On October 11, 2011, PBS Frontline aired a report titled "The Anthrax Files." The 52-minute report is now a finalist in the running for an Emmy award in the category "Outstanding Investigative Journalism - Long Form." The winners of the 33rd annual News and Documentary Awards will be announced on October 1, 2012.
The Frontline program questions the validity of the FBI claim that Bruce Ivins was the anthrax mailer, however it makes absolutely no suggestion as to who else might have done it. It uses "conspiracy theory" reasoning, which is to base your argument on questions about the government's case, instead of answering those questions or trying to provide better evidence about a better suspect. The idea is that if you can create enough doubt about the government's case with unwarranted questions, total nonsense might seem reasonable by comparison.
To be fair, it's extremely difficult to summarize the entire Amerithrax case in just 52 minutes. There are countless important details, and when airing a show that is just 52 minutes long, you may have to ignore at least 95 percent of the available information. You just pick the items that best fit the part of the story you want to tell.
The story that PBS Frontline evidently wanted to tell is a misleading story seemingly intended to cast doubt on a case where the facts leave very little room for doubt.
Below are 12 errors and distortions in the program - in the order they occurred:
1. At the 4:45 minute mark, Frontline says that the FBI brought the Daschle letter to USAMRIID for Bruce Ivins to examine. Total nonsense. The FBI brought the letter to John Ezzell. Much later, when Peter Jahrling asked Dr. Ivins to quantify the spores in the letter, both Jahrling and Ivins were doing so without permission from the FBI.
2. At about 10:50 minute mark, the Frontline program blames Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times for the initial focus on Steven Hatfill as a suspect. The program doesn't mention Barbara Hatch Rosenberg at all, even though she was the person feeding bogus information to Kristof and to other reporters and fingering Hatfill to the FBI. She'd been doing so for months before Kristof became involved.
3. At about the 13 minute mark the PBS report says that when the FBI searched Hatfill's apartment for the first time, "they brought the press." Total nonsense. No one has publicly stated how the media got wind of the search, but the media were waiting for something to happen because they had been doing their own investigation of Hatfill for months as a result of the campaign by Barbara Hatch Rosenberg. If there was a tip to the media, it almost certainly came from lawyers at the DOJ, not any FBI agent. It's known from Hatfill's court documents that DOJ lawyers were talking with the media.
4. At the 19 minute mark, the Frontline report talks about the search of the pond in the Catoctin mountains as a being search for an "underwater lab." Nonsense. It was just a search for whatever might be there. The idea of an "underwater lab" is scientifically preposterous. Like so many other aspects of the Hatfill "investigation," the FBI had to do things that, in hindsight, might not seem "right" or logical, because they would face a firestorm of criticism if they didn't do those things.
5. At about the 22 minute mark, the viewer is totally misled by the way Frontline suggests that the FBI didn't start looking at the morphs until after it was becoming clear that Hatfill was probably innocent. Total nonsense. Frontline seemingly suggests the morphs became a "promising new lead" in 2005 or so. In reality, the FBI first started looking at the morphs in late 2001. But, it took the creation of an entirely new science - Microbial Forensics - to get useful information from the morphs. Developing that new science took years. Then the morphs pointed away from Hatfill and toward Ivins.
6. At the 25 minute mark PBS Frontline claims that Ivins typically worked long hours at night. They claim that only difference about the long hours he worked in August, September and October of 2001 was that he worked those hours in his BSL-3 lab. On all the other times, he worked elsewhere in the building. The FBI claim was always that Ivins started working long hours in his BSL-3 lab just before the mailings. He couldn't have made the anthrax in secret in any other place in the building. And, importantly, Ivins had no explanation for those long hours he worked in his BSL-3 lab.
7. At the 26:20 mark, the Frontline program shows Claire Fraser-Liggett making a totally bizarre statement. She says she cannot understand how anyone can grow spores without leaving behind traces of spores on the equipment. That evidently means she doesn't understand how plates used to grow spores can be tossed into an autoclave, sterilized and then hauled off to an incinerator for burning and still cannot be used to test for live spores. Frontline used an expert who made false assumptions.
8. At around the 32:50 minute mark, the Frontline report shows Jeffrey Adamovicz saying he couldn't understand why Ivins would send in a false sample in April 2002 after sending in a a good sample in February 2002. The answer is simple: (1) Ivins didn't know about the morphs in February. (2) Ivins' sample submitted in February was not properly prepared and could not be used as evidence, so it was also a "invalid sample" but just "invalid" in a different way. Frontline used biased opinions instead of facts.
9. At the 33:40 minute mark, Henry Heine claims that he had "numerous samples" from flask RMR-1029 in his refrigerator which FBI tests showed did not have the morphs, implying that the testing process for morphs could have been flawed. In reality, all it proves is that (1) Ivins used his standard "single colony pick" method to produce the spores for Heine, thus eliminating the morphs, or (2) Henry Heine was mistaken about the source of the spores he had. Frontline used a biased, uninformed opinion.
10. At the 37 minute mark, the Frontline program talks about not finding spores in Ivins' home or his cars. Why don't they mention that he'd been working with anthrax for 20 years and they still didn't find any spores in his home. Why would Dr. Ivins suddenly become unable to shower and decontaminate himself when he started preparing the anthrax letters? Frontline used nonsense logic.
11. At the 39:20 minute mark, the Frontline program has McClatchy reporter Greg Gordon distorting the facts by saying Ivins was "sneaking into" KKG sorority houses. Ivins was burglarizing the KKG sorority houses. It wasn't a prank committed by a college student. Ivins was married, 30 years old, had a doctorate at the time. Ivins committed the burglaries, vandalism and harassment while working at USAMRIID.
12. At the 44:20 minute mark, the Frontline report claims that Ivins took an overdose of Tylenol "a year and a half after the FBI first started investigating him." FBI documents from the case show that they had been interviewing Ivins since 2002, maybe earlier, and they started considering Ivins to be serious suspect in April of 2005, over three years before he committed suicide. It was in April of 2005 that Ivins "lawyered up" and told the FBI that he wouldn't submit to any more interviews without his lawyer being present.
And the item below involves a true-but-misleading statement from the program:
13. At around the 49 minute mark, the Frontline report suggests that the morphs found in the attack anthrax, which matched the morphs in flask RMR-1029, weren't "necessary one of a kind." That's true. But, of over a thousand samples tested, the only samples that matched the attack powders came directly or indirectly from flask RMR-1029. Plus, there is no evidence that those four morphs will repeat if a million additional samples were tested. It's only a "scientific possibility."
And here are two items of nonsense PBS Frontline did not mention, but which their associates on the project have mentioned elsewhere:
14. To Frontline's credit, they made no mention of the McClatchy "yellow journalism" nonsense about the FBI changing their theory of the Amerithrax case in a document that was filed in the Stevens v USA lawsuit. Evidently Frontline could see that was just a simple error, even if McClatchy reporters couldn't.
15. Also to Frontline's credit, they didn't mention anything about the silicon and tin found in the attack spores, which is a hot topic with conspiracy theorists who see it as proof of "weaponization." The facts say that the silicon and tin in the spores were the result of growing the spores at room temperature instead of in an incubator. Ivins had a very large supply of such spores in the autoclave bags he routinely left lying around for weeks - a practice unheard of in almost any other lab. And, there were spores containing silicon and tin in flask RMR-1030, which Ivins was known to have made.
But failing to mention 2 items of nonsense doesn't mean that the 13 items they did mention are okay. As a result of an inadequate, biased and careless investigation, the PBS Frontline report creates doubt where there shouldn't be any doubt.
PBS Frontline should be laughed at - not awarded - for their nonsense reporting about the anthrax case. The PBS Frontline program "The Anthrax Files" is an example of BAD reporting, not good reporting.