Press Box

Anthrax for the Memories

The Washington Post’s “rowback.’

The Washington Post’slead story Monday morning—”FBI Is Casting a Wider Net in Anthrax Attacksreports the FBI’s current belief that the anthrax used in the 2001 attacks that killed five people “was far less sophisticated than originally believed.”

Law-enforcement authorities inform the Post that“the conventional wisdom about the attacks turned out to be wrong,” specifically, “the widely reported claim that the anthrax spores had been ‘weaponized’—specially treated or processed to allow them to disperse more easily.”

The piece fails to name any publication that played a role in establishing “weaponized” anthrax as the “conventional wisdom,” a startling omission given that the Post contributed to the notion with a Page One piece in its Oct. 28, 2002, edition titled “FBI’s Theory On Anthrax Is Doubted.”

The 2002 Post story, written by Guy Gugliotta and Gary Matsumoto, questioned the FBI’s theory (which appears to be very similar to today’s theory) that a “single disgruntled American scientist prepared the spores and mailed the deadly anthrax letters that killed five people last year.” The 2002 piece quoted at least eight scientists or biological warfare “experts” on the record to argue that the anthrax spores used in the postal attacks were of “such sophistication and virulence” that they would “require scientific knowledge, technical competence, access to expensive equipment and safety know-how that are probably beyond the capabilities of a lone individual.”

The experts in the 2002 story theorized that only a country with a bio-war program could have produced the anthrax, and also that it might have been stolen or given to the attacker. The story cited unnamed investigators who said “the spores had been coated with silica to make them disperse quickly,” and that “the uniformly tiny particle size and the trillion-spore-per-gram concentration” of the spores convinced “researchers” that “whoever weaponized the spores was operating at the outer limits of known aerosol technology.”

To be fair to the Post, it wasn’t the only publication to advance the idea that the spores used in the postal attacks were sophisticated and weaponized. For example, see this Nov. 12, 2001, New Yorkerarticle, which asserts that the spores were “weaponized” and coated with an “anti-caking material that allows the spores to float free.” Controversial author Laurie Mylroie made a similar assertion about the spores having been coated with silica in her book Bush vs. the Beltway: The Inside Battle Over War in Iraq. (To find the Mylroie passage, use Amazon’s “Search Inside” feature and search for “teflon.”)

But for the Post to carry on for 1,300 words about misconceptions without mentioning its role in creating them is a kind of “rowback.” A rowback is defined as “a story that attempts to correct a previous story without indicating that the prior story had been in error or without taking responsibility for the error.”

If the Post intends to overturn the conventional wisdom, it should also report its role in creating that conventional wisdom.The hook for Monday’s piece is an article published in the August issue of Applied and Environmental Microbiology by FBI scientist Douglas J. Beecher titled “Forensic Application of Microbiological Culture Analysis To Identify Mail Intentionally Contaminated with Bacillus anthracis Spores.” In it, Beecher criticizes the 2002 Post piece as an example of an article implying that the postal anthrax powders were “inordinately dangerous compared to spores alone.”

Perhaps the oddest thing about the play given today’s Post story is that it isn’t even a scoop. On Sept. 22, the Hartford Courant published a Page One piece about Beecher’s anthrax article.


I’m agnostic about the origin of the spores. You? Send e-mail—no postal mail, please!—to (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Shafer’s hand-built RSS feed.