Just now, on one of my morning walks, I happened by a police car stationed at an inconspicuous corner, presumably positioned there as part of the heightened — and now indefinite — state of alert against potential terrorist attacks. Seated in the car, slouched back and clad in a bullet proof vest, was a DC Metro police officer playing Microsoft Solitaire on his patrol car’s on-board computer screen.
It’d be easy to have some fun at the guy’s expense. And Lord knows, the DC Metro police have their problems.
But it seemed more than anything emblematic of the hurry-up-and-wait tempo of DC’s now perpetual anti-terrorism preparedness. Perhaps we’re about to be hit by a massive and catastrophic terrorist attack. On the other hand, it’s a beautiful day out and would you like to go hang at Starbucks?
At one point people may begin to ask why US Attorney Mary Jo White spent the better part of 2001 investigating the unreviewable pardons of former President Clinton and the shenanigans of Senator Bob Torricelli (two cases over which she had at best uncertain jurisdiction) when her time might have been more profitably spent cracking down on Islamic terrorist cells in New York.
But it’s nice to know — even now — she still has time to work on the Torricelli case.
Certainly, everything looks different with post-9/11 hindsight. But it’s worth beginning to talk about what a profoundly injudicious prosecutor White is, and how poorly suited she is for her job.
But she’s a Clinton appointee, you say?
We’ll be saying more about this.
Here is a column I wrote for Friday’s New York Post about the lessons we can learn from the failed effort to get the Sudan to turn over Osama bin Laden back in 1996. The gist of the story is that the folks at the Clinton NSC were not so much too soft (as many are quick to assert) as too hard on the folks in question. In a critical respect they fell for the rogue state mythology they and others had helped create.
More important is this, however. I found out a few days ago that my editor at the Post, Mark Cunningham, had become the latest victim of the anthrax outbreak. Thankfully, it’s only of the skin variety. And no doubt he’ll be fine.
I’d kept mum about this. But the news has now been made public. So I suppose there’s no problem mentioning it.
Mark’s been hard at work editing the Opinion Page at the Post, editing my column among many other things, all while dealing with this anthrax stuff. So Mark’s one of my heroes in this whole awful situation.
Here’s an interesting article in the Post on the doubts the Pentagon has about the Northern Alliance and the apparent necessity — at least if you listen to military analysts — of some major introduction of American ground troops if we’re to have any success in Afghanistan.
The argument, essentially, is that the Northern Alliance either isn’t trustworthy or isn’t up to the task. (Here’s an interesting contrary take from Slate.)
One thing that sort of jumps out about this article is that a good many of the experts quoted or noted are Pakistanis; and obviously the Pakistanis have their own reasons for not wanting us to adopt a strategy which is heavily reliant on the Northern Alliance.
This article in the Times quotes fewer Pakistani military sources and isn’t quite so negative on the Northern Alliance. But this surprisingly editorializing sentence (“The Northern Alliance … has proved far more energetic in complaining about the nature of the American bombing than in planning or executing an offensive.”) pretty well sums up the author’s viewpoint.
Let me add one more detail here. I had a long talk today with a former American intelligence officer with long experience in Central Asia — let’s call him Mr.Y. Based largely on his insights and arguments I think I’d revise some of my very negative appraisal of the conduct of the war in Afghanistan to date. The reasons are fairly straightforward. He thinks the Taliban will crack as their military equipment breaks down and their supplies of money are cut-off. And he thinks the Pakistani regime is probably less wobbly than we imagine. So, all things considered, why sacrifice more young American men and women if we can do most of it from the air? That’s his take at least.
And for what it’s worth, he thinks the Saudis are getting a bum rap and that the Northern Alliance is nothing to write home about.
Following up on our earlier post about anthrax susceptibility, this NPR report has some important information from an American study of the accidental release of anthrax in the former Soviet Union in 1979. According to the study, those who came down with inhalation anthrax were all “middle-aged or older,” had “occupational lung damage,” and were “all heavy smokers.”
Again, this seems like information we might want people to know.
P.S. Special thanks to TPM reader PB for sending along the link.
Isn’t this a little indecent? Gray Davis announces that there’s a credible threat against some California bridges. Then the Justice Department says Davis’ information isn’t as credible as the information that led to the Ashcroft announcement earlier in the week.
(Credible? You call that credible? I’ll show you credible, buddy!!!)
Can’t everyone get on the same team here? Is this like a credibility gap? Do we need a credibility rating system?
The Times gives Davis a bit more of a break, quoting the FBI to the effect that the threat was more ‘specific’ than the Ashcroft threat, and noting the fact that Davis said he had the information from “several sources, including the F.B.I.”
But what does that last line mean exactly? He also got tipped off by the Golden State’s own spy agency? What’s the deal here?
Just reading over the transcript of Davis’ announcement, I see the governor says: “The best preparation is to let the terrorists know: We know what you’re up to. We’re ready. It’s not going to succeed … We don’t want any damage. We don’t want any bloodshed. Our goal is to be prepared.”
Translation: We’re not lookin’ for any trouble. We don’t wanna have to bust anybody up. We don’t wanna have to be kickin’ any ass, my terrorist friends. So just chill, okay?
Who’s Davis’ speechwriter?
You might say that the greatest compliment one writer can pay to another is to get pissed at him for taking an idea that he too had had and actually getting off his butt and writing it. (I’m not sure that sentence worked exactly. But if you read it a few times I’m sure you’ll get the idea.) The only thing worse is if he does it well. Which brings me to this column by Jake Weisberg in Slate today.
Weisberg takes on the rapidly congealing but utterly fatuous cliche that the 1990s were a decade of daydreams and indulgence from which we were so rudely, but in some respects thankfully, awakened by the traumas of September 11th. That was a decade of silliness; this will be a decade of seriousness.
We should almost expect some favored popular writer to write a new version of Frederick Lewis Allen’s Only Yesterday — a classic, and well-worth-your-while book about the Roaring Twenties written just after the market crash and beginning of the Great Depression.
I’d run through the argument but Weisberg covers all the right bases.
And as long as we’re talking about there being no level of profundity that banality, nostalgia, and triviality can’t conquer, I assume you’ve heard how President Bush thinks the war on terrorism offers a chance for his generation to prove it has the mettle and determination of the ‘greatest generation.’ But I ask you, isn’t this just another version of the same baby-boomer self-obsession and myopia?
Could there be something to this age tie-in for coming down with inhalational anthrax? It’s no surprise that the elderly would be more susceptible to an opportunistic disease than those who are young and fit. But as I noted in last night’s post, the age spread of those who’ve got skin and and inhalation anthrax is striking (all but one of the former were under 50, all but one of the latter over 50.)
I’m now told that studies of the accidental release of weaponized anthrax in the Soviet Union in 1979 showed the victims tended to be people who were older, were smokers, or had some previous lung impairment. This CDC report on that outbreak notes that none of those who came down with the disease were children — though researchers were unable to determine whether this was due to differences in resistance or simply the pattern of who had been exposed.
Yes, the numbers are far too small to prove anything. But they do make you wonder.
Since the doctors and epidemiologists don’t seem to have a clear grasp of what’s going with the still-developing anthrax scare, perhaps there’s not so much harm in amateurs putting forward theories. Whether that’s the case, or not, I must confess that I’m increasingly struck by the age spread between the cases of inhalation and cutaneous anthrax, which I noted in the last post.
As you’ll note, from the numbers I referenced previously, all but one of the victims of inhalation anthrax was over 50. Actually, all but one were 55 and over. The exception was 47.
All but one of the cases of skin anthrax were under 50. The one exception was 51.
Of course I know we’re dealing with extraordinarily small samples here. Far too few to reveal a true statistical significance. But it’s hard for me at least to figure that this is mere coincidence. Could age be a key determinant of which you get, in addition to numbers of spores?
Put this down under the heading of ‘he’s not a doctor, and he shouldn’t even be playing one on the web’… But having said that, the following is meant in all seriousness.
Consider the list of people who’ve come down with inhalation anthrax. Do you notice a pattern? They’re all on the old side. This page in the Washington Post identifies ten cases of inhalation anthrax, and gives ages for eight of them.
The ages are 61, 63, 55, 47, 73, 59, 57, 56. (The first four have died; the second have either recovered or are still sick) Granted, 47 is hardly old. But when you consider that these were mainly in workplaces where you’re not going to have a lot of people in their 60s, 70s and 80s, it’s a pretty striking pattern.
Compare to the ages of those who’ve gotten skin anthrax: 51, 38, 1, 27, 30, 35.
Doesn’t it sort of sound like maybe there are a number of other people who’ve also breathed in a bunch of spores but had younger and better immune systems and were able to fight it off?
This Daily News article on John McCain describes how the Arizona Senator is reverting to his accustomed role as thorn in the side of the Bush administration, taking aim both at the administration’s military strategy in Afghanistan and also their evolving post-9/11 domestic policy.
What’s just as interesting though is what’s implicit in the article: President Bush’s seeming insistence on undermining the potential long-term political benefits of the war on terrorism with unthinking obedience to the DeLay-Armey crew in the House — particularly on stuff like airport security.
No matter what pundits might say, a successful war on terrorism won’t come close to guaranteeing President Bush reelection. But how he uses his political capital could. If Bush sidled a bit toward the middle and got some triangulation points by picking a few fights with the mullahs in the House, he’d have a decent shot at commanding the center of American politics and convincing a decent portion of the electorate that he’s a different kind of Republican.
Lucky for the Dems, he shows no signs of doing that.
More on this to follow.
Just a few brief observations. In case you missed them, this Sunday’s New York Times and Washington Post both had really good pieces on the broad question of political Islamic militancy.
In the Post, a former CIA analyst, Stanley Bedlington, examines Osama bin Laden principally as a maker of myths about himself. A lot of the stuff in the article jibes with things I’ve heard from other folks in the CIA, particularly those with experience in Afghan War in the 1980s. In any case, Bedlington weaves a lot of good information together in an incisive and probative essay.
In the Times, Joe Lelyveld talks to Muslims in Gaza, Cairo and Hamburg (Mohamed Atta’s old stomping grounds) trying to find out what makes young men (and not so young men) turn into suicide bombers. Perhaps not surprisingly it’s in Hamburg where the author finds the really frightening people, where radical Islam brushes up against the underbelly of the West, and where Islamic militancy becomes a language of discontent for the nihilism and ennui of the slums.
An interesting companion to the Lelyveld piece is this article, also from Sunday’s Times, about the aborted attack on the US Embassy in Paris.
Also of note, the one year anniversary of Talking Points Memo is hurtling toward us at a dizzying pace. This font of online wisdom and wisecracks will turn one year old on November 13th. Various festivities will be announced shortly.
Some of my conservative friends must be wondering something like this right about now: if we wanted a war fought from the air, with strategy dictated by politics and not the military, we might as well have given Bill Clinton a third term and kept Larry Klayman out of the unemployment line!
Now, obviously I don’t have such a negative view of the former President’s foreign and military policies (far from it), of which we’ll say more later. But you do have to wonder: this is starting to look not like a new kind of war, but the old kind of war, just fought really badly.
Having said all this, a few disclaimers. It’s really easy to gripe from the sidelines. The folks at the Pentagon have more information at hand than we do. And as everyone should have learned during the Kosovo War, if you’ve got a strategy and you think it’s a good one, don’t get all wobbly just because things get rough for a bit. I remember toward the end of the air phase of the Gulf War there was a lot of grumbling about why we hadn’t just gone ahead and invaded Kuwait. But the military planners knew what they were doing. And at least in purely military terms the whole thing came off famously.
But you don’t come to Talking Points for disclaimers, do you? So let’s cut to the chase.
My concern is less that this is going too slowly than that I’m uncertain just what our strategy is, or more to the point, whether the one we have makes any sense. As nearly as I can understand it, our current plan is to weaken the Taliban through sustained air strikes; and weaken them enough relative to their Afghan opponents (the Northern Alliance, et.al.), that they collapse or get overrun. Then we go in and mop up Al Qaeda.
But like any air power strategy, this leaves it to our opponents to decide when, where and how to say ‘uncle.’ They have the initiative, not us. And decentralized opponents are more able to withstand this sort of barrage than centralized ones.
We also seem to want our ground allies to have at best only a partial victory, which further complicates what we’re trying to do. And the comments leaking out of the Pentagon, that the Taliban are tougher than expected, don’t inspire a lot of confidence.
Our beef here is with Al Qaeda. And as brutal and bloody as it will be, I don’t know what alternative there is to going in on the ground and rooting them out. The problem with our current strategy is that we lack the initiative and as much as we might bluster, time does not seem to be on our side.
Why isn’t time on our side? Because the longer this goes on, the less convincing we become when we say we’re fighting terrorism and not the Afghan people. And because the longer this goes on the more antagonism we kick up in the rest of the Muslim world.
Trust me, I’m not saying this is easy. It’s not. I’m just wondering whether we may have angled ourselves into a position where our opponents are controlling this situation and not us.
Who knows? Maybe next week things will start to break free. I hope so. But for the moment, maybe Perle-Wolfowitz & Company should stop yammering about expanding the war to Iraq and start pushing to expand it to Al Qaeda.
As a cautious partisan of the domestic whacko explanation of the Anthrax attacks, I was quite interested to see this article in the Washington Post, which states unambiguously that the FBI and the CIA don’t think the attacks are connected to Al Qaeda.
Having said that, they don’t provide a great deal of new evidence to support the argument beyond quotes from intelligence sources. Come to think of it, they don’t provide much evidence at all, beside quotes from intelligence sources. But it’s certainly worthwhile to know what these intel folks think since presumably they have access to much more information which they can’t divulge.
Anyway, the new wave of reportage seems to be tipping the scale against an Al Qaeda connection and giving some credence to those of us who’ve been raising questions about the whether this had the look of an Al Qaeda operation.
The most interesting hypothesis (not necessarily valid, of course, but interesting) is the ‘have your cake and eat it too’ theory mentioned in the Post article. That theory says that it could be both! The work of some new Rightwing Racist Freak – Islamic Terrorist Freak alliance. Or perhaps just some domestic Aryan Nations types acting in sympathy with Al Qaeda goals. Who knows?
Now let’s touch on another point: Bob Woodward, the fella who’s got a co-byline on the article. I always see Woodward brought in on a byline when the big story gets run even though the other writer has been writing on the subject for weeks or months, really a ton of articles, and clearly has developed all sorts of good sources and expertise. Does Woodward actually bring anything to these articles? Or has he become more like the journalistic equivalent of a DC rainmaker? The mover and shaker who gets brought in at the last minute to make one phone call, sprinkle some holy water, set up the key lunch date? And most important, does this sort of comment mean I won’t get picked up in Howie Kurtz’s media column any more?????
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?
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.
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.
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.
It’s a little difficult to figure how any company could have flubbed an opportunity for good PR more than Bayer has in recent days.
As you probably know, Bayer is the manufacturer of the Anthrax-fighting drug Cipro. As it turns out, there are several antibiotics that seem effective against the particular strain of Anthrax popping up in media mail rooms around the United States. But apparently that’s because this strain is quite susceptible to treatment. The point is that Cipro is the gold standard: it would apparently work against certain strains which other antibiotics couldn’t handle. (To wit, if I get exposed to Anthrax of unknown provenance, I want Cipro; and you probably do too.)
So, in addition to helping a lot of people, Bayer could have used this as an opportunity to get a lot of well-earned good press. At the end of the day there’s almost no way Bayer wouldn’t end up making lots of money off this scare, even if the United States or Canada gave temporary permission for generic manufacturers to make Cipro also.
Wasn’t this a no-brainer? A way for a major drug manufacturer to demonstrate that it was fundamentally in the business of health, not simply interested in the bottom line?
The argument for loosening the patent isn’t that the government couldn’t afford buying tons of Cipro (though that too is an important issue), but that Bayer may well not be able to satisfy the almost incalculable demand.
So far Bayer has been issuing assurances that it can keep up with demand and resisting any efforts to enlist generic manufacturers to supply government stockpiles. But obviously their capacity must have some limits. And the country seems pretty obviously to be in a situation in which we shouldn’t allow any arbitrary limit (the production capacity of a single company) to keep us from getting as much as we need of the choicest drug (Cipro).
What’s a little distressing is that HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson seems inclined to make up the shortfall in Bayer’s production capacity with drugs like doxycycline and penicillin, rather than allowing other manufacturers to make Cipro. Again these two other drugs seem to work fine against this strain of Anthrax. But everything I’ve heard to date indicates that Cipro would likely be effective against a broader range of strains. (Remember, everyone currently under treatment is getting the good stuff, Cipro. So why scrimp?)
Setting aside the Bayer patent — perhaps to let generic manufacturers produce Cipro exclusively for government stockpiles — would not necessarily mean abrogating the law. According to Senator Chuck Schumer, current law contains exceptions for just this sort of pressing national emergency.
So there are a lot of medical facts which are uncertain at this point. And it’s possible that Thompson will adopt a stronger line. But at the moment at least it seems like he is letting an over-zealous concern for patent law get in the way of public health.
Just a thought.
Hey!?!?! What’s the deal? Why so few Talking Points posts recently? Is Talking Points going under? Going out of business? Packing it in? Going the way of Polaroid?
No, just a busy week. What with buying gas masks and stockpiling supplies. And even some paying work. You know how it is.
Back to normal posting schedule next week.
My previous TPM post notwithstanding, subsequent developments tend to point away from an Iraqi Anthrax connection. First, it seems there is a growing pool of admittedly quite circumstantial evidence pointing in the direction of domestic terrorism. Either a purely domestic operation a la Tim McVeigh, or one in sympathy with bin Laden et.al., operating without close coordination with people overseas.
One of the most interesting pieces of evidence can be found in this article by Scott Ritter, a former weapons inspector, permanent hot-head, but never someone who you’d expect to be exculpating Saddam if the facts didn’t unmistakably point in that direction. He makes three points: 1) that the weapons inspectors did a pretty good job destroying the Iraqi bioweapons operations, 2) that it simply wouldn’t make sense for Saddam to involve himself in something like this since he’s already making progress on his major goal, lifting sanctions, and 3) that the strain of Anthrax that the Iraqis worked with isn’t the same as that found in Florida, DC and New York. (The not-unreasonable counter-argument from the Iraq hawks would be that the Iraqis have now had three years of unmonitored time to hatch new plans and perhaps new microbes.)
Taken together, Ritter makes a pretty strong case that there’s at least no good evidence for an Iraqi connection to date.
I must confess to you that with many friends working on Capitol Hill (and myself living only a few miles away), it’s not so easy to get a critical distance on these most recent disclosures of Anthrax-tainted letters.
Regular readers will also know that I’ve been skeptical of the ‘bomb Iraq now’ crew inhabiting the middle-ranks of the Pentagon. But these new reports raise some very serious questions.
We now seem to be getting conflicting reports about the nature and quality of the Anthrax which arrived at Tom Daschle’s office. First we were hearing that it was high-quality, weapons-grade material. Now authorities seem to be partially backing off those statements, noting among other things that the strain seems highly susceptible to various antibiotics, etc.
Still it seems increasingly likely that someone has Anthrax that is the product of a quite sophisticated operation.
What happens if we find out, upon further testing, that this Anthrax was the product of a sophisticated production system which could only exist as part of a state-sponsored bioweapons program or with the complicity of some state? And let’s cut to the chase, what if the evidence points to Iraq?
We needn’t assume high-level Iraqi state complicity in giving terrorists anthrax to believe that the Iraqi program was the source of the material. Perhaps it was stolen. Perhaps some Iraqi intelligence officers gave a small amount to Mohammed Atta. Who knows? And perhaps more to the point, who cares?
I say this neither to be flippant nor to discount the possibility of direct Iraqi involvement. I say it only to focus our attention on what I take to be the real question at hand. That is, can we allow the continued existence of production facilities and large stocks of chemical and biological weapons in Iraq once we know, or strongly suspect, that some of them have made it to our shores? Once you put it that way, I don’t think it really matters whether Saddam Hussein or Tariq Aziz signed off on the transfer. And if the question is, can we allow it? I think the answer is pretty obviously that we cannot.
That conclusion leads to some dizzying and troubling implications. But I’m not sure they’re ones we can any longer ignore.