Bentonite

BENTONITE….I’m a little late to the party on this, but the must-read blog post of the weekend is Glenn Greenwald on bentonite.

Bento-what? Glenn’s post is long, and you should read the whole thing (and while you’re at it, check out his previous two posts on the subject as well), but it boils down to this: in September 2001, shortly after the post-9/11 anthrax attacks, ABC News’ Brian Ross reported that four separate “well-placed” anonymous sources had told him that government tests showed traces of bentonite in the anthrax. Since bentonite had previously been connected to Saddam Hussein’s biological weapons program, this was taken as evidence that Iraq might be behind the anthrax attacks.

As it turned out, this was wrong. There was no bentonite in the anthrax at all. But this wasn’t just a mistake:

It’s critical to note that it isn’t the case that preliminary tests really did detect bentonite and then subsequent tests found there was none. No tests ever found or even suggested the presence of bentonite. The claim was just concocted from the start. It just never happened.

That means that ABC News’ “four well-placed and separate sources” fed them information that was completely false — false information that created a very significant link in the public mind between the anthrax attacks and Saddam Hussein.

Glenn would like to know who fed ABC this deliberate misinformation. Was one of their sources Bruce Ivins, the Ft. Detrick scientist who the FBI now believes was the source of the anthrax attacks? This question is especially significant in light of today’s LA Times story suggesting that Ivins held patents on an anthrax vaccine and stood to make a fair bit of money in the event of a nationwide anthrax panic.

Will we ever find out? In practice, most journalists refuse to identify their sources under any circumstances at all, even when it’s clear that those sources deliberately lied to them. But should that be the standard? Or is the profession — and the rest of us — better off if sources know that they run the risk of being unmasked if their mendacity is egregious enough to become newsworthy in its own right? I’d say the latter.

At a guess, Brian Ross is re-reporting this story as we speak. I’d be shocked if he were doing anything else — and I’d say that part of that re-reporting ought to include a full explanation of exactly who was peddling the bentonite lie in the first place, and why they were doing it.