a better job in accusing Dr. Ivins than they did in accusing Dr. Stephen Hatfill, their previous suspect?

One of my little hobbies is conspiranoia. I like to collect these crazed little notions, most of which are more funny than true. JFK theories are the best: good JFK theories have bullets molded from frozen poison that melt inside the throat wound and frantic teams of plastic surgeons reconstructing the dead President's body during the limo rides and plane flight from Dallas to Bethesda. A really good JFK theory gets published as non-fiction by a major publishing house even though you could never sell it to TOR or Baen in a million years if you kept everything the same except the names and relocated it all to Arcturus. Roswell theories are good, too, and so are moon hoaxes.

Conspiranoiac dreams plug right into the pattern-recognition firmware that evolution has preinstalled into our brains and pimp themselves to our sense of cosmic propriety and lust for order. We innately despise the idea the universe is random and uncontrollable and grotesquely unfair. It's contrary to our natures. The same litters of brain cells that help a lemur make it to the next branch or a chimp spot the leopard in the brush just happen, I think, to make it all-to-easy to see order reigning in strings of unrelated and meaningless coincidence. And anyway, it's only right and fair that Camelot is brought down by Mordred, not some mad footsoldier hiding in the brush who gets off a lucky last shot. We want it all to make sense, and if God doesn't suffice as an explanation, the CIA will make do in a pinch.

But all of that could, and probably should be another post.

The biggest problem with being a connoisseur of conspiracy isn't that you're liable to be suckered into buying into the next Jews-control-the-Bermuda-Triangle fable; it's actually that looking at all the crazy makes you a good bit more cynical and prone to skepticism. Lee Harvey Oswald may have been a lone gunman and Alger Hiss was almost certainly a spy and the World Trade Center was brought down by hijacked passenger jets, but occasionally there are conspiracies and plots and schemes. Things are mostly what they seem--except when they aren't, and it can be awfully easy to fall off the other side of the ledge and to assume that because most conspiracy theories are daft they all are. That's just as illogical, just as crazy. Moderation in all things: healthy skepticism is a virtue, taken too far it's a vice.

So my gut instinct when I read things like the Greenwald articles is a certain hesitancy and doubt. Parsimony teaches us that the simplest explanation is usually best, and Hanlon's Razor advises us to prefer cock-ups to conspiracies when searching for answers. If I'm reluctant to assume the murky waters covering the Ivins matter hide monsters, it's not because I give any real credence to the official story (indeed, I'm prone to distrust law enforcement, government and the media--three other self-confessed biases), but because my experience with such matters drives me to look for simpler explanations. Surely the simplest explanation is that attention began to focus on Dr. Ivins because there were reasons for paying attention to him; if he wasn't guilty, didn't he act guilty, isn't that it? It's not that I think law enforcement, government or the media are honest or credible; they're not, not one bit, but they're also prone to laziness and incompetence, and if they picked the wrong guy it's more likely they did it because it was easy for some reason.


But this case is troubling me. It troubled me just a little when they announced it--the aftertaste of the Hatfill fiasco combined with my tendency to think that the more certain reporters sound about something, the more likely it is they have no fucking clue what they're saying, especially when legal issues and criminal justice are at stake. (Yes, it's a bias, and not wholly rational.) But it's troubled me more the more I read. If even a few of Greenwald's concerns are valid, there's more here than meets the eye; if they're valid, there's more here than meets the eye even if Dr. Ivins was guilty as hell. And if Ivins wasn't...?

I'm bothered. I'm really bothered. As they say 'round here, "There's somethin' ain't right." Maybe it's nothing more than a misfire in the synapses that are supposed to keep me from falling or being eaten. Maybe it's the times we're in, or just something I ate. But I'm not feeling copacetic about this case. Not at all.

Anyway, read the Greenwald articles--it's worth the trouble even if he's wrong. And reassure me if you can.


John the Scientist Thursday, August 7, 2008 at 4:06:00 PM EDT  

"And reassure me if you can."

I can't. I have the same feeling of unease. I'll have to ask CW, he knows more about this than I do.

vince Thursday, August 7, 2008 at 11:09:00 PM EDT  

Call me cynical, but given the past history of similar cases, I'm convinced there's more than meets the eye to this. When you control what information gets released and how it gets released, why should we trust you?

I don't know if Greenwald had linked to it when you posted this, but he now links to a post by Meryl Nass that raises some excellent points.

Eric Friday, August 8, 2008 at 1:08:00 AM EDT  

Thanks for including the Meryl Nass link, Vince. I'd looked at some of her posts.

The grain of salt for Dr. Nass is that she was a friend of Dr. Ivins. This obviously doesn't mean she's wrong, it's just something to acknowledge when analyzing her comments. That said, I think she raises some significant questions. And if her friendship raises the specter of bias, it also means she appears to be privy to some facts that aren't being given full play (e.g. her rebuttal of the claim Ivins was trying to promote an earlier vaccine he'd developed by noting he'd moved on from the company that produced it, both in terms of the business and scientifically--his recent work had superseded the vaccine DOJ claims he was under pressure to promote).

I've already written a Saturday post responding to one of the pieces in Slate about the DOJ release. (Yes, bad on me for pre-writing and late posting; so sue me :-) .) I intend to sift through the documents DOJ released as time permits (they're up on DOJ's website), and will probably have more to say as I do.

It's possible Ivins was guilty. But I haven't yet seen anything compelling that conclusion; instead I've seen some things that bother me.

vince Friday, August 8, 2008 at 10:29:00 AM EDT  

Ain't nothing wrong with pre-writing, and I'm looking forward to that post.

Jim Wright Friday, August 8, 2008 at 1:05:00 PM EDT  


excellent post as usual. And on this subject, I'd recommend Jane Meyer's new book "The Dark Side." It's incredibly well written and the first chapter alone goes a long way toward describe how the paranoid mindset of the current administration developed in the days after 911 and the Anthrax scare.

Vince: call me cynical, but given the past history of similar cases, I'm convinced there's more than meets the eye to this. Given my own background and the things I witnessed inside the intelligence field during the last couple years - I'd say you are not only right, but are understating the situation.

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