Few people in America today are as powerful and polarising as Anthony Fauci. For the Left, Fauci is a consummate cool-headed scientist, emblematic of the essential role of government. On the Right, he is a Deep State operative who destroyed the lives of countless people to serve a hidden agenda, all while mysteriously taking home a bigger paycheck than any other of the country’s two million federal employees (including their collective boss, the President).
The reality is that both narratives fundamentally misunderstand the position Fauci occupies in American government. Far from being a public health expert, Fauci sits at the very top of America’s biodefence infrastructure. And contrary to the notion that he is a Deep State string-puller of the Democratic party, it was George W. Bush and Dick Cheney who not only put Fauci there but created the very framework that the immunologist-physician commands.
This in part accounts for the otherwise inexplicable fact that Fauci, loathed by President Trump, was never fired by the notoriously vengeful politician who galvanised his brand with the phrase “You’re fired!”. But Fauci’s untouchability raises an even more perplexing question: Why did the media beatify him as the country’s beneficent, infallible Covid saviour rather than look into the reality of his position and the source of his nearly limitless authority?
To understand the rise of Fauci, and his legacy as he retires this year, we must return to the first months of the 2000s, when a hawkish new administration was settling into power. While George W. Bush had come to Washington touting a new brand of “compassionate conservatism”, Cheney came carrying decades of Defense Department experience, including a term as Defense Secretary under George H.W. Bush during Operation Desert Storm.
Bush’s interest in biodefence and pandemic preparedness is frequently traced back to a 2004 book, The Great Influenza. The reality, however, is that the administration came to power with biological weapons and infectious disease very much top of mind, with Cheney seeking to address the gaping hole in America’s national security left by the country’s lack of a coherent biodefence strategy.
But if biodefence wasn’t already a priority for the Bush White House, that swiftly changed a week to the day after the 9/11 attacks, a mere eight months into Bush’s first term, when the United States suffered the most serious biological weapons attack in its history. On September 18, 2001, a number of national media outlets, including CBS News, NBC News, ABC News, the New York Post and the National Enquirer, received a series of letters containing a dry white powder. Three weeks later, a second round of letters was sent to the offices of senators Tom Daschle, then the Senate Majority leader, and Patrick Leahy, head of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Twenty-two people were infected with anthrax, five of whom died. Already in a state of unprecedented military alert, the United States was sent into near-chaos by the anthrax attacks, which, by essentially weaponising the postal system with one of the world’s most lethal pathogens, engendered a sense that the country was under attack by an unseen enemy with unfathomable capabilities.
Bush has been rightly credited with identifying the threat of a global pandemic, as well as providing a serious policy for dealing with the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa. But it was Cheney who served as the political engine behind a paradigm shift that would soon take place in America’s biodefence strategy. Six days before the 9/11 attacks, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee convened a hearing on “The Threat of Bioterrorism and the Spread of Infectious Diseases”. The hearing was led by Joe Biden, then chair of the committee, and included testimony by experts in strategic defence. In a prepared statement, Bill Frist, a physician who served as a Republican senator until 2007, noted that: “Any threat to the security of the United States from a weapon of mass destruction, even those with low probability of occurrence but high potential consequence, including biological weapons, must be taken seriously through adequate preparation.”