I would like to try my hand at detective stories, but I’m having some problems coming up with plausible conclusions. Let me give you an example: I’m currently writing a book in which it’s obvious from the first page that the butler did it, and, as the book goes on, this conclusion is steadily reinforced by a mountain of new evidence. Then, in the last paragraph, I bring in the surprise ending by saying, “Actually, the butler didn’t do it. It was someone else altogether (never mind who), and there’s a very good explanation for all the evidence that seemed to point to the butler. THE END.” For some reason, no publisher is interested.
What makes me think that my story should be saleable is that it definitely meets federal standards of criminal investigation. I am thinking primarily of the response to the anthrax attacks mounted against the United States in late 2001, in which overwhelming evidence pointed to culprits associated with Middle Eastern and Islamic extremism—and that evidence has grown stronger over the past year. Yet, by fiat, federal investigators decided—for transparent political reasons—that these crimes were the work of some other party. If nobody seems bothered by this inconsistency, why should they be bothered by my mystery novel?
The case for a Middle Eastern connection can be spelled out easily. The attacks began within days of September 11, showing that someone had been preparing the assault for some time. A second wave of anthrax letters started immediately after the U.S.-British attack on Afghanistan. Observers familiar with the Middle East were struck by the distinctive handwriting on the envelopes used to deliver the anthrax spores, since it slanted in a way that is very common for people who originally learned to write in a language whose orthography flows from right to left—such as Arabic, or possibly Farsi. But the most convincing evidence for a Middle Eastern linkage comes when we consider the first outbreaks of anthrax in Florida, which occurred, in every case, within a couple of miles of where the hijackers had been living. It looks as if the terrorists, or associates unknown, were using a newspaper office there for a dry run to see if anthrax could be used effectively against a future political target. Also, in Florida, we know that Muhammad Atta was trying to get hold of crop dusters. And medical evidence suggests that at least two of the hijackers had shown symptoms of cutaneous anthrax in the months before September 11. Just how would they have been exposed, if they had not actually been handling these materials?
All of which makes it astounding that, last November, the FBI announced that the anthrax attacks had nothing to do with the Middle East and were, in reality, the work of a lone “mad scientist,” a bio-warfare equivalent of the Unabomber. Among the evidence supporting this claim was that the anthrax spores used were quite low quality, “bathtub” material, not real weapons-grade spores. (Did anyone notice the story a couple of months later saying that the spores actually were weaponized and could only have been produced in a government lab?) The new interpretation meant that the FBI could then start doing what it does best: dreaming up profiles of the Unsub—that’s “Unknown Subject” in FBI-speak—and generally trying to justify their existence.
By the time this essay appears in print, the question of who sent the anthrax might be entirely settled through new forensic evidence or even a confession. At the start of August, the FBI seemed to be getting closer to identifying as a clear suspect an American biochemist named Stephen Hatfill, who worked at the research center at Fort Detrick, Maryland—though, as I’ll suggest, there are good reasons to be suspicious of this linkage. Let us, for the sake of argument, assume that the culprit was, indeed, a mad scientist as portrayed in the FBI profile and that all the highly suggestive Middle Eastern connections prove to be bogus. Even so, we still need to explain why one very well-substantiated story was rejected for a much more speculative alternative.
Ultimately, the decision was political. Then as now, the Bush administration was deeply divided over what to do with Iraq, the nation that was probably the source of the anthrax spores. While the Defense Department wanted Saddam’s head, the State Department wanted peace, primarily to maintain the illusion of a U.S. alliance with the oil producers of the Gulf. If the anthrax investigation convincingly pointed to the Middle East, an enraged U.S. public would have been galvanized to take out Iraq. Such a course would have been all the more perilous at a time when Colin Powell was trying to calm the nerves of “friendly” Arab states over the war then raging in Afghanistan. Not coincidentally, the FBI revelation that they had a lead suspect of unimpeachably American origins was precisely timed to coincide with the congressional hearings over Iraq in progress that very day, in which a battery of expert Cassandras were warning that any military action against that country would unleash the apocalypse. The identification of Hatfill as prime suspect should be seen as yet another of the heavy-handed leaks issued about that time in pursuit of the State Department’s goal of keeping Saddam Hussein in power, while not derailing Secretary Powell’s chances of winning his much-desired Nobel Peace Prize.
A non-Middle Eastern culprit for the anthrax attacks simply had to be found, regardless of the cost in truth or plausibility, and the FBI delivered. I have no idea why the media bought the story so universally and so uncritically; I’m not an expert in abnormal psychology. But they bought it.
So does the conclusion to my mystery novel still seem ridiculous? If the feds can get away with this sort of thing, why can’t I?