Watching the explosion of “gotcha” outrage at the release of the so-called torture report on the part of many who had long ago determined that the interrogations of al-Qaeda operatives seized on the battlefield had been immoral and monstrous at their root conjures up interesting memories for me.
A month after 9/11, my then-girlfriend called, sobbing. She then worked at NBC, in the building known as 30 Rock, and the news had just broken that an envelope laden with anthrax had been found in the building. A week earlier, an employee at the National Enquirer had died after opening a similar envelope.
She got an appointment with a doctor that day and filled a prescription for Cipro, not to take right then, but in case symptoms developed.
I was then working a few days a week at the offices of the New York Post. I sat at a cubicle across from the editorial page’s administrator, Johanna Huden. Between us was an in-box in which the section’s mail was deposited. A week after my girlfriend got her prescription, Johanna told everybody she’d gotten a bad bug bite. One of her fingers was turning black.
It was anthrax. The Post had also gotten an envelope, which had sat in that in-box. Our colleague Mark Cunningham also touched the envelope, as did a mail-room worker; they were diagnosed with it as well. Johanna had to have the site where she had touched the anthrax dug out. All three went on a course of Cipro, an antibiotic so potent the very taking of it made them sick for months.
There, but for the blessing of dumb luck, had I been. My girlfriend, now my wife of 12 years, with Cipro in her purse, was awash in terror caused by a biological-warfare attack on her place of work; and I, sitting two feet away from a biological-warfare weapon that literally might have killed me had I chosen to help open the mail a week earlier.
All in all, five people died and 17 were rendered sick by the weaponized anthrax attacks. And here’s the thing: We still don’t know where the anthrax envelopes came from. A few years later, the FBI leaked word that its prime suspect was an American expert in biochemical weaponry named Steven Hatfill—who subsequently won a massive settlement due to what proved to be a shockingly false accusation. It then alighted on an Army scientist named Bruce Ivins, who died soon thereafter from an overdose of acetaminophen. The FBI immediately declared Ivins the perpetrator and closed the case. Three years later, a study by the National Academy of Sciences raised profound questions about the FBI’s accusation—and given its disgraceful handling of the Hatfill case, there’s every reason to consider the matter still open.
Ross Douthat posits in the New York Times that “the absence of a single successful domestic attack in the years when they were employed is still a strong indicator that the decision to use extraordinary measures, at least one of them intrinsically torturous and some of them likely to be abused in ways that made them torturous in fact, was based on an overestimation of the threat we faced—and an even stronger indicator is the absence of a successful domestic attack in all the long years (eleven or ten or nine, depending on how you count) since they’ve been discontinued.”
This is the most serious argument raised by the Senate report. Forget the thrilled preening, or the astounding lack of any counternarrative in the report, which is basically a brief for the prosecution. The argument is, in effect, that 9/11 proved to be a lucky shot al-Qaeda couldn’t duplicate against the United States, and that what has happened since retroactively delegitimizes the brutal efforts to get its operatives to talk.
A few thoughts.
First, there may well have been a further attack, which is to say, the anthrax attack. Second, those who are arguing ferociously against the Senate report claim there was at least one major planned attack (the so-called Hambali plan) thwarted due to intelligence gleaned from the interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad. Third, bits and pieces were picked up during these interrogations that may have led to actions which interfered with the development of plans designed after 9/11 and the capture of many of these men.
The entire exercise rests on a logical fallacy: There is no way to know what would have happened had these things not been done.
Douthat and others see 13 years without a second 9/11 as a discrediting factor. I see 13 years without an anthrax envelope, and, then as now, I thank those who put themselves on the line in pursuit of information to keep me, my wife, my colleagues, and the American people safe from harm.