The ongoing anthrax case appears to be over, as more information is revealed following the suicide of the leading suspect, Army scientist Bruce Ivins.
But with the end of the case comes a small but vocal group who still want answers from ABC News for their 2001 report that implicated Iraq (Salon’s Glenn Greenwald has written the most about the issue).
On Monday, Jay Rosen of New York University and Dan Gillmor of the Center for Citizen Media identified, “Three Vital Questions,” ABC News should answer.
TVNewser spoke with ABC’s Brian Ross today, the lead reporter on the anthrax stories in late 2001. He explains in detail, what happened then and what it means now.
“In the end, you’re only as good as your sources,” he said. “My sources were good, we just got information that became outdated before they could update. My point of view is viewers of World News knew early that week we had been wrong to say bentonite.”
All the details, after the jump…
The particulars of the story go back to October 26, 2001, when Ross reported, “three well-placed but separate sources” said the chemical in the anthrax was bentonite, linking it to Iraq. That same day, the White House denied it was bentonite. ABC’s Terry Moran reported the White House denial that night. Several days later, on November 1, Ross reported:
The White House said that despite initial test results which we reported suggesting the presence of a chemical called bentonite, a trademark of the Iraqi weapons program, a further chemical analysis has ruled that out. The White House says there are chemical additives in that anthrax including one called silica.
The three vital questions raised related to: 1. was ABC News lied to, 2. who were the sources and 3. what will ABC News do to correct it?
Taking the second question first, Ross tells us, “Our sources were current and former government scientists who were all involved in analyzing the substance in the letter.”
He also makes clear that Ivins was not one of those scientists. “No he was not. If it was Ivins, I would report that in a second,” Ross said.
Ross described why it was first reported as bentonite, and explains why ABC News was not lied to. “Their initial conclusion, based on microscopic examination was a brown substance that initially was reported as bentonite. We went back immediately after the White House told us it was not the case. We were told after further chemical analysis it was determined it was a silica, but not bentonite — something they had never seen before but had a brownish color.”
Ross says he was told it was not bentonite not just by the White House, but by the same sources from the original report. But by not telling viewers, some have questioned whether Ross’ sources were simply lying to ABC News to begin building a case against Iraq.
“It wasn’t meant to read that way,” said Ross. “From my point of view it gave national credibility to have on the record attribution and not some anonymous scientists.”
He also described the last-minute scrambling before and after his initial October 26 report. “About a minute before we went on air the White House called and said it was not bentonite. That’s all they said,” Ross tells TVNewser. “I spent the weekend going back to all the sources saying, ‘What’s going on here guys?'”
He said the chemical analysis, more complex than the microscopic examination, showed the bentonite conclusion was incorrect. As for the third “vital question,” the November 1 report was to make that clear.
“I talked to people directly involved with the analysis,” said Ross. “What they said was accurate at that point in their point of view.”
The idea the ABC report contributed to the White House’s case for war with Iraq was dismissed by Ross. “The people who say the White House lied to us to build a case on Iraq or something doesn’t hold,” he said, citing it was the White House who denied it was bentonite from day one.
Looking back, Ross concludes: “The whole anthrax case is one of the things that would make for a good journalism class.”
• Related: Columbia Journalism Review has three more questions.