This isn’t going to be a cute column. It may be a bit long. Some things need saying, so I’m going to say them.
Recently stories have appeared in the press implying that Steve Hatfill, among other things a former ebola researcher at the Army’s biological-warfare research center at Fort Detrick, Md, sent the notorious anthrax-bearing letters to people around the country. The implication is that he is a murderer.
I know Hatfill socially, though we are not intimate. We met years back in Washington at a party held by a common friend. We have the occasional beer, bump into each other every year or so at parties, and infrequently participate in minor pub crawls.
Hatfill interested me because, aside from being good company, he was smart and knew a great deal about things technical, as for example ebola. I regard him as a friend, and will continue to do so until it is established that he has been killing people, which I think unlikely.
My involvement: In August of 1997, I published in the Washington Times a column I wrote with Steve’s help on the vulnerability of the US to biological terrorism. At the time I was writing a weekly police column. Terrorism fit. The column re-emerged in connection with the Hatfill-as-murderer stories.
Since then, though on vacation in Mexico, I have gotten email from countless media outlets asking for interviews about him: The New York Post, Nightline, the New York Times, and such. In most cases I begged off. I know what television is, and know better than to subject myself to its directed editing. However, I have followed the stories. Overall the coverage has been contemptible, being half stampede and half lynch mob.
When the professional crosses into the personal, writing gets difficult. Personally, I’d trust Steve with my life. Journalistically, I can’t tell you he didn’t do it. How could I know? I don’t think he did, but that is a judgment, not a fact. Jeff Dahmer seemed to be a nice fellow until you learned of his grazing habits. Neither can I prove that you didn’t do it, or that Steve isn’t a robotic space-alien disguised as an ebola researcher.
I can tell you, however, that the stories have embodied every trait that makes people detest the press. They have been mostly innuendo. They rely almost totally on unnamed sources, and largely fail to make sense. Many have been of the sort that run, “Sources say that Smith was seen walking past the parking lot. The next day a body was found there.” The reader is invited to make the connection.
It makes me want to wash.
As one example chosen from many, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, one of those who emailed me about Hatfill, wrote in a column about “Mr. Z,” recognizably Hatfill.
Asks Kristof, “Have you [the FBI] examined whether Mr. Z has connections to the biggest anthrax outbreak among humans ever recorded, the one that sickened more than 10,000 black farmers in Zimbabwe in 1978-79?”
Hatfill is now promoted to mass murderer. No evidence, no facts, just the leading question. The implication is one of guilt by geography. Hatfill went to medical school in Zimbabwe and served in the Selous Scouts. Kristof doesn’t have the guts to make an accusation, or the honesty to admit that he has nothing to go on–so he relies on innuendo. Welcome to journalism.
Personally, before I implied that anyone had endeavored to kill many thousands of people, I’d want a tad better evidence.
I am not familiar with the incident in Zimbabwe. However, anthrax comes in three varieties: intestinal, cutaneous, and “inhalation.” The inhalation variety, the only one useful in warfare, doesn’t sicken people. It kills them. If ten thousand people die of inhalation anthrax, there is no doubt that it has been done deliberately. Did they? Kristof doesn’t say.
If it wasn’t the inhalation variety, what was it? Kristof doesn’t say. How you give 10,000 farmers intestinal anthrax isn’t obvious. How clear is it that the incident, if any, was in fact deliberate? What did Hatfill have to do with it? The reporting is so bad as to be meaningless.
Laura Rozen, in The American Prospect, June 27, writes that genetic “analysis of the letter-anthrax suggested that it was indistinguishable from a strain developed by USAMRIID [i.e., the US Army.]” Unstated implication: Hatfill had access to the bug, so he must be guilty. Is this plausible? Hatfill would of course know that the bacillus would be DNA-sequenced and immediately traced to military sources. Why would he use a traceable variety? Conceivably he is secretly a space-alien psychotic android killer-bot. Stupid he isn’t.
“Suggested that it was indistinguishable?.”? That is careful reportorial weasel-wording. Was it indistinguishable, or was it not? Was the strain available elsewhere also? Anthrax has been the subject of all manner of research by civilian scientists. They get specimens from somewhere, probably ordinary biological supply houses (though I don’t know).
Kristof also says, “FBI profilers are convinced that the real anthrax attacks last year were conducted by an American scientist trying to pin the blame on Arabs.” I see. Then it really makes sense to use a variety identifiably developed by the US military, doesn’t it? Exactly what Arabs would have.
By the way, Nick, which profilers? Name one.
Virtually all of the sources given in these stories are anonymous. “FBI profilers, ” “some of Hatfill’s colleagues,” etc. Now, I’m in the journalism racket. I know about anonymous sources. There’s a saying, “You can bullshit the fans, but you can’t bullshit the players.” When anonymous sources exist, and they don’t always, they have agendas, which the reader doesn’t know about, and they play stupid reporters like cheap pianos.
Reporters, characteristically, are writing about things they don’t understand. I’d give heavy odds not one in 500 knows purines from pyrimidines, PCR from RFLP, electrophoresis from a performing bear. Such things are the baby talk of genetics.
Aside from the shoddy reporting, a tremendous naiveté runs through this stuff. Kristof berates the FBI for not having an expert compare the handwriting on the letters with Hatfill’s. This implies that Hatfill wouldn’t know that handwriting is distinctive. Likely, don’t you think?
Another story reported that one of the letters had been mailed from near Hatfill’s residence. A child of ten knows about postmarks. Kristof wants the stamps DNA tested to identify whoever licked them. Does he think that Hatfill, a first-rate bio-research guy, doesn’t know about DNA sequencing? This is smear by unsubstantiated implication.
Speaking as a sometimes reporter, the stories stink. If there is solid evidence that Hatfill is guilty, then publish it. But lame journalism craftedly skirting the libel laws doesn’t cut it.
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