Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

It would really be nice if all the government leakers could get their stories straight about the Daschle Anthrax. Following on Ari Fleischer's announcement today that even a microbiologist with a decent lab could have made the Daschle batch, NBC's Andrea Mitchell is now saying investigators are giving a serious look at the home grown nut hypothesis and like the Washington Post two days ago noting that investigators are leaning away from the Iraq hypothesis. But then ABC says that the Daschle Anthrax contains something called 'bentonite' which is only known to be used by Iraq!

So what's the deal?!?!?! Can't we get a little better info here? And can ABC tell us whether one of the 'bentonite' experts is named Richard Perle?

Just curious.

If you didn't get a chance to see it, there was a splendidly elegant demonstration of common sense by CNN Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta a couple days ago. As you know, the big question this week has been whether or how many Anthrax spores could spill out of an envelope on its way through the postal system. The reason for the screw-up (not meant flippantly, but what else to call it?) with the postal workers was that the folks at the CDC didn't think Anthrax-tainted envelopes would 'leak' spores until they were opened.

Now, anyone who's ever licked an envelope knows that envelopes DON'T SEAL. The sticky stuff that you lick ends more than a centimeter before the end of the flap. Sometimes there's also a little gap in the sticky stuff between the two long slanted lines. Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself.

So the intrepid Dr. Gupta fills an envelope with some talcum powder, seals it, and then pats it a few times. So what happens? $%&#'s pouring out of the thing! Out of the flaps. Even a bit through the paper itself. You name it, you got it.

So basically it's pretty clear this Daschle Anthrax letter must have been leaving a trail of spores from Jersey to DC. And it's not at all surprising that it spewed lots of spores when it got run through the sorting machine at the Brentwood facility in DC.

In any case, according to Dr. Gupta, the talcum particles are about 30 microns across. That's compared to the Anthrax spores which were 5 microns and under. The kicker is that the pores in the envelope paper are about a 100 microns. So even if the envelope were "sealed," the stuff could STILL come out without much difficulty.

If Gupta's experiment weren't so sad it almost would have been funny, because it showed how ridiculous the original assumption was.

The only question is why we had to wait for this dude from CNN to think of this. Isn't this what we have those CDC guys for?

By all means, read this column by Matthew Miller. It brings together a number of seemingly disparate issues rippling beneath the surface in this current moment. And it does it very, very well. Miller also gives a hint of why wartime (pace Andrew S.) is often a seedbed of solidaristic, progressive politics.

One more point on the issue of the MO and motivations behind the Anthrax letter attacks. This article in the Washington Post quotes counter-terrorism expert Gerald "Gary" Brown saying that he thought the "Daschle letter was crafted to attract attention after the anthrax letters sent previously to news organizations garnered too tepid a response."

This got me thinking. What was the timeline exactly? What was the state of play, publicly, when the perpetrator sent the Daschle letter?

The letters to the New York Post and NBC News were sent on September 18th from Trenton, New Jersey. To the best of my knowledge, the letters responsible for the CBS, ABC and AMI contaminations have yet to be found. But it seems reasonable to assume, from all we know now, that those letters were also sent out of Trenton on the same day.

Two weeks later almost nothing had happened. Bob Stevens had been hospitalized on the 2nd of October, had his diagnosis confirmed on the 4th, and died on the 5th. But at that time federal authorities were still sticking with some improbable natural explanation for Stevens sickness.

So after two weeks the terrorist's work had gone entirely ignored and after two and a half weeks authorities were not even conceding that there had been a terrorist attack. None of the letters to the legit media had even been publicly discovered or acknowledged. This isn't meant to sound flippant but you get the sense there was a bit of frustration.

It was in this climate that the terrorist or terrorists sent the letter to Tom Daschle on October 9th, this time leaving no doubt what the letter contained: "We have this Anthrax. You die now."

(Again from the Post: "Unlike the earlier letters to Brokaw and the New York Post, which had no return addresses, the letter to Daschle carried a fictitious one. "Now they're saying, 'How can we get this through the system? Well, a letter to a senator from grade school kids might get it through. And if we mention that this is anthrax, this might get their attention,' " said Brown.")

Soon after the Daschle letter was sent, of course, news started to break about letters to various media outfits. (The skin Anthrax infection at NBC was reported on October 12th.) But on the 9th it must have seemed to the terrorist that this first volley might go permanently unnoticed.

This is all tea leaf reading of course. But I think there's something there, and I suspect Brown is on to it. The motivation for the second letter seems not only to have been to kill people but even more to make sure people realized that a terror campaign was underway.

Here's yet another article, highly speculative but interesting nonetheless, about who might be behind the Anthrax attacks. The general tilt of the experts interviewed by the Washington Post points away from a foreign source and toward some domestic culprit, perhaps even one with a rightist tilt.

I must confess that I have given this matter a lot of thought and the evidence is just endlessly contradictory and baffling.

Consider some examples.

This article in today's Washington Post the Daschle Anthrax "treated with a chemical additive so sophisticated that only three nations are thought to have been capable of making it ... The United States, the former Soviet Union and Iraq are the only three nations known to have developed the kind of additives ..."

But then later the article says: "A government official with direct knowledge of the investigation said yesterday that the totality of the evidence in hand suggests that it is unlikely that the spores were originally produced in the former Soviet Union or Iraq."

Are we supposed to draw the logical - though not definitive - inference from these two facts?

Also, for all the talk about the sophisticated and weaponized nature of the Daschle Anthrax, what serious biological weapons program produces Anthrax which is so susceptible to almost every antibiotic? Is there a good answer to this question?

Another question. Is there anything that we know about the terrorists involved with Al Qaeda which would lead us to believe that they would warn the letter recipients to take penicillin or tell them that the letter they received contained Anthrax? Does that make sense? Yes, it does terrorize people. But this does not strike me as the bin Ladenites' theory of terrorism. In many respects I think our theory of terrorism is much more highly articulated and over-determined than that of the terrorists themselves. I think these guys terrorize by killing people, in large numbers.

So why all the warnings? Why the heads up about the letters' contents?

Here's another question I have. Using the mail is an excellent delivery system for someone who wants to avoid detection or danger to themselves. But Al Qaeda seems to operate by suicide bombers. The incubation period of Anthrax makes it hard to compare this to truck bombs in terms of dying in the attack. But still. Isn't the very caginess of this means of attack a bit odd?

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying there aren't good logical reasons for assuming a direct 9/11-Al Qaeda connection. And I wonder too whether some of my doubts may be wishful thinking. But these are some of the things that make me wonder.

It's very, very hard to find any good news in the recent flood of ominous Anthrax developments. But one example is the seeming survivability of pulmonary (i.e., inhalation) Anthrax. According to established medical literature the survival rate for this condition ranges from the very low single digits to virtually zero.

Yet those statistics are based on data sets which are extremely small, of uncertain reliability, and in some cases simply out of date. And the rapidly and tragically growing number of new cases is giving at least some reason for hope.

The first victim of the recents attacks, Robert Stevens, died of Anthrax, as have two DC postal workers. Significantly, the two DC postal workers died before Anthrax was even suspected, let alone definitively diagnosed. But Ernesto Blanco, the other pulmonary Anthrax victim from AMI in Boca Raton, Florida, has now been released from the hospital. The two other DC postal workers with confirmed pulmonary Anthrax are in very serious, but apparently stable condition. Medical authorities in Virginia are expressing at least cautious hope that they'll pull through.

One doesn't want to be naive or foolishly optimistic. But this new evidence does lead to the conclusion that pulmonary Anthrax -- perhaps because of rapidly growing medical knowledge or a new generation of antibiotics -- is not the 99% killer we thought it was.

If memory serves, the last administration had a quite strict policy that the Treasury Secretary was the only person who spoke for the administration on certain key points of economic policy. I'm wondering if we don't need something similar from the current administration on developments in the Anthrax case. Actually, such a policy might profitably extend to Congress as well.

Our political leaders have been all over the place in the last several days on two key questions: 1) the precise quality and nature of the Anthrax spores contained in the letter to Tom Daschle, and 2) what if anything we know about connections between the Anthrax letters and 9/11.

This morning Dick Gephardt seemed to nudge the scale in a more ominous direction on both the weaponization question and the 9/11 tie-in issue.

The problem with all these different opinions and phrasings from Daschle, Gephardt, Fleischer, Ridge, Ashcroft, et.al. is that it's very difficult to get a handle on whether this is just Dick Gephardt's opinion (in which case, who cares), whether he's being freer with information the administration is holding back, or whether administration officials are using Gephardt to float new information which they themselves don't feel comfortable announcing publicly.

In normal circumstances, these sorts of differences just come out in the wash. But the necessity of getting clarity on these critical questions demands a bit more discipline and uniformity.

Oh, the infamy of it all!

Today I see that Howie Kurtz takes me to task for my brief post about a London Times article about the US possibly using torture against terror suspects. In that post I said news often appears in the British press which you never see in the United States.

Anyway, Kurtz points out that the article itself refers to a Washington Post article from which the Times had snagged most of the info.

So am I supposed to be embarrassed by this? Okay, maybe a little.

Anyway, back to the main point. I think the larger pattern is true, though this was admittedly a rather unfortunate example. A better example would have been the BBC's continued unexpurgated reporting of Al Qaeda threats and video taped messages after they had largely been squelched in the American press.

A few days after the 9/11 attacks, I remember watching an insurance company executive tell CNN's Lou Dobbs that he doubted any insurance company would try to use legal technicalities (such as an 'act of war' exception) to evade paying off claims to WTC policy holders. I thought of that interview when I saw this article in the Times describing how one of the major WTC insurers, Swiss Re, is now trying to do just that.

Shameless, right?

Well, maybe not. The surprise, if you read the article, is that the insurance company seems to have a pretty damn good case.

According to the Times article, the policy held by the folks with the lease on the WTC stated that every insurable incident would be covered up to $3.5 billion. But Larry A. Silverstein, whose company holds the lease to the WTC complex, wants $7 billion. His argument -- as the math indicates -- is that the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers wasn't one incident, but rather two separate incidents, one for each plane.

Doesn't that seem like a bit of a stretch?

One of the persistently interesting aspects of the war on terrorism story is how much information ends up getting published in the British or other foreign press, but never seems to see the light of day in the United States. Here's one example from The Times of London about the FBI considering tactics that border on torture to get a few key suspects to talk. Sounds grisly; but the moral stakes involved are quite complex, and tricky.

I've also gotten a number of responses to the last post on Cipro. A number of readers make what seems to be a quite valid medical/public health point about the use or over-use of this drug. They note (as I did) that this strain of Anthrax is susceptible to a number of antibiotics. And that the one thing we don't want to do is use so much Cipro that we end up creating a plethora of new Cipro-resistant bugs.

There are a few possible flaws with this argument that come to mind. But I'm not a doctor. So I'm really not in a position to evaluate it on the merits. But the point I was making was political, not medical. And on that basis, I think the point stands.

Here's why.

Maybe we should be using more penicillin than Cipro. Who knows? But there's nothing we've heard from Tommy Thompson that would make us think that this is why they're supplementing the Cipro stockpiles with doxycycline and penicillin. The issue seems to be patent law. And what I'm saying that is that this decision needs to be made on the basis of scientific, medical and public health considerations, not patent law issues.