A Stealth Investigation
The amazing thing is that it did not leak. Until now.
Today's Los Angeles Times blockbuster report that the Justice Department was about to indict a top government biodefense scientist in the 2001 anthrax attacks is the first indication a solution was close in a case that has baffled investigators for nearly seven years.
But government investigators clearly have learned some lessons that they put to use in their pursuit of Bruce E. Ivins, a 62-year-old with a Ph.D in microbiology who had worked for 18 years at the elite federal biodefense lab at Fort Detrick, Md.
Unlike some other recent high-profile FBI matters, this one was not bedeviled by media leaks that resulted in embarrassing apologies or monetary settlements to individuals identified as suspects, such as Richard Jewell in the Atlanta Olympics bombing case, or Wen Ho Lee in the Los Alamos nuclear secrets investigation.
An earlier leak in the anthrax investigation proved embarrassing and expensive for the feds. In June, the government paid $5.82 million to settle a lawsuit brought by Steven J. Hatfill, who had been the only person publicly identified as a "person of interest" in the attacks.
The news about Ivins comes after his apparent suicide on Tuesday from ingesting prescription Tylenol mixed with codeine. He had been under investigation for months but nothing leaked to reporters. Ivins' brother said that the FBI had been to interview him last year. The story was finally broken by David Willman, one of the top investigative reporters in the country, who had worked on it long enough to be able to make use of the federal Freedom of Information Act, a process that can take weeks or months.
The Washington Post reported today that a grand jury was preparing to indict Ivins, indicating the investigation had spent a long time maturing.
Federal investigators, such as those working for the FBI or the DEA, are not generally prohibited from talking to reporters about their investigations, but Department of Justice guidelines strongly discourage disclosures about suspects or targets. Any information presented to a federal grand jury, however, becomes secret by law, and cannot be disclosed by agents, prosecutors or grand jurors. Witnesses to a grand jury, however, are not prevented from giving interviews about what they said to the grand jury.
In the Ivins case, investigators took an extraordinary step to ensure secrecy. Willman reported that scientists who knew Ivins were asked by the FBI to sign confidentiality agreements
in order to prevent leaks of new investigative details.
By The Editors |
August 1, 2008; 12:33 PM ET
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