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Copyrighted material 404: Information Missing From Your Daily News

Summaries of under-reported news, updates on previous Monitor stories

The Anthrax Letters
 + THE HATFILL QUESTIONS   The long, sunny days of summer 2002 are almost over, and that also means we're nearing the end of summer reruns. But it's not the return of must-see TV that we anticipate -- it's the end of news reruns in the newsmedia.

Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the same few news stories are rehashed endlessly. Test it yourself: Compare newspapers from late May and early September and you'll find remarkably few differences. There were slightly more priest molestation stories at the beginning of summer, but it's still a frequent news topic. As election day nears, there are now a few more stories about governors and congressional reps on the ballot. Otherwise, the same stories just keep bobbing along, with a new, torpid report appearing regularly: Another victim of West Nile Virus, Israel tanks move in/withdraw from a Palestinian area, Afghanistan faces a new roadblock to democracy. Sometimes the same story remains alive for surprising reasons. In May, Congress was starting to probe what Bush knew about possible terrorism before Sept. 11. Now the FBI is starting a probe of the probe to find out who in the Senate committee leaked information about the probe to the press.

This is not to say that there really wasn't big news between June and August. This summer witnessed the most remarkable business scandals in the history of the U.S. (hell, probably the worst scandals in the history of capitalism) -- but those corporate crime scandals faded from the headlines with remarkable zip. Why?

It's easy to cynically opine that this important financial story had a brief shelf life just because it didn't involve sex or celebrities, or that the corporate media giants conspired to protect their CEO brethren. More likely is a problem that has been often discussed here, most recently in last August's 404 report: The U.S. media is lazy. Stories about high finance (or for that matter, science, or international politics) are hard for the reader to grasp without lots of background. Researching and writing that kind of material is painstaking and expensive, and only the biggest papers usually tackle it. This problem is amplified during the summer; readership/viewership is low, making it harder to justify costly in-depth coverage, and newsrooms are short-staffed because of vacations. Thus a big scandal like WorldCom flares briefly in the headlines and then disappears back to the financial pages.

So what did appear on front pages this summer? Mostly, the headlines repeated official statements from Washington and then asked circular questions about those statements -- another example of laziness. Will Bush invade Iraq? Is al-Qaeda at work on more evildoing? Has the stock market hit bottom? Did Steven Hatfill mail the Antrax letters last fall?

The Hatfill story reflects all the media problems discussed above. The press echoed FBI press releases on Hatfill while adding little to clarify the story. Here's some of the sketchy information that Americans learned about the 48 year-old scientist this summer:

  • Hatfill is a "germ warfare specialist" who had recently worked with deadly material at the U.S. Army research center where he "might have had access to anthrax" (quotes from NY Times)

  • Hatfill is not officially a suspect, and just one of about 30 "persons of interest" to the FBI -- although no other individuals have been named

  • The FBI has searched the apartment of Hatfill's girlfriend, his storage locker, his car, and twice searched his apartment, the last time with live TV helicopter coverage

  • The FBI found on Hatfill's computer the draft of a novel about a bioterror attack

  • Hatfill commissioned a 1999 report on the risk of anthrax being sent via the mail

  • Bloodhounds with scents from the anthrax letters "went crazy" during the search of Hatfill's apartment (Newsweek)

  • Hatfill lives in the same state as the mailbox where several of the anthrax letters were mailed -- and only Hatfill's photo was shown to people who work in the vicinity of the mailboxes that were used

  • The return address on an anthrax envelope was the name of a school in Zimbabwe, where Hatfill once lived

The coup d'grace was that Hatfill stories frequently mentioned that the FBI profile of the anthrax killer described "a male loner with a scientific bent and a grudge against society" (NY Times). Hey, Hatfill is a microbiologist (that's a "scientific bent" for sure) and is an unmarried male, so the other stuff must be true, right? Why else would they include this description in the article?

It was all an extraordinary example of how easily the U.S. press can be manipulated by an official body like the FBI to incriminate someone. Rarely in these reports is there balanced reporting, such as mentioning that there is no evidence that Hatfill ever worked with anthrax (his topics of study were viruses, particularly plague). Nor were any experts asked to explain how the dogs could possibly have picked up scent from thoroughly decontaminated materials like the anthrax letters and envelopes (the dogs supposedly also went nuts at a Denny's restaurant where Hatfill had eaten the previous day). And since when are CNN helicopters invited to hover above as the FBI search a suspect's residence? Oh, that's right -- Hatfill isn't a suspect, just a "person of interest," whatever that means.

At first, the media angle was to portray Hatfill as this year's Gary Condit. Talk show hosts pondered: Don't all these connections show that he must be the killer? What does he know, and why won't he talk to the press -- isn't that a sign he's hiding something? But after Hatfill and his lawyer made a defiant statement of innocence and threatened to sue the New York Times and the Justice Department, the media smear stopped abruptly. Now the Washington Post and other journals compared Hatfill to Richard Jewell, the Atlanta security guard who was falsely blamed by the FBI for the 1996 bombing at the Olympics.

FBI press releases aside, Hatfill was always an unlikely candidate to be Mr. Anthrax. As Paul de Armond carefully describes in this month's feature, "The Anthrax Letters," the evidence shows that this stuff was both fresh and made using state- of- the- art techniques -- it wasn't something cooked up in an al-Qaeda bathtub. Hatfill left Fort Detrick in 1999, two years before the letters were mailed. That fact alone probably rules him out as a suspect, unless he had an accomplice still working at Fort Detrick. Again, public interest was betrayed by media laziness in not reporting this important point.

While the media smeared Hatfill because he might have had opportunity to commit the crimes, they didn't provide much traction on a possible motive. The best that they offered was speculation that he might have wanted to look like a prophet -- after all, he had commissioned that 1999 report warning how easy it would be to mail anthrax. (Ths is an almost exact replay of the way that Richard Jewell was defamed as the media posited that he might of planted, then "found" his unexploded bomb to be a hero.) But again, the story doesn't hold up under inspection. The anthrax-mail report was written by the respected 74 year-old Bill Patrick, one of the original germ warriors who had helped found the Fort Detrick lab in the 1950s. Hatfill paid the grand old man all of $500 for the report, which was written as a civil defense guide in case of an actual bioterror attack -- it was hardly a how-to manual on how to make it. Hatfill presented the work to the CDC, which released a guide of its own that offered the same advice. Like others in the field, Hatfill had expressed concern that the U.S. was unprepared for a biowarfare attack.

Common links in Hatfill's past
Hatfill But while the U.S. press was trying hard to make the FBI's case against Hatfill looked good, they mostly ignored the most incriminating details of Hatfill's past -- that he had long boasted of being a terrorist and a member of neo-Nazi, white supremacist groups in the 1970s-1980s.

The American Prospect broke a portion of this story in June with an excellent investigative feature, "Who is Steven Hatfill?" by Laura Rozen. In an alumni newsletter, she discovered that Hatfield had written that his "military background includes the United States Army's Institute for Military Assistance, the Rhodesian SAS, and Selous Scouts [Rhodesian counterinsurgency forces]."

In the U.S. mainstream press there were few passing references to these details of his past. An AP report on the anthrax letter with the fake return address using the name of a Zimbabwe school noted, "That school is actually named for Courtney Selous, the namesake of the Selous Scouts, who fought for white rule in what was then called Rhodesia." But neither the American Prospect nor anyone else explained the significance of Hatfill's apparent link to the Selous Scouts.

By contrast, the press in South Africa has covered this angle well, digging up former colleagues that remember Hatfill's years there. They consistently depict Hatfill as a brilliant scientist and a likeable fellow. But stories abound of Hatfill boasting of covert operations in their country as well as Rhodesia. An anonymous source recalled that Hatfill, an M.D. in the university's radiation oncology department, always carried a 9mm pistol (!) and boasted of a heroic military past as a veteran of both the U.S. war in Vietnam, the Rhodesia/Zimbabwe civil war, and the fight to keep apartheid alive in South Africa.

A friend from that time, Edward Rybicki said that Hatfill "seems to have a Walter Mitty complex," which is a gentle way of saying that some of Hatfill's claims are exaggerations or plain lies. He did not serve in Vietnam or Army Special Forces, for example, but spent a year in the Marines (1971) and another year of active duty with the Army Reserve during a 1975-78 stint. Hatfield also tried to join Army Special Forces while he was in the Reserves, but washed out of the program after about a month. He followed that with 15 years in Southern Africa, earning a 1983 medical degree in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia). Hatfill then studied and worked in South Africa, adding three more degrees in medicine before returning to America in the mid-1990s.

But during those years in Southern Africa, Hatfill also claimed membership in the SAS, Selous Scouts, and Aquila Brigade. All had this in common: Each of them was a hard-as-nails elite groups fighting desperately to maintain white supremacy in the region.

Southern Africa's Race Wars
Hatfill was in Southern Africa during the tumultuous 1970s and 1980s, as both the white separatist governments of Rhodesia and South Africa were nearing the end of dominance. Rhodesia was quickly losing a civil war, while South Africa faced dwindling international support. The whites were not going to relinquish power gladly. Rhodesia was fighting guerilla forces with troops that included mercenaries, among them some U.S. Vietnam vets. South Africa saw no scenes of combat, but that nation had a secret bioweapon program called Project Coast that was experimenting with ways to secretly poison or infect their foes. Much of the history of those times is still unwritten, but South Africa and Rhodesia might have been jointly responsible for the largest anthrax outbreak in history.

Between 1978-1980, some two hundred tribal members died and over ten thousand fell sick from anthrax. Was the outbreak caused by biowarfare? While anthrax was known to occur in the region -- although never on a scale approaching this -- it was also true that the tribes were sympathetic to the guerillas, and antrax devastated the cattle herds that were a vital key to their survival. There has never been a full investigation of the incident, but years later, a former Rhodesian military leader said that their country was being used as a "laboratory" by the South African intelligence services, even though South Africa had officially withdrawn military aid in 1976 (more information).

Hatfill had some association with the Rhodesian military at the time, but it's unlikely that he had any involvement with a covert operation like Project Coast. Hatfill was a first-year med student at the time; also, it is probably telling that Hatfill never claimed bragging rights to working in this ultra-secret program. Instead, he told others that he was a member of the SAS and Selous Scouts.

The Special Air Service (SAS) was an elite military group in the mold of the U.S. units like the Green Berets, Army Rangers or Navy Seals. SAS troops might parachute near enemy lines, scuba dive in enemy harbors, blow up enemy stuff. It was the thrilling life of a G.I.Joe action figure.

Selous Scouts
White members of the Selous Scouts were encouraged to grow beards to make their faces darker, according to one memoir. The Scouts would disguise themselves in the same uniforms as used by the black rebels
By contrast to conventional fighters like the SAS, the Selous Scouts operated like a wolf pack. A handful of fighters would drop into the back country disguised as rebels. Living off the land for weeks without support, they would relentlessly track down their opponents and kill them, even if it meant crossing into neighboring countries in violation of international law. Their training taught them to live off the barren land during their long pursuit on foot, drinking fetid water and eating carrion scraps. Some articles claim that they were responsible for 2 out of every 3 enemy fatalities in the civil war. Admirers and vets boast that the Selous Scouts were the most skilled and ruthless guerrilla warfare fighters in history -- and they are probably right.

The white regime collapsed after the first multiracial election was held in 1980 and the Scouts disbanded, with some headed to Rhodesia's sister racist state, South Africa. Rhodesia already had been training their counterparts in the ruthless guerilla warfare skills of the SAS and Selous Scouts. The Rhodesia ex-pats were soon active in the South African Special Forces as members of newly-formed Reconnaissance Commando (RECCE) units.

South Africa's Project Coast accelerated in the years after the collapse of white rule in Rhodesia-Zimbabwe. Under the guise of developing "defensive" weapons, their mad scientists explored crowd control by spraying the psychedelic drug ecstasy, and asassination techniques such as using candy and cigarettes poisoned with anthrax, botullism, or plague. The project leader travelled extensively to work with biowar colleagues in other countries, including the United States. (More information is available from a commission report and a profile in TIME magazine.)

Besides the commandos and germ warriors, another faction was Aquila Brigade, the shock troops of AWB (Afrikaner Weerstands Beweging), a neo-Nazi movement in South Africa that first gained attention in 1979, as the country was nearing its final decade of apartheid. The fledgling group attacked a university professor who dared to suggest it was time to drop a nationalist holiday celebrating a 19th century victory over the Zulu; snapping whips to terrorize the crowd and waving the old colonial flag, AWB thugs tarred and feather the professor at a lecture. The trial that followed placed AWB in the spotlight among Afrikaner nationalists, and more violence against moderates -- including more tar and feathers -- followed. The same professor who was tarred and feathered narrowly avoided death when a crossbow arrow was shot into his home a few months later.

There's no question that AWB was styled after Germany's Nazi Party. Among the goals of AWB was " reveal the attack on the spirit and body of the White race of the common enemy as carried out by the anti-Christ forces -- the spirit of which is centred in communism, Zionism and the liberal ideology... to be the maintenance and strengthening of the Christian White race ... and therefore the AWB demands that the traditional principle of division between White and non-White must be maintained."

More brawling and terror attacks followed in the 1980s, as did other prosecution of AWB members. The next milestone for AWB came in 1986, when thousands of supporters crashed a stadium political rally for the moderate National Party and briefly took control of the stage after a bloody skirmish with police and security forces. Similar attacks on mainstream political rallies followed, and the following year the far-right Conservative Party won big in national elections, with many of the newly-elected candidates reportedly covert members or sympathizers of AWB. The influence of AWB on the Conservative Party was a major topic of political discussion until apartheid collapsed in 1991.

The charismatic leader of this fascist movement was Eugene Terre'blanche (yes, his name roughly translates as "White Earth"), now in a South African prison. In the wake of the riot at the political rally, AWB formed in 1987 the Aquila Brigade as an elite bodyguard corps for Terre'blanche.

According to the Cape Times newspaper, a colleague of Hatfill recalls a newspaper clipping appearing on a lab bulletin board around this time. The article was about the Aquila training camps, and illustrated with a photo of Terre'blanche and several uniformed members of the brigade. One of the men in the picture was supposedly Hatfill. "The photo... led to Hatfill boasting that he was the weapons trainer of the Western Cape Branch of Aquila," the Cape Times quoted the anonymous former co-worker. (Five pictures of Terre'blanche and members of the Aquila Brigade indeed appeared in the newspaper, but it is impossible to postively identify any of the men as Hatfill.)

Questions the U.S. press isn't asking
In the end, it doesn't matter if a co-worker placed the newspaper article about Aquila on the bulletin board, or if Hatfill placed it there himself. The result was the same: Hatfill was claiming membership in another terrorist organization. His friend Edward Rybicki told AP that Hatfill described firing grenades into the Zimbabwe offices of Nelson Mandela's ANC party, which was the leading political force in the overthrow of apartheid.

So is any of this true? Hatfill won't say. In the only statement made to the press, his lawyer told the Washington Post that any discussion about his work in Africa is irrelevant to the recent anthrax letter terrorism. Hatfill did have "ambiguous" results from a lie-detector test when asked about his years in Rhodesia, his lawyer says, and American Prospect quoted an anonymous military official who "recalls Hatfill as saying that his father-in-law had been killed by rebels in Rhodesia, and that he had consequently undertaken some actions that caused concern when he was given his polygraph test. " (Hatfill has since taken at least two FBI polygraph tests that clear him of involvement in the antrax letters, according to his attorney.)

Whether he fibbed about everything (or the degree to which he fibbed) is not the issue. At some point, everyone has lied about their past. President Bush claims to have convieniently forgotten everything that he did before age 40, and has shamelessly edited his resume in ways that make poor Hatfill look like a piker. Sometimes it appears that Hatfill's swagger may have been intended to impress women -- another stupid, but common non-crime.

But Hatfill's curious past leads to three questions that the U.S. press should be asking -- but isn't.

  • Why hasn't Hatfill been arrested?   Although the FBI should always be lauded whenever it uses caution, mainstream media should demand to know why the guy's not behind bars. Even without considering the aspect of his African connection, the Bureau has more circumstantial evidence against Hatfill than Jose Padilla, who is awaiting his military tribunal hearing as a suspected al-Qaeda operative -- see MONITOR story. Even more damning: If any of the stories about the Sealous Scouts are also true, then he's a bonafide terrorist guilty of war crimes.

  • Was Hatfill a double agent?   In the American Prospect article, author Rozen asks an interesting question:
    ...several of his associates have told the Prospect that Hatfill bragged of having been a double agent in South Africa... Was the U.S. military biowarfare program willing to hire and give sensitive security clearances to someone who had served in the apartheid-era South African military medical corps, and with white-led Rhodesian paramilitary units in Zimbabwe's civil war two decades earlier? Or did Hatfill serve in the Rhodesian SAS, and later in the South African military medical corps, at the behest of the U.S. government?
    Like most of the Rambo-warrior claims, it's very doubtful that Hatfill played a James Bond role during his Africa years. Rozen is also partly mistaken: Hatfill never had a security clearance while he worked at Fort Detrick, and he was denied security approval at his following job after his "ambiguous" results from the lie-detector test. Still, it is intriguing to note that he went directly from the U.S. Army to a military hot spot like Rhodesia. Could the CIA have recruited this 25 year-old soldier- of- fortune- wannabe to send letters home?

  • Is Hatfill a white supremacist?   Whether Hatfill's claims about his activities is Southern Africa are true or no, his personal resume brews down to one of two basic assertions:

    - "I was a kick-ass commando" or

    - "I was a kick-ass white supremacist"

    Hatfill's ties to the AWB reported in the South Africa press may be the most disturbing question about his past. Could it be that the appeal of the SAS and Selous Scouts lay in the fact that they were fighting -- and killing -- Blacks? If Hatfill really was an active, uniformed brown shirt in a neo-Nazi group 15 years ago, where are his sympathies today?

In the two weeks since Hatfill first proclaimed that he was the victim of a smear campaign, there's been nary a story about his case, except for his protestations of innocence and the mea culpa in the Washington Post. Hatfill was right to protest the way his story has been sensationalized. But the press would be equally wrong to walk away from the story that Hatfill identifies himself with paramilitary, terrorist, and neo-Nazi groups. It's also worth asking why the FBI has been so eager to leak information about Hatfill, such as tipping off the press to the second search of his apartment. Could Hatfill be a decoy, and even a willing participant? All of that makes him a "person of interest," indeed. (August 26, 2002, more information on Project Coast added Sept. 10)

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