How Terror Investigations Can Go Awry
by Laurie Mylroie
Wall Street Journal
December 26, 2001
The latest phase in the FBI investigation into the anthrax letters is focused on U.S. government
laboratories. The bureau seems to have dropped its earlier, implausible theory that almost
anyone could have produced the material in a basement and is looking at those with expertise
and access to sophisticated equipment.
Yet is the FBI fixed on the likely culprits? On Sept. 11, the U.S. suffered the most lethal terrorist
attack in history. A week later, someone mailed letters containing "crude" anthrax to the media.
Two weeks after that, anthrax in an extremely dangerous, sophisticated form was mailed to two
senators. Is it likely that right after Sept. 11 another party chanced to have two forms of anthrax
on hand and decided to send them out? Isn't it more likely the same party was behind both
The inquiry into the first attack on the World Trade Center in February 1993 illustrates how an
investigation into a major terrorist attack can go awry. The late Jim Fox headed the New York
FBI office then and supervised the investigation in the city. Fox's background was
counter-intelligence, and he believed that Iraq was behind the bombing. There were Iraqis all
around the fringe of the plot. One is an indicted fugitive, who came from Baghdad before the
bombing, returned there after, and remains there until this day.
The huge bomb was meant to topple one building onto the other, and left a crater six stories
deep in the North Tower basement. Fox did not believe that the individuals arrested
immediately after -- like the 26-year old Palestinian, Mohammed Salameh, detained as he
returned for his deposit on the van that had carried the bomb -- were capable of making such a
bomb. Rather, the ease of their arrests suggested a plot masterminded by others.
Yet the newly installed Clinton administration did not want to hear that. The Justice Department
was in disarray. FBI Director William Sessions was under attack and about to lose his job to
Louis Freeh. When Mr. Freeh took office, it had already been decided in Washington that the
bombing was the work of a "loose network" and did not involve a state. Mr. Freeh
accommodated that. As Fox explained to me, one agent tried to brief Mr. Freeh in October
1993 about possible state sponsorship, but he wasn't interested. Indeed, a year later, Mr.
Freeh said there was "no evidence or intelligence" of Iraqi involvement.
The Clinton White House seems to have believed that it could address the New York FBI's
strong suspicions about Iraqi involvement in the Trade Center bombing on the sly. Later that
spring, the New York FBI launched an undercover operation, aimed at teaching Muslim
extremists a lesson. An informant penetrated those circles, proposing another bombing plot. A
Sudanese émigré picked up the bait and suggested bombing a Manhattan armory. But he had
two "friends" -- intelligence agents -- at Sudan's U.N. mission who changed the targets to the
U.N., the New York federal building, and two tunnels.
When the FBI had those conspirators on videotape mixing what they believed to be a bomb, it
arrested them. Two days later, on June 26, President Clinton attacked Iraqi intelligence
headquarters, saying that it was punishment for Iraq's attempt to assassinate former President
Bush in Kuwait. But it seems Mr. Clinton believed the strike would also take care of the
terrorism in New York. It would deter Saddam from all future acts of terrorism and serve as
warning to Sudan and any party that may have been working with Sudan in the second
Of course, Mr. Clinton vastly exaggerated the impact of one cruise-missile strike. Moreover, his
handling of the bombing conspiracies in New York in the first half of 1993 produced a
fraudulent explanation of terrorism, which contributed to further attacks. Terrorism, it was
claimed, was no longer carried out by states, but by individuals, or "networks," the most recent
manifestation of which was Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda. And because the states that were
also involved (principally Iraq) were never publicly identified and appropriately punished, the
terrorism continued and grew more lethal, leading to Sept. 11.
Are U.S. authorities now prepared to recognize and pursue indications of Iraqi involvement in
terrorism, or are they wedded to the position adopted under the Clinton administration? An
indictment was recently issued against one individual for the Sept. 11 attacks. The lengthy
document lays out the government's case against the conspirators. Notable is its omission of
the several trips that the ringleader of the hijackers, Mohammed Atta, made to Prague. On at
least one occasion, Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence official there, as the Czech prime minister
reiterated recently. Yet the prosecutors do not seem interested in pursuing that.
The FBI's investigation into the anthrax terrorism seems similar, and it is potentially far more
dangerous. As Americans now understand, a lethal dose of anthrax is invisible, and it can be
The FBI has learned very little in its investigation. Virtually all that it has determined is that the
anthrax was the Ames strain, created in the U.S. decades ago and used by some U.S. labs. Yet
other countries have that strain and Iraq made a determined effort to obtain it. There is no
reason to believe the anthrax came from a U.S. lab, as opposed to a foreign one, particularly
Iraq. Yet the many leaks suggesting a U.S. source may tempt a foreign perpetrator to attack
As so little is known, it would be far better if U.S. authorities would stick to what is certain:
namely, that the source of the anthrax was very sophisticated. That way no party will conclude
that it is beyond suspicion, and if another attack were to occur, the U.S. would not be
constrained by an earlier, dubious position.