Sunday, December 27, 2009

Who Burned Down The Reichstag-- And Brought Hitler To Power

On the night of February 27, 1933 in Berlin, the Reichstag, the home of the German Parliament and the symbol of the German state, was ablaze. While it was still smouldering, German police arrested Marinus Van der Lubbe, a Dutch communist with a history of setting buildings on fire. Also at the crime scene was Adolph Hitler, the newly appointed leader of a shaky coalition government. Only hours later he proclaimed that the crime was not the work of a lone arsonist but part of a wider Communist plot to overthrow the German government calling the it a warning"sign from heaven" of the impending Communist Putsch. With such rhetoric, he persuaded President Paul von Hindenburg to sign the Reichstag Fire decree, which temporarily suspended civil liberties in Germany and allowed the mass arrest of Communists, including its members in parliament. After a snap election, Hitler’s Nazi party had the majority necessary to pass the laws that would make Hitler dictator.
To provide evidence of a Communist plot, German authorities arrested Georgi Dimitrov, a Bulgarian Communist, and Stalin’s chief of covert operations in central Europe. They also arrested two his Communist associates, Vasil Tanev and Blagoi Popov. Together with Van Der Lubbe, they were charged with a conspiracy to overthrow the government. The Show trial ran from September to December 1933, and by almost any measure qualified as the trial of the century. It was presided over by judges fromGermany's highest court. It had Hermann Goring, the creator of Hitler’s Gestapo, and other senior Nazi leaders, as star witnesses, and it was one of the first trials to be broadcast live via radio to the entire world. It began on the morning of September 21, 1933 with the rambling testimony of Van der Lubbe. He admitted setting the fire but claimed he had acted entirely on his own. The prosecution then produced evidence found by firemen, including twenty bundles of inflammable material strategically located in different parts of the Reichstag, that cast doubt on the idea that Van der Lubbe, who was half blind, could himself have placed and rigged all these incendiary devices without help. Next Dimitrov, the operative accused of masterminding the conspiracy, was called to the stand. Though not a lawyer, he acted as his own defense lawyer. He agreed with the prosecutors that the fire had been set by a conspiracy, but, turning the tables on them, he argued that it was a Nazi not a Communist conspiracy, With great dramatic flair, he cross-examined Goring about his role in the investigation and the sequence in which evidence was uncovered. Allowing a worldwide radio audience to hear Stalin’s principal agent brutally interrogate Hitler’s alter ego in a German court room about inconsistencies in the investigation. At one point, he provoked a heated exchanges between himself and Goring on the nature of Communism. Dimitrov’s defense proved so effective that he, as well as his two Communist associates, were acquitted. Hitler and Goring were outraged at the verdict, but the chief judge explained that whereas the court was convinced that the fire resulted from a Communist conspiracy, the prosecutors had failed to prove Dimitrov and his associates was part of it. The only person convicted was the hapless Van der Lubbe, who was beheaded in 1934.
While the Leipzig trial was still under way, a counter-trial was staged in London by Willi M├╝nzenberg, the brilliant propaganda chief for the Stalin-controlled Communist International. The evidence it produced took the form of dramatic revelations from masked men who claimed to be Nazi defectors, including one who identified himself as a former storm trooper and testified that his unit in Berlin had set the fire on direct orders from Goring. Another witness identified Van der Lubbe as the homosexual lover of a top Nazi commander and was used as a fall guy. At the end of the one week counter-trial, Goring was convicted of burning down the Reichstag fire to bring Hitler to power. But though the counter-trial provided much grist for the media mill, it turned out that all its evidence had been faked by M├╝nzenberg’s staff. The masked witnesses were not Nazi defectors but Communist loyalists acting out scripted parts. The "Nazi storm trooper," for example, was played by Albert Norden, the editor of the leading Communist newspaper in Germany. By blending together a cocktail of fact and fiction, the counter-trial served to further pollute the evidentiary waters.
When the Red Army captured Berlin in 1945, it also captured the Gestapo archive. Stalin ordered this trove of documents, including some 50,000 pages of legal proceedings and Gestapo investigations bearing on the Reichstag fire, transported under seal to Moscow. For over three decades, they remained a state secret. Then, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, part of this archive was opened to researchers. The documents , which presumably had been vetted (and possibly added to) by the KGB, showed no evidence that Stalin or Communist party officials had burnt the Reichstag. They did, however, contain evidence showing that the Nazis had been preparing to arrest Communists before the fire. In addition, there was one intriguing report suggesting that the fire had been set by the Nazis themselves. It described a Berlin prison guard telling police investigators that Adolf Rall, a prisoner arrested for theft, had been overheard bragging to other prisoners that he had been part of a Nazi squad that entered the Reichstag through a tunnel and sprinkled flammable liquid inside the building. German investigators were unable to confirm this story. No record of Rall’s interrogation by the Gestapo was ever found and Rall himself had been murdered on the outskirts of Berlin in November 1933 (while the trial was still in progress). So the lead was a literal dead end. In any case, since both the Gestapo and KGB had custody of an archive, and neither agency was above with tampering with documents, the evidentiary value of the documents is at least questionable.
As a result, little more is known seven decades later about one of the most political explosive crimes of the twentieth century. Indeed, all that is known for certain that the Reichstag was deliberately destroyed. Whether a lone arsonist or a conspiracy, the resulting conflagration forever changed history.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Anthrax Case Falls Apart

The vast anthrax investigation, code-named Amerithrax, ended as far as the public knew on July 29 2008 with the death of Dr. Bruce Ivins, a microbiologist/wiki/Biodefense at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick, Maryland, at the nearby Frederick Memorial Hospital. The proximate cause of death was an overdose of the pain-killer Tylenol. No autopsy was performed, and there was no suicide note. Less than a week after his apparent suicide, the FBI declared Dr. Ivins to have been the sole perpetrator of the 2001 Anthrax attacks, and the person who mailed deadly anthrax spores to the NBC, the New York Post, and Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy accompanied by a photo-copied warning. These attacks killed 5 people, closed down the Senate’s Office Building, caused a national panic, and nearly paralyzed the postal system. The FBI’s 6 year investigation of it was the largest inquest in its history, involving 9000 interviews by its agents, the issuance of 6000 subpoenas, and the examination of tens of thousands of photo-copiers, typewriters, computers, and mail-boxes.
But., as massive as it was, it failed to find a shred of evidence that identified the Anthrax killer– or even a witness to the mailings. With the help of a task force of scientists, it found a flask of anthrax that closely matched through its genetic markers the attack anthrax. This flask had been in the custody of Dr. Ivins, a senior biological warfare researcher, who had published no less than 44 scientific papers over three decades, and who was working on developing vaccines against anthrax. As custodian, he provided samples of it to other scientists at Fort Detrick, the Battelle Memorial Institute, and other facilities involved in Anthrax research. According to the FBI’s reckoning, over 100 scientists had been given access to it. Any of these scientists (or their co-workers) could have stolen a minute quantity of this anthrax and, by mixing it into a media of water and nutrients, used it to grow enough spores to launch the anthrax attacks. Consequently, Dr. Ivins, who was assisting the FBI with its investigation, as well as all the scientists who had access to it, became suspects in the investigation. In what approached an inquisition, they were intensely questioned, given polygraph examinations, and played off against one another in variations of the prisoner’s dilemma game. And their labs, computers, phones, homes, and personal effect were scrutinized for possible clues.
As the Amerithrax proceeded over more than a half a decade, the FBI ran into frustrating dead ends, such as its relentless 5 year pursuit of Steven Hatfill, that ended with his exoneration in 2007 and his receiving a $5.8 million settlement from the US government as compensation for the damage inflicted on him. Another scientist became so stressed by the FBI’s games that he began to drink heavily and died of a heart attack. Eventually, the FBI zeroed-in on Dr. Ivins. Not only did he have access to the anthrax, but FBI agents suspected he had subtly misled them into their Hatfill fiasco. A search of his email turned up pornography and bizarre emails which,, though unrelated to anthrax, suggesting that he was a deeply disturbed individual. As the FBI turned the pressure up on him, isolating him at work, and forcing him to spend what little money he had on lawyers to defend himself. He became increasingly stressed. His therapist reported that Ivins seemed obsessed with the notion of revenge and even homicide. Then came his suicide (which as Eric Nadler and Bob Coen show in their documentary The Anthrax War was one of four suicides among bio-warfare researcher.) Since Dr. Ivins odd behavior closely fit the FBI’s profile of the mad scientist it had been hunting, his suicide provided an opportunity to finally close the case. So it pronounced Dr. Ivins the anthrax killer.
But there was still a vexing problem– Silicon.
Silicon was used in the 1960s to weaponize anthrax. Through an elaborate process, anthrax spores were coated with silicon to preventing them from clinging together so as to create a lethal aerosol. But since weaponization was banned by international treaties, research anthrax no longer contains silicon, and the flask at Fort Detrick contained none. Yet, the anthrax grown from it had silicon, according to the US Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. This silicon explained why when the letters to Senators Patrick Leahy and Tom Daschle were opened, the anthrax vaporized into an aerosol. If so, then somehow silicon was added to the anthrax. But Dr. Ivins, no matter how weird he may have been, had neither the set of skills nor the means to deliberately attach silicon to anthrax spores. At minimum, such a process would require highly-specialized equipment, such as a jet mill, that did not exist in Ivins’ lab– or, for that matter, anywhere at the Fort Detrick facility. As Richard O. Spertzel, a former bio-defense scientist who worked with Ivins, explained, the lab didn’t even deal with anthrax in powdered form, adding "I don't think there's anyone there who would have the foggiest idea how to do it." So while Dr. Ivins’ death provided a convenient fall guy, the silicon content still had somehow to be explained.
The FBI’s answer was that the anthrax contained only traces of silicon and those, it theorized, could have been accidently absorbed by the spores from the water and nutrient in which they were grown. No such nutrients were ever found in Ivins’ lab, nor, for that matter, did anyone ever see Dr. Ivins attempt to produce any unauthorized anthrax (a process which would have involved him using scores of flasks.) But since no one knew what nutrients had been used to grow the attack anthrax, it was at. least possible that they had traces of silicon in them which accidently contaminated the anthrax.
Natural contamination was an elegant theory that ran into problems after Congressman Jerry Nadler pressed FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III in September 2008 to provide the House Judiciary Committee with a missing piece of data: the precise percentage of silicon contained in the anthrax used in the attacks. The answer came seven months later. According to the FBI lab, 1.4% of the powder in the Leahy letter was Silicon. "This is a shockingly high proportion," explained Dr. Stuart Jacobson, an expert in small particle chemistry. "It is a number one would expect from the deliberate weaponization of anthrax, but not from any conceivable accidental contamination." Nevertheless, in an attempt to back up its theory, the FBI contracted scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Labs in California to conduct experiments in which anthrax is accidently absorbed from a media heavily-laced with silicon. When the results were revealed to the National Academy Of Science in September 2009, they effectively blew the FBI’s theory out of the water. The Livermore scientists had tried 56 times to replicate the high silicon content without any success whatsoever. Even though they added increasingly high amounts of silicon to the media, they never even came close to the 1.4 percent in the attack anthrax. Most results were indeed an order of magnitude lower, with some as low as .001 percent. What these tests inadvertently demonstrated is that the anthrax spores could not have been accidently contaminated by the nutrients in the media. " If there is that much silicon , it had to have been added, " Jeffrey Adamovicz, who supervised Ivins work at Fort Detrick, wrote to me. He added that the silicon signature in the attack anthrax could have been added via a large fermerntor– which Battellle and other labs use" but "we did not use a fermentor to grow anthrax at USAMRIID [and] We did not have the capability to add silicon compounds to anthrax spores."
If Dr. Ivins had neither the equipment or skills to weaponize anthrax with silicon, then some other party, with access to the anthrax, must have done it. Even before these startling results, Senator Leahy had told Mueller , "I do not believe in any way, shape, or manner that [Ivins] is the only person involved in this attack on Congress." So, even though the public believed that the Anthrax case had been closed more in 2008, the FBI investigation was back to square one in late 2009.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Who Killed God's Banker

On June 11, 1982, Roberto Calvi, the chairman of the Banco Ambrosiano, who had become know as "God’s Banker" because of the investments he made for the Vatican, vanished from Italy with a black briefcase full of documents. One week later, his body was found hanging from an orange noose under Blackfriar's Bridge in London; his feet submerged in the swirling waters of the Thames. His black bag was gone. Also missing was $1.2 billion from bank's subsidiaries in the Bahamas, Nicaragua, Peru, and Luxembourg. And the Vatican was missing one-half billion dollars in loans. How did God’s banker come to be dangling at the end of a rope over the Thames?
When the London river police cut down his body from scaffolding under the bridge on the morning of June 19,1982, they found seven large bricks stuffed in his pockets and grey suit. He did not appear to be the victim of a robbery since he had an expensive Patek Phillippe watch on his wrist and about $14,000 in Swiss francs, British pounds and Italian Lire in his wallet. He also had in his pockets a bogus Italian passport in the name of "Gian Roberto Calvino" (which he had used to get into Britain.)
The autopsy, conducted by Professor Frederick Keith Simpson, one of England's most experienced pathologist, only intensified the mystery. There was no river water in his lungs, so he had not drowned. Instead, the cause of death was asphyxia by hanging. Since his neck had not suffered the kind of injury that would have occurred in a free-fall, Professor Simpson determined that Calvi could not have dropped more than 2 feet before his fall was broken by the water. There was no medical evidence whatsoever of foul play such as marks on the arms to indicate he had been restrained, puncture marks on to indicated he had been injected with a drug and no traces of suspicious chemicals in his stomach of drugs (other than the residue of a sleeping pill he had taken the previous night).
The time of the death added further to the mystery. His Patek Phillippe watch, which was not water-proof, stopped at 1:52. While the watch could have stopped for reasons other than water damage, the water marks on the face of it, when taken together with the dropping level of the tide that night at Blackfriar's Bridge, established the latest time at which his body could have been suspended from the scaffolding. After 2:30 am, the level of the water in the Thames at Blackfriar's bridge would not have been high enough to have reached Calvi's wrist (as was calculated from the length of the rope he was hanging by when he was found), so he must have been hanging before then. But he could not have hung himself before 1 a.m. because the river level then would have been above his mouth and left river water in his body. So, if he committed suicide, it he could only have been between 1:00 and 2:30 a.m.
The coroner's jury in 1982, finding no evidence of murder, concluded that Calvi had hung himself.
But suicide during these hours, if possible at all, would require extraordinary activities from a sixty-two year old man, who was over-weight and suffered from vertigo. Despite the darkness, he would have had to find the scaffolding from the walkway along the river, which, since it was nearly submerged, could be seen only by leaning over the parapet wall at a strategic point. He would also have to have found in the dark the bricks (which were identified as coming from a construction site about a block away) and the rope to hang himself. Next, he would have to had hoisted himself over the parapet on the bridge and climbed twelve feet down a nearly vertical iron ladder to the level of the temporary scaffolding. He then would have to step across the two and one-half feet gap onto the scaffolding's rusty poles, which were arranged like monkey-bars in a children's playground, and edge his way about 8 feet along them to tie the rope to the eyelet. After that, he would to shimmy down to the next level of the scaffolding (otherwise the drop from the higher level would have resulted in far more neck damage than there had been.) Finally, after having put the bricks in his pockets and pants fly, and his head in the noose, he would have had to ease himself into the swirling water three feet below by clutching onto the poles (again, avoiding a free fall).
While such an acrobatic maneuver is possible, it would presumably leave some traces such as rust under his fingernails, splinters or abrasions on his hands, tears in his suit. "The long and short of it is we do not know how Calvi's body got onto the end of that rope," Deputy Superintendent John White explained to me. "We don't even know how he got from his hotel, four and one half miles away, to Blackfriar's Bridge."
Since he was "God’s Banker," and in the headlines of every major newspaper, the British authorities, aided by MI-6, continued to investigate even after the suicide verdict. They established that Calvi had arrived in London on June 15 in a chartered plane under a false name (Calvino) and checked into an inexpensive suite in the Chelsea Cloisters, a second-rate residential hotel. When the police searched it after his death, they found his personal belongings-- including his toilet kit-- neatly packed inside two locked suitcases, as if they were waiting to be picked up by someone, but no other trace of his stay there. No hotel employee recalled seeing Calvi leave. the London police spent months canvassing taxi drivers and other potential witnesses, but they could not find anyone in London who had seen him that night. Nor could they find in London any witness to his activities during the three days he had been in London prior to his death. During these London days, he was, as Superintendent White put it, "the invisible man."
Italian authorities ran into a similar stone wall. His flight from Italy was clearly aided by an elaborate conspiracy. He used three false identities, eight separate private plane flight around Europe, a speed boat, four different cars, and 14 temporary residences in getting to the Chelsea Cloisters, in a convoluted itinerary that took him from Rome to Venice by plane, then to Trieste by car, Yugoslavia by a smuggler’s motor boat, Austria by car. He flew to London in a leased jet, and disguised as a Fiat executive. His facilitators included Flavio Carboni, a Sardinian businessman ( who had received $11 million from Calvi for organizing the escape,) Silvano Vittor, a cigarette smuggler, who served as his bodyguard in London, and two strikingly beautiful Austrian sisters, Manuela and Micheala Klienszig. . When they were later arrested, they all denied seeing Calvi the night he disappeared. So there were no witnesses at all.
Seven years later, Carlo Calvi, Calvi's only son, hired Kroll Associates to re-investigate the case. After locating, authenticating and re-assembling the original scaffolding Calvi had hung from, forensic experts retained by Kroll conducted a simple experiment. They had a stand-in for Calvi— same size and weight— walk the possible routes along the scaffolding poles that Calvi would have to walk if he tied the rope and hung himself. The stand-in wore pairs of Calvi's hand-made loafers that were similar to the one he had on when he was found, After each trial, these shoes were then put in water for the same time Calvi's shoes had been submerged, and then microscopically examined by a forensic chemist, who had worked in the London police laboratory for 18 years. In each case, he found that the soles of the stand-in's shoes had picked up yellow paint smears that matched those on the scaffolding poles. Given the pressure of the shoe on the narrow pole, he concluded such tell-tale traces were "unavoidable." Yet, when he examined the soles of the shoes Calvi had actually worn that day with a microscope, he found no traces of yellow pain on the soles. Since there was no way he could have hung himself except to have walked on the scaffolding, Kroll concluded "Someone else had to have tied him to the scaffolding and killed him."
After the Kroll investigation, The coroner's jury quashed its verdict of suicide and declared it was unable to decide between murder and suicide. So like God’s banker, the question of how he met his end was left dangling.
But how could Calvi have been murdered. He couldn't have been forced, alive, onto the scaffolding, without leaving signs of struggle on his body. Nor could he have been drugged unconscious without the drugs showing up in the autopsy examination. But he could have been strangled somewhere else with a rope– death was by asphyxia not drowning and then transported to the scaffolding. Kroll’s investigators came up with the theory that his dead body was taken to the bridge in a small boat sometime around midnight when the high tide would make it possible to moor the boat to Blackfriar’s Bridge, tie the rope to the scaffold, and unload Calvi’s body. The problem with this murder scenario is that it would be visible to anyone passing by the bridge on either bank– hardly a recipe for a perfect crime– and there were many potential potentials. Yet, neither the police nor Kroll could ever find any witness to such a bizarre scene.
As a result, the case remains unsolved.