A month ago, when thirty-seven neoconservatives, led by William Kristol, William Bennett and Jeane Kirkpatrick, signed an open letter warning George Bush that failure to attack Iraq would “constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism,” they were widely dismissed as extremists. But in one short week, the extreme became the mainstream, thanks largely to the anthrax scare and to the media’s role in fanning it.
On Tuesday, October 16, Senator Tom Daschle announced that the anthrax discovered in a letter sent to his office was of a “very potent” form. On Wednesday, the headlines blared. “Sign of Escalating Threat,” the New York Times declared atop a story by Stephen Engelberg and Judith Miller. This “high grade” anthrax, they wrote, “finely milled so that it would float a considerable distance on the smallest of air currents,” suggested that “for the first time in history a sophisticated form of anthrax has been developed and used as a weapon in warfare or bioterrorism.” It also suggested that “somewhere, someone has access to the sort of germ weapons capable of inflicting huge casualties.” A prime suspect, Engelberg and Miller noted, was Iraq. But, they cautioned, it was too early to say for sure whether Iraq was responsible.
On the next day’s Op-Ed pages, even that caveat was missing. In the Times, Richard Butler, a former UN weapons inspector in Iraq, wrote that, based on his visits to Iraq from 1997 to 1999, he had concluded that “biological weapons are closest to President Hussein’s heart because it was in this area that his resistance to our work reached its height.” Noting reports that hijacker Mohamed Atta had met with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague last year, Butler observed that this “may have been an occasion on which anthrax was provided” to him.
In the same day’s Wall Street Journal, former Director of Central Intelligence R. James Woolsey held forth about “The Iraq Connection,” as the headline put it. The “professionally prepared and precisely sized anthrax spores” that closed down the Capitol, he wrote, made it essential to determine with whom we are “at war.” Offering various bits of circumstantial evidence against Saddam Hussein, including that Mohamed Atta meeting in Prague, Woolsey urged the Bush Administration to move against Baghdad.
Meanwhile, in the Washington Post, Richard Cohen, in a column headlined “Public Enemy No. 2,” noted that while it was not yet clear whether Saddam was responsible for the anthrax in Daschle’s office, it didn’t really matter. “Neither the United States nor the rest of the world should countenance any state–especially a rogue one–developing weapons of mass destruction,” Cohen wrote. “Saddam and his bloody bugs have to go.”
The next day, Tom Ridge, the director of the Office of Homeland Security, announced that further testing showed that the strain of anthrax in Daschle’s mail was indistinguishable from that found in the offices of NBC in Manhattan and the National Enquirer in Florida, and, moreover, that the tests “have shown that these strains have not been, quote, unquote, weaponized.”
Then, on Saturday, the Times, in a story filed by John Tagliabue from Prague, reported that Czech officials, upon investigation, had concluded that Atta had not met with an Iraqi intelligence official during his stop in Prague.