Friday, May 28, 2010

The Wrong Man

From The Atlantic by David Freed:

In the fall of 2001, a nation reeling from the horror of 9/11 was rocked by a series of deadly anthrax attacks. As the pressure to find a culprit mounted, the FBI, abetted by the media, found one. The wrong one. This is the story of how federal authorities blew the biggest anti-terror investigation of the past decade—and nearly destroyed an innocent man. Here, for the first time, the falsely accused, Dr. Steven J. Hatfill, speaks out about his ordeal.


Image credit: Melissa Golden/Redux

The first anthrax attacks came days after the jetliner assaults of September 11, 2001. Postmarked Trenton, New Jersey, and believed to have been sent from a mailbox near Princeton University, the initial mailings went to NBC News, the New York Post, and the Florida-based publisher of several supermarket tabloids, including The Sun and The National Enquirer. Three weeks later, two more envelopes containing anthrax arrived at the Senate offices of Democrats Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy, each bearing the handwritten return address of a nonexistent “Greendale School” in Franklin Park, New Jersey. Government mail service quickly shut down.

The letters accompanying the anthrax read like the work of a jihadist, suggesting that their author was an Arab extremist—or someone masquerading as one—yet also advised recipients to take antibiotics, implying that whoever had mailed them never really intended to harm anyone. But at least 17 people would fall ill and five would die—a photo editor at The Sun; two postal employees at a Washington, D.C., mail-processing center; a hospital stockroom clerk in Manhattan whose exposure to anthrax could never be fully explained; and a 94-year-old Connecticut widow whose mail apparently crossed paths with an anthrax letter somewhere in the labyrinth of the postal system. The attacks spawned a spate of hoax letters nationwide. Police were swamped with calls from citizens suddenly suspicious of their own mail.

Americans had good reason to fear. Inhaled anthrax bacteria devour the body from within. Anthrax infections typically begin with flu-like symptoms. Massive lesions soon form in the lungs and brain, as a few thousand bacilli propagate within days into literally trillions of voracious parasitic microbes. The final stages before death are excruciatingly painful.As their minds disintegrate, victims literally drown in their own fluids. If you were to peer through a microscope at a cross-section of an anthrax victim’s blood vessel at the moment of death, it would look, says Leonard A. Cole, an expert on bioterrorism at Rutgers University, “as though it were teeming with worms.”

The pressure on American law enforcement to find the perpetrator or perpetrators was enormous. Agents were compelled to consider any and all means of investigation. One such avenue involved Don Foster, a professor of English at Vassar College and a self-styled literary detective, who had achieved modest celebrity by examining punctuation and other linguistic fingerprints to identify Joe Klein, who was then a Newsweek columnist, as the author of the anonymously written 1996 political novel, Primary Colors. Foster had since consulted with the FBI on investigations of the Unabomber and Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park bombing, among other cases. Now he was asked to analyze the anthrax letters for insights as to who may have mailed them. Foster would detail his efforts two years later in a 9,500-word article for Vanity Fair.

Full article can be found here.

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