Beginning a mere week after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, envelopes packed with anthrax spores started turning up in people’s mailboxes. Two of those people were sitting U.S. Senators, Daschle of South Dakota and Leahy of Vermont. The National Enquirer in Florida and TV network offices in New York also were targeted. The envelopes were all postmarked in the Trenton/Princeton (NJ) area. (See adjoining photo.)
The FBI visited the biology labs on every college campus along the Route One corridor between New York and Philly. The bureau also intensely investigated Uncle Sam’s own bio-weapons facilities, including Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland. The investigation proved to be one involving needles and haystacks.
Eventually, FBI suspicions focused on a bio-weapons researcher named Steven Hatfill. Indeed, after years of investigating, the agency’s only “person of interest” was this Fort Detrick alumnus. Although never indicted, Hatfill’s POI status was enough to make him a leper to his profession, essentially unemployable. At last, the government admitted it was trailing the wrong guy. In June 2008, Hatfill received a $5.85 million settlement.
With Hatfill off the (exceedingly short) FBI hit list, old leads were reviewed, witnesses revisited, and a new suspect emerged. On Tuesday, July 29th, amidst rumors that this time indictments would be forthcoming, another Fort Detrick denizen, Bruce E. Ivins, killed himself. Attorneys representing Ivins, age 62, in the government investigation, put their client’s death down to a fragile personality that succumbed to pressure.
“The relentless pressure of accusation and innuendo takes its toll in different ways on different people,” Bethesda criminal-defense attorney Paul Kemp commented of the client he had represented for more than a year. “In Dr. Ivins’ case, it led to his untimely death.”
The publicly available evidence against Ivins is circumstantial but somewhat compelling. Of some 33 years as an Army scientist, Ivins’ last 18 were spent at Fort Detrick and apparently were devoted in large part to anthrax. Between December 2001 and April 2002, Ivins secretly swabbed and bleached some 20 work areas that he claimed had been contaminated with anthrax by a sloppy lab technician and then kept his cleanup under wraps. When those illegal activities came to light, he claimed he couldn’t recall whether or not he had gone back to re-swab the contaminated spots to insure that no spores remained. A former co-worked commented in the media, “That’s bull. If there’s contamination, you always re-swab. And you would remember doing it.”
The newspaper reports indicated that the second round of FBI investigations benefited from better genetic technology that made a match between the spores sent through the Postal Service and those with which Ivins had worked.
If Ivins was guilty, one irony in the case is that he earlier had helped the FBI analyze the anthrax sent to the senators’ offices. However, unless the Department of Justice has some direct evidence yet to be made public, we apparently can’t be certain that Ivins’ death closes the case. What, for instance, may have been his motive? Reports I’ve read to date don’t seem to say. Au contraire, the Washington Post reported on August 1st that in 2003, “Ivins and two of his colleagues at the… U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick… received the highest honor given to Defense Department civilian employees for helping solve technical problems in the manufacture of anthrax vaccine.” This doesn’t sound like the same guy whom five years later the DOJ was ready to indict. Yet, added the Post, prosecutors were considering including a request for the death penalty.
Could it be that Ivins and/or colleagues and/or co-conspirators concocted the anthrax attacks in order to enhance the priority of the work they were doing? Perhaps this is no more farfetched than the anthrax attacks themselves. The criminal justice system has recorded earlier cases of health-care workers, who brought their patients to the brink of death in order to come across as heroes when they saved them. Conspiracy theorists have long contended that the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana harbor in 1898 and the Tonkin Gulf incident of 1964 were contrived by the American government to precipitate wars with Spain and North Vietnam, respectively.
Closure of this case, which is older even than the war in Iraq, would add a note of finality to at least one ugly incident in the seven-year-old War on Terror. But I don’t think we are there yet.