By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Anthrax, Iraq and ABC News

ABC News has some explaining to do. The suicide of Bruce Ivins, a government scientist who’s now being described as the principal suspect in the anthrax attacks that followed 9/11 (not that there’s a whole lot of evidence), has prompted renewed scrutiny of ABC’s sensational claim in October 2001 that the anthrax had been traced to Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.

At the time, ABC reporter Brian Ross said that “four separate and well-placed sources” had told the network that the anthrax sent to then-Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle contained traces of bentonite, evidence that the anthrax was of Iraqi origin. Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, who’s been busting ABC’s chops for years now, presents all the background of this miserable episode here, here and here.

For ABC, the best-case scenario is that its reporting was simply wrong, for whatever reason. (Greenwald notes that Ross reported the Bush administration’s denials at the time.) The worst-case scenario? Government sources deliberately used the network to make the public believe that Saddam was poisoning us with anthrax. The timeline Greenwald presents is disturbing, as it suggests the possibility that a scare campaign about anthrax was unfolding even before the first attack.

There are many questions and few answers. So today I’d like to lend my name to an effort being put together by New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen and Center for Citizen Media director Dan Gillmor to pressure ABC and Ross into answering three overarching questions:

1. Sources who are granted confidentiality give up their rights when they lie or mislead the reporter. Were you lied to or misled by your sources when you reported several times in 2001 that anthrax found in domestic attacks came from Iraq or showed signs of Iraqi involvement?

2. It now appears that the attacks were of domestic origin and the anthrax came from within U.S. government facilities. This leads us to ask you: who were the “four well-placed and separate sources” who falsely told ABC News that tests conducted at Fort Detrick had found the presence of bentonite in the anthrax sent to Sen. Tom Daschle, causing ABC News to connect the attacks to Iraq in multiple reports over a five day period in October, 2001?

3. A substantially false story that helps make the case for war by raising fears about enemies abroad attacking the United States is released into public debate because of faulty reporting done by ABC News. How that happened and who was responsible is itself a major story of public interest. What is ABC News doing to re-report these events, to figure out what went wrong and to correct the record for the American people who were misled?

A couple of caveats.

First, Greenwald tries hard to argue that ABC’s reporting contributed in some significant way in building public support for the war against Iraq. I don’t buy it. By the fall of 2002, when the White House began its final push for war, it was all about Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, including nukes, and his supposed ties to Al Qaeda.

Second, there’s a possibility that ABC can give a reasonably full accounting without naming its confidential sources. Despite the evidence Greenwald has amassed, there’s a chance that ABC’s sources were acting in good faith. If that’s the case, then they shouldn’t be outed.

Still, this was a terrible moment in a series of terrible moments for the media. I doubt that a vigilant press could have stopped the war. But we’ll never know, because too many news organizations poured gasoline on the White House’s glowing embers.

I hope Ross and company at ABC News are saying nothing for the moment because they’re looking into what went wrong right now. But, as Greenwald observes, they’ve known their reporting was wrong for several years now but have done little. Let’s hope public pressure leads to a different outcome this time.

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  1. Tim Allik

    I think another important piece of information to consider – one that has been roundly ignored in the latest reporting of Ivans’ alleged suicide – is that according to Judicial Watch and multiple press reports at the time, the White House staff began a regimen of the antibiotic Cipro (the antidote to anthrax poisoning) on September 11, 2001. The first set of anthrax letters were postmarked on September 18, 2001 – one week later. did they know, and when did they know it?

  2. Dan Kennedy

    Tim: Yes, that’s what I was referring to when I mentioned Greenwald’s timeline. I didn’t want to regurgitate the whole thing, but I urge everyone to go back and read what he’s written.

  3. Mac

    Good posting. But it should be “they’ve known THEIR reporting …”

  4. Dan Kennedy

    D’oh! Now fixed.

  5. Peter Porcupine

    DK – I’d like to use this incident to ask you a media question.Is there no longer a distinction between ‘false’ and ‘erroneous’?Your questions say that ABC LIED and was lied to by its four sources. I had always thought that lying to a reporter involved a level of calculation. For example, Cong. Jefferson LIED about the blocks of cash he had hiddden in his freezer. Gary Hart lied about his girlfriend, and challanged the press to catch him out. Those were lies. But is reporting something on a good faith basis which later proves to be inaccurate a lie?This comes back to the ‘lies’ about WMD. Bush believed it, as did Clinton, Kerry, and a cast of characters too long to mention – you’ve probably seen the string of quotes from the late ’90’s of various authorites asserting that Iraq did have WMD. We know now that they were either destroyed, sprited away via Syria, or a hoax by Saddam – but again, there should be a distinction.What is a lie, and what is an error?(And FWIW, a Boston friend at the Federal level says that they were put on Cipro too – it was pretty universal.)

  6. acf

    As always, the story that’s the easiest to tell, and gives the best claim to being the first with the scoop, is the one that they take. You know, water taking the path of least resistance, etc, etc. Then, as now, I don’t trust the media or the government with any of this story. All the broadcast media’s hyperventilating about how this is the end of the anthrax story, and the gov was about to indict the man, strikes me as too easy, and more about the game of broadcast news reporting, and the gov’s game of trying to sell some position. I hate the cynic I’ve become over the past 8 years.

  7. Dan Kennedy

    PP: I’m surprised by your take on my take.First, there is nothing in my item that even remotely suggests I think anyone at ABC News was lying when the network reported on the non-existent Iraq-anthrax connection.Second, I’m very clear in my second caveat that I think it’s possible ABC’s sources were not lying, either. As I wrote: “Despite the evidence Greenwald has amassed, there’s a chance that ABC’s sources were acting in good faith.” Yes, based on what Greenwald has found, I think that chance is slim, but I’m willing to listen.What is troubling about ABC’s behavior is that folks there have known for years that it was a bad story, and they’ve never gone back and accounted for what went wrong. The time has come to do that.

  8. Tim Allik

    I take issue with “Peter Porcupine’s” assertion that Cipro prescriptions were “pretty universal” among federal workers starting September 11, 2001. That is simply untrue. According to numerous published reports, that didn’t happen until weeks later.

  9. Peter Porcupine

    Tim – I spoke with a person who actually IS a Federal employee (I was one myself years ago); how ironic is it that the crux of this is the accuracy of ‘numerous published reports’?DK – I think you are a fairminded person, and I think your take was balanced – I’m less sure about the Salon folk. And again – I DO want to make this more general. When did Wrong become Lie?

  10. Don, American

    ABC was wrong? How shocking.

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