Anthrax terror: Case closed — or forever open?

Bruce Ivins
Bruce Ivins

Had the FBI not bungled the anthrax investigation in such spectacular fashion early on, its new conclusions in the post-9/11 killings might have been accepted more readily. But two days after the government made its largely circumstantial case against Fort Detrick scientist Bruce E. Ivins, who committed suicide before being charged, the evidence released so far has underwhelmed many in the legal and scientific world, including Ivins’ closest colleagues.

“The FBI’s cartload of paper is unlikely to settle the case,” wrote Farhad Manjoo at Slate. “Like 9/11 and the Kennedy assassination, the anthrax attack bears the hallmarks of a tragedy destined to spawn innumerable alternative theories: It’s an event of world-changing consequence with a murky official narrative that can be construed, depending on your view of the government, as either pretty sensible or unbelievably bizarre.”

Question of reasonable doubt
In presenting the raft of evidence on Wednesday, federal investigators “intended to prove Ivins’ guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” wrote Stephen Kiehl and Josh Mitchell in the Baltimore Sun. “But officials lacked direct evidence, such as hair fibers, DNA samples or handwriting analysis, that the eccentric microbiologist created the deadly powder in his Fort Detrick lab. Questions also remain about Ivins’ ability to convert the spores stored in his lab into the powder sent through the mail.

“More than half a dozen experts in law and bioterror pointed out Thursday what they consider major flaws in the government’s case and said they were not convinced that Ivins acted alone in mailing the letters that killed five people – or that he was involved at all. They said the science that led the FBI to Ivins has not been explained and that the other evidence did not amount to conclusive proof.”

Others said it’s premature to close the book on the case and that investigators should share more evidence with the scientific community, Bloomberg News reported.

” ‘I heard first a solid claim from the FBI that they are absolutely sure the genetic analysis pinpointed it, and then later on I heard some weasel wording thatmade it a little less crystal clear,” said Philip K. Russell, a biodefense expert who directed emergency preparedness for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services after the attacks.

” ‘The proof is going to be in an independent scientific analysis of that data,’ said Russell, chairman of the Sabin Vaccine Institute in Washington. ‘It’s pretty complex stuff and will take some experts in bacterial genetics and bacterial molecular epidemiology to opine with confidence on it.’ “

Skepticism isn’t universal among experts
The Baltimore Sun’s report noted that not all legal experts were skeptical. It quoted former federal prosecutor E. Lawrence Barcella as saying that the FBI appeared to have done a remarkably thorough investigation. “They’ve made a very strong circumstantial case, an extremely strong circumstantial case,” he said.

Still, “Outside defense lawyers and former prosecutors said authorities would have faced a challenge convicting Ivins based on official documents released Wednesday,” the Washington Post reported. “Some of the most persistent questions involved the science used by the FBI to make its case. Bioweapons experts said they were unimpressed by the government’s description of the DNA link between the letters and spores in a flask in Ivins’ lab.

” ‘There is not enough scientific information to make an evaluation of the science the FBI used in this investigation,’ said Tara O’Toole, who heads the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh.”

The government’s case rested heavily on new testing that the FBI says linked Ivins to the flask of anthrax used to make spores sent through the mail justafter the 9/11 attacks. It was also built around Ivins’ unstable mental condition at the time and motives investigators found compelling.

A man who described himself as ‘scary’
“The government used Ivins’ own desperate words, found in e-mails sent in the months and days before the attacks, to show a man racked by paranoia who described himself as ‘scary,’ ” wrote David Willman and David G. Savage in the Los Angeles Times. “At the same time, he was increasingly upset by the trouble besetting an anthrax vaccine he was trying to return to production.

“As described by authorities Wednesday, Ivins may have perpetrated the attacks in an effort to create fear that would, in turn, spur greater federal spending and overall support for biodefense.”

The Los Angeles Times report noted that “the newly unsealed documents also quote from an e-mail that Ivins sent on Sept. 26, 2001 – nine days before the death in Palm Beach County, Fla., of Stevens, the first anthrax-related fatality in the case.

” ‘It’s interesting that we may now be living in a time when our biggest threat to civil liberties and freedom doesn’t come from the government but from enemies of the government,’ Ivins wrote. ‘Osama Bin Laden has just decreed death to all Jews and all Americans, but I guess that doesn’t mean a lot to the [American Civil Liberties Union].’

“In the anthrax letters that he is alleged to have mailed to [Sen. Patrick] Leahy, [Sen. Tom] Daschle and news media figures, this language was included in a photocopied, handwritten note: ” ‘DEATH TO AMERICA. DEATH TO ISRAEL. ALLAH IS GREAT.’ “

‘Incredible paranoid, delusional thoughts’
The government documents also show, wrote Tom Hamburger in the Los Angeles Times, “that in the months before the mailings that led to the deaths of five people and made 17 ill, Ivins – who had worked at the Army’s top biodefense laboratory for 28 years – told a friend that he had ‘incredible paranoid, delusional thoughts at times’ and feared that he might not be able to control his behavior.”

And, Hamburger wrote, “On Oct. 16, 2001, one of Ivins’ co-workers communicated to a former colleague that ‘Bruce has been an absolute manic basket case the last few days.’ “

Nevertheless, on Thursday, a variety of scientists found the government’s reasoning uncompelling and sought more detailed information about the government tests performed on anthrax spores in Ivins’ lab. The Baltimore Sun report, for example, quoted W. Russell Byrne, who retired from Fort Detrick in 2003 and was Ivins’ supervisor from 1998 to 2000.

“I’m waiting for it to be shown that the quantity and the quality of the powders in the anthrax letters could have been produced in those suites” at Fort Detrick, he said. “I don’t know how to make the stuff.”

Late hours in the lab
Meanwhile, “bits of fresh information continued to come out,”  Carrie Johnson and Joby Warrick of the Washington Post reported on Thursday.

“A partial log of Ivins’s work hours shows that he worked late in the lab on the evening of Sunday, Sept. 16, signing out at 9:52 p.m. after two hours and 15 minutes. The next morning, the sources said, he showed up as usual but stayed only briefly before taking leave hours. Authorities assume that he drove to Princeton immediately after that, dropping the letters in a mailbox on a well-traveled street across from the university campus. Ivins would have had to have left quickly to return for an appointment in the early evening, about 4 or 5 p.m.

“Ivins also had ample time to return to the same Nassau Street mailbox the following month, over the Columbus Day weekend, when a second group of letters was sent to Senate offices and media organizations, the sources said, offering new information that they said underscored Ivins’s opportunity to commit the notorious crime.”

News organizations have been ferreting out additional personal information about Ivins as well. The Post for example, interviewed a counselor Ivins saw a year before the anthrax killings, plus a biologist who had known him in graduate school and later in Maryland.

Words to a counselor
“More than a year before the anthrax attacks that killed five people in 2001, Bruce E. Ivins told a counselor that he was interested in a young woman who lived out of town and that he had ‘mixed poison’ that he took with him when he went to watch her play in a soccer match,” the Post reported.

” ‘If she lost, he was going to poison her,’ said the counselor, who treated Ivins at a Frederick clinic four or five times during the summer of 2000. She said Ivins emphasized that he was a skillful scientist who ‘knew how to do things without people finding out.’

“The counselor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said in an a two-hour interview yesterday that she was so alarmed by her client’s emotionless description of a specific, homicidal plan that she immediately alerted the head of her clinic and a psychiatrist who had treated Ivins, as well as the Frederick Police Department.”

The microbiologist, Nancy L. Haigwood, “was studying microbiology at Chapel Hill in the mid-1970s when Ivins, who was doing post-doctoral work there, took an obsessive interest in her sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma,” the Post reported. “According to Haigwood, now the director of the Oregon National Primate Research Center in Portland, Ivins’s ‘intrusive’ questions made her uncomfortable, but his curiosity did not end when they both left North Carolina.

“In 1982, after Ivins took a job at Fort Detrick in Maryland and Haigwood coincidentally had moved to Gaithersburg, Haigwood walked out of her apartment one morning and discovered that someone had spray-painted ‘KKG’ in red letters on her boyfriend’s car and on a fence behind their house. Haigwood reported the incident to the police and told them she suspected Ivins. ‘It was very upsetting,’ she said, but when she confronted Ivins, he denied that he did it.

“Haigwood said she also thinks that Ivins wrote a letter in her name the next year to the Frederick News-Post, claiming to be a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma. The letter defended hazing. … Ivins’s behavior prompted Haigwood to contact the FBI in 2002 after the American Society for Microbiology circulated a note saying that the person responsible for the anthrax attacks was probably a microbiologist and asking members to report any tips. ‘I think the people who work with Bruce do not know him completely,’ Haigwood said last night.”

Still, those scientists remain unconvinced by the circumstantial nature of the case against their colleague. Unless and until more information comes out, Americans are left with an incomplete case – and lingering doubts.

Susan Albright, a MinnPost managing editor, writes about national and foreign developments. She can be reached at salbright [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Jacobson Jacobson on 08/11/2008 - 09:06 pm.

    If the thin circumstantial evidence the government
    and media are citing as certain proof of Mr. Ivins
    guilt in the anthrax attacks is valid perhaps they
    would comment on the motive for the attacks.
    Circumstantially speaking it appears to have been a successful attempt to traumatize and politically
    intimidate democrat oppositional leadership into
    the compliant state they have been in for 7 years.

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