Friday, September 05, 2003

Dissecting the Today show interview this morning with Don Foster about the anthrax attacks of two years ago. Comments in bold are mine.

MATT LAUER, co-host:

It's been almost two years now since anthrax was sent through the mail in this country, killing five people and spreading fears of biological terrorism. Still no one has been arrested for the crime. In the October issue of Vanity Fair magazine, Don Foster, an English literature professor at Vassar College, looks at the investigation and comes up with some interesting conclusions of his own.

Don Foster, good morning. Nice to have you here.

Mr. DON FOSTER (Author of Vanity Fair Article on 2001 Anthrax Attacks): Good morning, Matt. Good to be here.

LAUER: Let's get to the basics right now. How does an English literature professor from Vassar end up working with the FBI on some fairly high-profile cases like the Unabomber, JonBenet Ramsey, the Atlanta Olympic Park bombing? How did that happen?

Pretty good question, actually. Okay, right off the bat, I would say that the, ahem, success of these investigations forms a commentary on Mr. Foster's work, does it not? The only one actually solved was the Kaczynski case, and only because his brother turned him in.

Mr. FOSTER: Well, for generations, literary scholars have had to decide who wrote what because so many literary texts were first published without author's names. And over the years, scholars have developed techniques for looking at spelling and source material and...

LAUER: Word choices, vocabulary, return addresses on envelopes, all that sort of thing?

Mr. FOSTER: Exactly, and come up with authors for a text.

Yadda yadda text, yadda yadda analysis, yadda yadda criticism. The new science of Forensic Deconstruction. Shoot me now.

LAUER: So October 2001, your phone rings, it's the FBI. They start to talk to you about being a part of the anthrax investigation. When you saw the letters that they presented you, you immediately discounted foreign terrorism, why? [my emphasis]

I would be more impressed if this were true. However, on November 18, 2001 he suggested that the writer was "a native Arabic or Persian" speaker. And then on February 6, 2002 he recognized “the Urdu language in the stilted syntax.” By August, he had completely gotten with the program and was announcing to anyone who would listen that the anthrax killer was a lone nut who was probably Stephen Hatfill.

Mr. FOSTER: Well, one wants to decide first what can be learned from the information we've got here, and this writer says, "Death to America. Death to Israel. Allah is great." That sounds like it might be an Islamic terrorist. The first incident was down in Palm Beach, Florida, where Bob Stevens died where many of the terrorists had been located. The next letters turned up being mailed from New Jersey where other 9/11 terrorists were located. So this looks like maybe it could be associated with terrorists...

Well, to tell the truth, the circumstantial evidence for the 9/11 terrorists being involved in at least the Florida attack is far more compelling than anything Foster presents against Hatfill. Such as...

  • Gloria Irish, whose husband worked at AMI with anthrax victim #1 Bob Stevens, was the landlady of 9/11 pilots Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, among other hijackers. Trying to think of the statistical probabilities of that happening by coincidence makes my brain hurt.

  • On June 22 or 23, 2001, 9/11 pilot Ziad Jarrah accompanied fellow Flight 93 hijacker Ahmed Al-Haznawi to the emergency room of Holy Cross Hospital at 4725 N. Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Al-Haznawi had to be treated for a black lesion on his leg. Dr. Christos Tsonas cleaned the wound and prescribed the antibiotic Keflex. Al-Haznawi told Tsonas a dark lesion he had on his leg had developed after bumping into a suitcase two months earlier. It later occurred to Tsonas that the lesion was consistent with cutaneous anthrax and he reported this information to the FBI in October 2001. The New York Times story that broke these details also mentioned that Holy Cross is “relatively near” the American Media building, where the first anthrax cases would be discovered.

  • One day in mid-August 2001, Atta and Al-Shehhi went to Huber Drugs in Delray Beach, FL, where owner Greg Chatterton later identified them as frequent customers. Atta sought treatment for “palms that appeared to be reddened from a chemical burn or raw from construction work.” Chatterton asked if he had been working with solvents or dipping his hands into chemicals such as ammonia or chlorine, which Atta denied. Atta was given a tube of Acid Mantle, a cream which restores acidity to skin that’s been exposed to too much base, such as ammonia. Al-Shehhi complained of chest congestion and a cough and was given Robitussin and urged to seek medical treatment at Urgi-Med, a nearby walk-in clinic. Within a day or two, Al-Shehhi returned with a prescription for an antibiotic.

LAUER: Maybe, but...

Mr. FOSTER: ...but there are some warning signs.

LAUER: Yeah, what were the warning signs?

Mr. FOSTER: Well, for example, the--the writer didn't mail these letter on 9/11, but puts "9/11" at the top. It's someone who wants the authorities to think that these letters have something to do with 9/11. The letters were very carefully sealed as if to prevent the anthrax from getting out of the envelope along the way.

LAUER: Yeah, I think outside there's Scotch tape on the back, right?

Mr. FOSTER: And then inside is a warning--yes, and inside is a warning, you know, "Get medical treatment." So this looks like someone who didn't really want to kill someone but wanted to send some kind of a message or a warning.

And this proves what? Al-Qaeda doesn’t send messages?

LAUER: All right, so when you looked at the letter that was sent to Tom Brokaw here at NBC, and we'll put a graphic up of--of what we have of that, what stood out immediately in your mind?

Mr. FOSTER: Well, the--there's--when you have just such a short letter like this, there's not going to be too many indicators of who might have written it, so you want to look at what clues you do have. And there were few in the Brokaw letter. We got a few more on the Daschle letter.

”Just don’t bring up the Florida anthrax letter again, whatever you do, Matt. Cause it doesn’t support my theory.”

LAUER: Let's take a look at what we have on the Daschle letter and what--and what stood out in your mind from this?

Mr. FOSTER: Well, for example, the envelope. It was mailed, supposedly, from students at Greendale School. That tells you a couple of things. One is that it's someone who may know that school kids in America do, in fact, send letters to their senators.

LAUER: And they're not suspicious because, oh, it's just another group of school kid letters.

Mr. FOSTER: Yes, exactly. It's not something that an al-Qaeda terrorist from Afghanistan or whatever is likely to do. And then there's the--the name itself, Greendale School. This could be someone who attended a Greendale School or who had read about one or lived near a Greendale School in the past. There's a question of where the addresses came from. Where did this offender get the addresses for Senator Leahy and Daschle?

This whole line of reasoning is simply bizarre. The 9/11 terrorists lived here for years, going to school, buying and renting cars, leasing apartments, attending flight school, etc. Give them some credit. They knew exactly what they had to do at every turn—why not here? Suddenly they don’t know how to look up an address?

LAUER: You start to gather all this information in your own investigation, and it leads you to what I guess would best be described as your own person of interest in this investigation, and that person of interest is Steven Hatfill, who's a name we've heard--his name is one we've heard with the investigation for the last year or so. Give me his 10-second resume. Who's Steve Hatfill?

Given Foster’s involvement in the Atlanta case, I am tempted to bring up the name “Richard Jewell” here.

Mr. FOSTER: Well, he's--he got his start in biological issues as a medical student in Africa, in Rhodesia, in 1970s. During that time, he professed doing combat duty with Selous Scouts who were later identified as having been responsible for the worst anthrax outbreak in--in--in human history with 11,000 cases in just two years.

There is absolutely no evidence tying Hatfill to the Zimbabwe anthrax, and an attempt to get this admitted in court would be regarded by any American judge as stand-up comedy.

LAUER: While he doesn't confess to working with anthrax directly, he's worked with anthrax stimulants?

Mr. FOSTER: Anthrax stimulants are--are bacteria that are used by military researchers that have the properties of anthrax. And Hatfill has professed a good deal of experience with those.

LAUER: And--and he's been labeled a person of interest by those investigating the anthrax attacks. You do not say he is the suspect in the case, but is it fair of me to say you connect enough dots along the way that you intentionally lead the reader in his direction?

Mr. FOSTER: Well, I don't do anthrax spores, I just follow the paper trail. And in this case, the--the paper trail made Steven Hatfill a--certainly a person of interest to me.

Plus you have to completely ignore the Florida anthrax, by the way.

LAUER: So what's the most compelling piece of evidence against him, in your opinion?

Mr. FOSTER: Well, the--I think what's been happening now is that forensic evidence and the linguistic and documentary evidence are kind of focusing on the same person. The task force guys and woman are--are very hard-working, dedicated agents, and they feel they're one spore away from an arrest. If we don't find that one spore, then we want to look closer at the documentary trial, which I think also leads to Hatfill as person of remarkable interest.

Tapdancing. All the evidence summarized here, plus $1.75, will buy you a gallon of gasoline. Either produce some real evidence or STFU. This really, really bothers me.

LAUER: Of remarkable interest. OK, you've upped the ante there. We asked his lawyers for a comment, they've declined. Are you concerned? I mean, he's already filed suit against the government. Are you concerned that you might be targeted with a lawsuit by Steven Hatfill?

Mr. FOSTER: Well, of course, everyone should be concerned. What we want to be sure of that we don't make assumptions that Steven Hatfill or any other American scientist was involved in this terrible attack, but consider the evidence fairly and objectively and not jump to conclusions.

LOL, just what has this interview been about then?

LAUER: I want to also mention in addition to looking at the letters that actually contained anthrax, you--you looked very carefully at the hoax letters as well.

The key point here is that the hoax letters, unlike the actual anthrax letters, have not been released to the public. Matt is patting Foster on the butt, reminding any doubters in the audience that Foster knows more than you, so shut up, dammit.

Mr. FOSTER: Yes. When--when you get something like this, you want to find out where else have we had someone threatening to do something like this. And as it turns out, even through we're in the 21st century, the FBI does not yet have an archive of threat letters. And...

Hmmm….Sounds a little like CYA here, but that might be me.

LAUER: So, in other words, they--they have all the real anthrax letters in one pile, and they--and they put the others in kind of a--an area where they don't pay much attention to them?

Matt struggles with the concept.

Mr. FOSTER: Well, they're--we get so many of these, and they're scattered about the country. The FBI is now taking steps to create a national archive of threat letters so that when you get an incident that's threatening a--a leader, threatening an anthrax attack, whatever, you can look and find other documents that would be similar. What I had to do was to actually go to news archives and find evidence of similar incidents in the past.

Yes, I would say there’s CYA going on here. “I didn’t have all the evidence, so there and junk.”

LAUER: And did you trace any of those hoax letters and connect them possibly to Steven Hatfill as well?

Mr. FOSTER: Well, what needs to be done still is to gather all of these documents. There are--there are many that are related to abortion clinic attacks, there are others that are just pranks by teen-agers, but there are some incidence of a particular interest which choose particular targets, including NBC, that use similar language to the anthrax letters.

LAUER: And just in 10 seconds left, would you be surprised if in the next year or so Steven Hatfill's arrested by the FBI?

Mr. FOSTER: Well, I--I--I think the FBI will get its man, whoever that might be. The FBI does a very good job, and they do want to solve this case.

Translation: “Th-th-the lawyers told me that if I answer any question like this in the positive, I would definitely have my ass sued. Would you like to see me reenact the Bill Bojangles Robinson scene from The Good Ship Lollypop?”

LAUER: Well put. All right, Don Foster, thanks very much. I appreciate it.

Mr. FOSTER: You're welcome.

One final comment. The conduct of the media, and much more importantly the visible conduct of the FBI in this case, has been disgraceful. My opinion.

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