The 2001 Anthrax Deception

I may be biased, but I believe my friend Graeme MacQueen has written a brave and important book in his newly-published “The 2001 Anthrax Deception“, which he subtitles “The case for a domestic conspiracy”. It’s a book that takes on new importance in the light of the CIA torture report.

If you’re like me, you won’t have thought about the anthrax attacks in some time. Remember: these were the letters containing spores of anthrax sent through the US mail to media companies and to selected politicians in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks; letters that killed five people. During October 2001 there was a widespread belief that the letters were a follow-up to the 9/11 planes, carried out by al-Qaeda with the help of Iraq, which was supposedly one of the few actors with the expertise and capacity to produce this biological weapon of mass destruction. That theory was disproved in late October and the FBI began hunting for a domestic “lone wolf”, initially pursuing one Steven Hatfill and then, when this avenue also proved to be a dead end, going silent. Six years later the FBI and the Department of Justice announced that they had a new suspect in Dr. Bruce Ivins, who worked on anthrax vaccines for the US army. Ivins died – said to be suicide – shortly before he was to be charged. In 2010 the Department of Justice closed the case, releasing a report that laid the blame at Ivins’s door.

MacQueen’s book (I think of it as “Graeme’s book” of course, but for the sake of style I’ll call him “MacQueen” here). As I was saying, MacQueen’s book is brave because any attempt to question official stories of events surrounding 9/11 get labelled as “conspiracy theories” which are, after all, taboo in polite society. Questioning of the official story of the anthrax attacks has been made to seem tantamount to a belief in the Illuminati and a conviction that the moon landings were faked, but MacQueen refuses to back away from the word. It’s to his credit that he puts the word “conspiracy” right there on the cover. And after all, as he says, it is nearly universally believed that the 9/11 attacks were a conspiracy.

It should be uncontroversial to question the “official story” of the anthrax attacks. There was no trial, no opportunity for a defence by the man deemed guilty; the official story has not been tempered by the heat of public interrogation and debate. Released years after the events, the appetite for challenging the report has never been a strong one. In short, as official stories go, it’s not well established; its status is more like an arrest than a conviction.

And people do conspire, MacQueen reminds us. To use the word need not imply a belief in all-powerful yet shadowy cabals, nor commit us to a conspiratorial view of history; the spectrum of possibilities is broad. Maybe it helps to think of a more distant case. The death of the Princes in the Tower during the Wars of the Roses remains something of a mystery, but most historians lay the blame at the feet of Richard III. Yet to say that “Richard did it” is just the beginning. There’s almost no chance that Richard actually carried out the execution with his own hands. So did he order it directly? Or did he utter an equivalent of the earlier Henry II’s “will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” and let his councillors take their cue from his frustration? Or did the initiative come from elsewhere in his court, as someone lower down the hierarchy took history into their own hands? All of these are possible. There is a supply-and-demand aspect to political entrepreneurship and to responsibility for heinous acts. Creating the conditions that encourage and reward criminal actions is part of the tangle of blame.

We know that sending anthrax powder through the mail is not so far from confirmed practices of US military and intelligence agencies: Oliver North arranged for arms to be sold to Iran in order to pursue war in Nicaragua through contra proxies; the Gulf of Tonkin incident demonstrated the willingness of the US to deceive the public in order to justify a war. The use of agent provocateurs by official agencies is well established: many of the terrorist attacks supposedly prevented by anti-terrorist agencies were facilitated and encouraged by operatives of those same agencies as they try to establish their radical credentials in the communities they are infiltrating. Here in Canada, Mubin Shaikh was actively involved in setting up training camps that were then used to justify the arrest of the youths who attended them.

All of which is simply to say that there is a case to be made here, and one that should be well within the norms of acceptable debate.

One of the reasons I came into the book in a sceptical frame of mind was that there are no planning documents, no insiders giving compelling accounts of how the planning was done and where. Someone, I thought, would have come out and said something; or someone would have found and leaked some key document. But the report on CIA torture puts those doubts to one side: it shows that illegal actions can be carried on with the involvement of many inside people, that even though there would be tremendous demand for such material from the press no one leaked anything over the years since 2002, and that in the absence of the inquiry we would still not know (as a society) that these events had happened and that the CIA had organized them. So yes, secrets can be held for years.

In all this waffle I realize I’ve not actually said much about the book itself, so maybe I should summarize it at least. Here goes.

MacQueen sets out his aims right at the beginning of the book. He’s out to show that the perpetrator of the anthrax attacks was not a “lone wolf”, that they were carried out by deep insiders in the US executive branch, that there were links to the 9/11 Hijackers, that the goals of the attackers were to redefine the enemy of the west to the Global War on Terror and to weaken the rule of law internationally and within the US: goals that were successfully achieved. He convinces me of the first and of the final two. I’m not quite ready to follow him for sure with the second and third, but he makes a compelling case for both and I am convinced by him that insiders within the US executive branch have responsibility for these attacks, whether or not there was an explicit order to carry them out.

The focus of the book, as the subtitle says, is to make the case for a domestic conspiracy, and MacQueen starts with motive. In September and October 2001 there was a concerted effort to cast the events of 9/11 as an act of war rather than just terrorism. Casting it as war was essential to passing the Patriot Act, to giving the President extraordinary powers, and to setting up military tribunals to try those seized. The case for war was made much stronger by the anthrax attacks, which clearly required capabilities the reach of non-state actors, and which were presented (during the crucial weeks of debate during October 2001) as clear evidence of conspiracy between al-Qaeda and Iraq. If Iraq was involved, then it’s an attack by a nation state, hence war.

In the lead-up to passing the Patriot Act on October 11, 2001, the Bush administration adopted a “strategy of tension”, building up the threat of an al-Qaeda/Iraq axis. Leahy and Daschle played leading roles in delaying the Patriot Act so that it did not pass by an administration deadline of October 5th and then, between October 6 and 9, letters were sent to both of them containing anthrax. Sure enough, on October 11 the act was passed. When it was signed into law on October 26, George Bush specifically invoked the anthrax attacks as a justification for curtailment of civil rights, in a chain of events that led straight to the now-exposed NSA surveillance practices. There is no doubt that the anthrax attacks gave the Bush administration exactly what it needed in order to achieve its legislative goals.

The central chapter of the book is an investigation of the four possibilities for the attacks: (domestic/foreign) (individual/group). The early focus was, as I’ve already said, on a “foreign group” and it’s important to remember just what happened at that time. On the basis of flimsy and ultimately false information, conjecture, and circumstantial evidence (at best), there was a major part of the US (and international) political and journalistic establishments who proclaimed, with sufficient certainty to invade countries and kill large numbers of people, that the verdict was in and the attacks were the responsibility of a “double perpetrator”: al-Qaeda and Iraq. It is at the very least inconsistent to dismiss those, like MacQueen, who suggest that a domestic group perpetrator was responsible when those who propagated and used the “double perpetrator” hypothesis continue to enjoy prestige and respect. The “conspiracy theorists” have a right to be taken seriously in this debate.

The double-perpetrator hypothesis gave way in the face of the revelation that the anthrax was weaponized and featured an aerosol additive that indicated it came from US military laboratories. A foreign individual was clearly out of the question, so that leaves two options. All efforts were devoted to tracking a domestic individual, first Steven Hatfill and then Bruce Ivins, efforts that concluded with the publishing of the Department of Justice report in 2010 and the closing of the case.

The main focus of the book is not to attack the case against Ivins, but MacQueen does highlight two events: the publishing of the National Academy of Science report in 2011 that said the physical evidence tying Ivins to the mailed spores was inconclusive, and researchers who published scientific papers showing that the spores could not have been prepared by an individual, and probably came from a lab other than the one where Ivins worked.

I found this central chapter very strong. The case against Ivins is far from compelling, the absence of a trial is remarkable, and there has simply been no public attempt to assess guilt or innocence. MacQueen makes a very strong case that there is no obviously true official story, and that attempts to establish alternative theories are valid and should be taken seriously.

I was less convinced by the following chapter, which is about advance knowledge of the attacks. Certainly there was much discussion of the possibility of anthrax attacks, and of dirty nuclear bombs, in the media during September 2001, after 9/11 and before the actual anthrax attacks became public in October, but I’m not convinced that such discussion necessarily derived — as MacQueen suggests it does –from the perpetrators of the attacks or that it showed foreknowledge or an attempt to prepare the ground for when the attacks actually happened.

That said, there is, again, a spectrum of possibilities. MacQueen’s claim that top officials used the chatter and amplified it at politically useful times and that the chatter was part of a conspiracy to justify war is convincing, as is his claim that the double perpetrator hypothesis was “false, known to be false, and flowed from repeated acts of deception by the US Government”.

If anything does make me consider the possibility of foreknowledge it’s MacQueen’s account of an exercise called Dark Winter, carried out at Andrews Airforce base on June 22-23 2001. The exercise simulated a biological warfare attack by terrorists in which anonymous letters containing smallpox virus are sent to media outlets. The simulation evolved in striking parallel to the actual events of September and October 2001. The participants in Dark Winter included Judith Miller (New York Times journalist who played an important role in promoting war on Iraq), James Woolsey (director of the CIA under the Clinton administration) and Jerome Hauer (a member of the neoconservative Committee on the Present Danger and also the director of the Office of Emergency Management of New York City until early 2000).

What do these parallels tell us? They don’t prove that the team organizing the Dark Winter exercise carried out the anthrax attacks (and MacQueen doesn’t claim this), but they do tell us that there was a well-established script which gives the attacks meaning and purpose from a conservative point of view. They show that the people involved in Dark Winter, together with others in the Bush administration and in the conservative media, fostered a climate in which the anthrax attacks played a politically useful role, creating a context which encouraged a “false attack” by anyone who would want to see an attack on Iraq happen. Such an attack took place, and played the part required of it. Whether it was actually executed by a lone wolf or by a group is perhaps not the most important question.

MacQueen is interested in the anthrax attacks for their own sake, but he is also interested in 9/11, and he sees connections between the two. Robert Stevens, the first casualty of the anthrax attacks, was an employee of Mike Irish at Boca Raton newspaper The Sun and a friend of his wife, real-estate agent Gloria Irish. Gloria Irish found houses both for Stevens and, in the summer of 2001, for two of the 9/11 hijackers (Marwan al-Shehhi and Hama al-Ghamdi). The official explanation for this is that it’s a coincidence. Beyond this, Hijacker Mohamed Atta made attempts to buy crop-dusting planes which made sense only for an anthrax attack (which al-Qaeda had, we now know, no capability to execute). It does seem likely that there was an attempt to tie the anthrax attacks to the 9/11 attacks, and so to present al-Qaeda as likely anthrax attackers – but by whom? Bruce Ivins could not have known (MacQueen shows) of the connections between Stevens and the Hijackers.

The Bush administration undertook a wide range of deceptive actions – lying, making false implications and more – to present anthrax, al-Qaeda and Iraq as a powerful and threatening combination. These actions culminated in Colin Powell’s UN Security Council presentation at which he held up a vial of simulated anthrax. So just how far did they go? How much did they push, cajole, and encourage their organizations to produce evidence to back up the stands they were taking? And if they were putting a lot of pressure on their organizations to provide the proof of al-Qaeda/Iraq mendacity that they knew was out there, would it be surprising if a group somewhere undertook to provide the nudge that was needed, or took the pragmatic shortcut of just doing it themselves? Because surely, you can imagine them thinking, even if this attack was fake, it would be done with the best of motives, to draw attention to a greater danger that they knew was there in Baghdad. Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?

The book gets, for me, at least 80% of the way to the author’s goals. He reminds us of the lengths to which powerful organizations go to achieve their aims. He reminds us that such organizations are not all-powerful, but make mistakes. He shows us that the constellations were aligned by the Bush administration in such a way that the anthrax attacks (by domestic actors supportive of the Bush administration goals) would be an understandable action. He shows us that there is a plausible connection between the perpetrators of the anthrax attacks and the 9/11 Hijackers. If he doesn’t pull me the last mile to being convinced that the attacks were executed by people deep within the US executive branch I am a lot more open to the possibility than when I started. It’s a brave and necessary book and it matters that dissident voices such as his are demanding that questions continue to be asked about this important recent history.

Lucky Me

Three writerly things I’m enthusiastic about at the moment.

First, my recent post In Praise of Fake Reviews has been reworked and polished thanks to the efforts of Rob Horning, and posted at The New Inquiry.

Second, I’m off to New York City next week to take part in the Digital Labor conference. I’ll be on a panel on The Future of Workers in the Sharing Economy; we each talk for about 30 minutes and then discuss. I’ll be talking in part about reputation.

Third is an article in progress, but more on that later.



Airbnb City Maps

Inspired by the (much better!) maps of Amsterdam listings, here are some of my surveys of Airbnb cities converted to Google Fusion Tables. Data is obtained to the best of my ability, and I believe it is statistically pretty good, but I can make no guarantees as to its accuracy. Always visit the actual page for any individual listing.

Out and About

Despite the slack posting here (but I do have some things I’m working on, honest), I am flattered that people still want to talk to me about sharing economy and related topics. Here are some recent posts and articles where I appear.

  • I’m going to be talking sharing with a panel of people at Personal Democracy Forum 2014. Unusually for a technology-focused conference, over half the speakers are female, which is great. The blurb for my pane; says “Defining and Debating the “Sharing Economy” (Thurs June 5, 3:30-4:30pm): Tom Slee, James Slezak, Denise Cheng, Adam Greenfield, Nancy Scola (moderator). Is there such a thing as the “sharing economy,” or are some people more interested in sharing, while others are interested in the economy? How can we usefully distinguish between “sharing economy” enterprises that empower their users and those that may actually seek to exploit them? A critic [that’s me], an advocate and an academic observer will take a close look at these questions and try to get to the bottom of what is good and what is hype about this emerging phenomenon.”
  • Terry Dawes of CanTech Letter is right. Jeremy Rifkin’s views on the future are indeed, neat, simple, and wrong.
  • Jon Zerolnik of LA-based investigative website Capital and Main interviews me about Couchsurfers and Billionaires.
  • Thanks also to Houston Davidson of the College Hill Independent for talking to me about Sharing for Money.
  • The always-excellent Nancy Scola writes about Arun Sundararajan and quotes me.
  • Hey, look! My non-earth-shattering 1988 paper with Preston McDougall on “The correspondence between Hückel theory and ab initio atomic charges in allyl ions” is now online!

No True Airbnb Host…

After months of waiting, Airbnb and the Attorney General of New York finally face each other in court this week to argue over the Attorney General’s subpoena for information on the 15,000 or so Airbnb hosts in New York City (summary at the Guardian, more opinion in the overview by Nitasha Tiku at Valleywag). There’s been a flurry of revealing activity and statements, and lots of commentary. So here’s more.

The court case is about many things. But what makes it interesting for those of us who don’t live in New York is the broader implications of the case, which include:

  • The breadth of the Attorney General’s subpoena and the proportionality of his actions. Does the subpoena blend into the general fear of government access to individual data in the light of the NSA scandals?
  • The illegality of some Airbnb rentals. If the subpoena succeeds and shows that a significant portion of Airbnb’s business is based on illegal rentals, then that’s a problem for a lot of people.
  • If Airbnb rentals are illegal, who is responsible (legally and morally)? Is it the host or Airbnb itself?
  • The validity of the law. Airbnb maintain the law is a bad law, inappropriately applied, and that the Airbnb hosts are a new class of business (“micro-entrepreneurs”) that need new rules. Does new technology render the old laws obsolete?
  • How will this affect the $10B valuation of Airbnb and its prospects for an IPO?
  • How will this affect the future of the sharing economy?

The main players are, obviously, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Airbnb. But other players appear on the stage, including:

  • Airbnb hosts and guests. Hosts have the most to lose if their information is handed over.
  • Democrat Senator Elizabeth Krueger. Her position on the issue (see here and today’s interview by Nancy Scola) is a bit different from that of the Attorney General, but she is broadly on the same side.
  • The technology industries and advocates. The Internet Association and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have both spoken up about the subpoena, placing themselves broadly on the Airbnb side.
  • Neighbours, landlords, tenants, and housing co-ops. These are all affected by individuals renting out apartments through Airbnb.
  • The hotel industry. While Airbnb has painted hotels as one of the villains in the fight, their role seems to me peripheral.

To start with the narrowest issue: it seems pretty clear that about 2/3 of Airbnb rentals in the city are outside the law in New York, which forbids apartment rentals of under 30 days if the owner is not present. The New York Post report is here, and is based on an affidavit by the Attorney General’s office (PDF). That affidavit is, in turn, based on an analysis of Airbnb’s business carried out by consultants Connotate for travel site Skift. Their report is more extensive than, but similar to, the analysis I carried out a while ago here. Airbnb and Peers recognize this by arguing that the law needs to be changed.

For what it’s worth, I find Elizabeth Krueger’s position on illegal rentals more reasonable than either the Attorney General’s or that of advocacy group Peers. The Attorney General gives the impression of (at least potentially, and despite avowals otherwise) going after all the hosts who have made illegal rentals. Given that law enforcement is usually complaint-based and that Airbnb has done little to warn its hosts of their responsibilities, this seems harsh. Krueger (see links above) puts Airbnb as the root of the problem—making a lot of money off hosts and letting the hosts take all the risk—and I agree with her. Airbnb may not be legally responsible, but it seems to me morally culpable.

But what if the law is just a bad, obsolete law that shouldn’t apply to Airbnb hosts anyway, which is what Airbnb has been arguing? Here the onus switches to Airbnb: has it made the case that it can do better than New York’s “bad law”? It needs to do more than say “because Technology” if it’s going to justify a change.

Most of the Airbnb case is made in its public policy blog posts (here and here), in its report on New York (here), and in its new sharing cities initiative (here). What these posts show is a remarkable lack of content, and a reliance on heartwarming words and spin that is, in the end, cheap talk.

Airbnb’s description of its own hosts is at least consistent. They repeatedly describe their “community” as “regular New Yorkers who occasionally rent out their homes”, or “regular New Yorkers just trying to make ends meet”. They emphasize that “87 percent of Airbnb hosts rent out the home they live in”. These are all phrases that invoke the “sharing economy” vision. When anything goes wrong, Airbnb refers to occasional, incredibly rare “bad apples”.

But Airbnb’s homespun language is carefully chosen. The 87% figure is the most obviously economical with the truth. It may be true as a percentage of hosts, but only about 63% of listings are single-listing hosts, and as much as anyone can tell, almost half of actual bookings are from hosts who have multiple listings. It’s not easy to get definitive answers from scraping the public web site, but Airbnb has consistently refused to challenge these numbers, and so it’s a good guess that they are not too far off the truth. They could release their own statistics if they chose, but they don’t.

Instead, they put out “reports” that have no methodology, no definitions of key terms, and about 300 words of actual text. Airbnb makes a lot of the fact that it “supports more than 4,500 jobs” but it never says what “support” means. It claims to have “generated $104 million in economic activity outside of Manhattan”, but it doesn’t say what “generated” means. This may seem like nit-picking, but it isn’t: it’s just asking for facts instead of spin.

But where things get really bad — for Airbnb hosts who drive the company’s revenue as well as for Airbnb’s claim to be a responsible provider of safe and well-managed accommodation — is in Airbnb’s slippery definition of its own “community”.

Airbnb continually claims to speak for its hosts, as in “our hosts want to pay taxes”, and repeatedly characterizes its community of “amazing” hosts as “regular” people. It also describes them as “micro-entrepreneurs”, suggesting that they are independent. But Airbnb hosts, who are asked increasingly to invest in their own property in order to put it on Airbnb’s marketplace, are precariously dependent on Airbnb’s whims in order to make money from their investment, which is not an entrepreneurial role at all. If anything goes wrong, the host gets turfed off the market without appeal. If you’re a host, how do you know if you are a “bad apple” or a “regular New Yorker”?

Most dramatically, this has happened today. After insisting for months that concerns about multiple listings were exaggerated, Airbnb today permanently removed no fewer than 2,000 New York listings from its platform – roughly 10% of the total. They claim the process has been going on for months, and that it demonstrates their responsibility. But the fact that it happened today of all days, the fact that identifying multiple listings is a trivial exercise, and the fact that the criteria for expulsion are still woefully unclear, makes it difficult to take them seriously (Jason Clampet at Skift is excellent on the removals). Here is an excerpt of Airbnb’s explanation:

But when we examined our community in New York, we found that some property managers weren’t providing a quality, local experience to guests. These hosts weren’t making their neighborhood stronger and they weren’t delivering the kind of hospitality our guests expect and deserve. In some cases, they were making communities worse, not better. We took a hard look at our community in New York to identify these hosts and we took action.

Earlier this year, we began notifying these hosts that they and their more than 2,000 listings would be permanently removed from the Airbnb community. While we are allowing these hosts to support their existing  bookings, all are now prohibited from accepting new reservations and if you search for a place to stay in New York, you won’t find these listings.

Imagine you are an Airbnb host in New York reading these words. How would you know if you are living up to Airbnb’s requirements? Are you making your neighbourhood stronger? Are you delivering the kind of hospitality your guests expect? This is a “No True Scotsman” argument: the Airbnb community is trustworthy because if you do anything Airbnb decides is wrong then you are not part of the community. The lack of clarity is remarkable and shows that they are not ready to provide the kind of security and accountability that any replacement for rentals regulation would need.

My skepticism over Airbnb’s sincerity is heightened because, apparently, one blocking point in the negotiations with New York is that (according to Clampet), “Airbnb would not agree to limits on how many listings a person could have in New York City.” It’s clear that a large number of bookings is essential to the venture capital model, and goes against the spirit of the “sharing economy” that Airbnb so consistently invokes. But it looks like they’re going where the money is. That makes them untrustworthy.

Airbnb’s evocative but meaningless cheap talk (for more, see their Shared Cities initiative) is cynical. I fear that, instead of promoting any realistic idea of sharing, Airbnb will pollute the whole idea as a consequence of the high-return venture capital model it has pursued.

Me on CBC Radio

Self-promotion alert: around 8:30 to 9am on Monday morning I’m going to be on CBC Radio’s The Current with the admirable Anna Maria Tremonti to take part in a panel discussion about “the sharing economy”.

I’ll be the grumpy one.