If it wasn’t an Elvis impersonator, it had to be a Republican

Yes, I am a conspiracy theorist, and why not? Most of the evil in the world is the result of groups of people banding together to do a lot of harm to everybody else. When it’s a party (like the Communist Party) or an evil nation (name your favorite), no one calls it a conspiracy, but it is.

On the other hand, the Justice Department seems to think evil is done only by lone lunatics. For instance, the feds insist the Tsarnaev brothers acted entirely in isolation, and they insist the ricin-laced letters were the work of a lone lunatic from Mississippi. Of course, they may be right this time, but I find it very odd that first they arrested an Elvis impersonator (as if his profession were indictment enough) and now, according to Reuters, they suspect a former Republican candidate for the Mississippi state legislature.

I can’t help but recall that in 2001 the FBI was also certain the anthrax letters were the work of a lone lunatic, too—a lunatic they never managed to track down.

A few days after 9/11, the National Enquirer’s headquarters in Florida received the first of the anthrax-tainted letters. Media and investigators at first speculated the letter-writer had acquired the anthrax powder they contained from anthrax-infected soil. Later it was proven that the strain of anthrax had come from a lab in Ames, Iowa (known as the “Ames strain”). No connection was made to terrorism until contaminated threatening letters were sent to politicians in D.C. and news media in New York. Even though the letters included references to the 9/11 attack, authorities believed the letters to be the work of a lone, domestic terrorist.

During this period I subscribed to a forensic linguistics mailing list, among whose members was the FBI profiler in the case of the Unabomber, James R. Fitzgerald. Academics on the mailing list pointed out to him many clues to the authorship of the letters, including evidence the letters were authored by one person but handwritten by another.

The FBI never accepted the theory that the letters were the work of more than one person, nor did they ever take seriously the idea that there was foreign involvement in the incident. Once the strain was identified as the Ames strain, the investigation focused exclusively on individuals (not a group) who could have had access to Ames-strain anthrax.

At first, the FBI suspected a bio-weapons expert named Steven Hatfill (later exonerated). In 2005 a Maryland bio-weapons researcher for the Army, Bruce Ivins, came under suspicion. Ivins committed suicide in 2008. To this day no real proof of his guilt has been found.

The linguistic evidence of a conspiracy that I learned from the forensic linguistics mailing list still intrigues me. The linguists were divided on the issue of whether the author was a native speaker of English or of Arabic. Some suggested it might be a native Arabic speaker from Great Britain. However, one aspect of the letters contravened the idea of an Arabic speaker: the “signature line.” Each letter ended with “Allah is Great.” (All the letters were printed in caps and small caps.) An Arab would have used the phrase as a salutation.

The one thing on which all the linguists agreed was that the handwriting suggested the writer had copied from a text written by someone else. In other words, they found indications that the author of the text and the preparer of the envelopes and letters were different people. In addition, the moderator of the list, Dr. Margaret van Naerssen, proposed that the letters could have been traced from a dark original onto an overlying sheet of paper. The envelopes, however, showed signs of simply having been “eyeballed.”

Two additional aspects of the handwriting jumped out at me, as a textual critic (my Ph.D. is in textual criticism, literature’s version of forensic linguistics): the use of printed caps and small caps instead of caps and lowercase characters and the date at the top of each letter: 09-11-01. First, highly educated people, such as suspects Stephen Hatfill and Bruce Ivin,s would have printed like a child (caps and lowercase) in order to suggest a semiliterate writer. Second, the dates were a dead giveaway that in fact the author was literate: the six-numeral format with dashes rather than slashes is a digital format, suggesting the author was computer-literate, possibly a programmer who was used to typing dates in that format. If Dr. van Naerssen was right about the copyist, then perhaps the letters’ originals were printouts of caps and lowercase letters from a mechanical device.

I decided to emerge from my lurker status on the mailing list to contact Dr. van Nearssen with my ideas. She gave me James Fitzgerald’s email address at the FBI Academy, and I wrote to him. I told him I thought the letters’ originals might have been communicated from overseas to the U.S. via a handheld teletype device. In 2001 such mobile devices were widely available. The military used TTY devices, and the public could buy them at army surplus stores. Here’s how they worked: a walkie-talkie-sized device was attached to a telephone handset with an acoustical coupler that transmitted audible signals, rather like a telegraph. The recipient device produced a printout of caps and lowercase letters on adding-machine-like strips of paper. If the text of the letters had been input into such a device line-by-line, the first line would have been “Allah is Great.” But like tickertape, the last line input would have printed out first: the date, 09-11-01. That would explain both the use of caps and lowercase and the misplaced salutation.

FBI agent Fitzgerald was very kind; he didn’t call me a kook. But, then, neither did he rush off to follow the clue I gave him. As time passes, though, I become more convinced I’m right: an overseas mastermind used TTY technology to send the text of the anthrax letters to someone here, who then traced the printouts and copied the addresses onto the envelopes. That foreign someone could have been an Iraqi.

There’s no foundation for the FBI’s claim that the “Amerithrax” letters were the work of a lone, American terrorist. The letters themselves point to more than one person, and the anthrax could have come from almost anywhere. In the 1980s the non-profit American Type Culture Collection and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control sent biological samples of American anthrax to Iraq, among other countries, for medical research. (In retrospect, this was incredibly stupid, wasn’t it?) Frankly, I think this was a case of the FBI looking for its keys under a random streetlight, because it’s easier to see at that spot than in the dark parking lot where the keys were lost.