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A Strong Circumstantial Case

POSTED: 06:17 PM ET, 08/ 6/2008 by The Editors

With today's release by federal prosecutors of the search warrant applications and affidavits in the FBI's Amerithrax case, the evidence against deceased government bioweapons scientist Bruce E. Ivins finally comes into view.

Is it strong enough? Pundits, lawyers and historians will debate for years whether the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office could have made the case. At the press conference today on the unveiling of the evidence, prosecutors insisted that they could have proved "beyond a reasonable doubt" that Ivins was the man behind the 2001 anthrax mailings that killed five people and terrified the nation in the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Let's review the strongest evidence.

1) Using a recent breakthrough in genetic fingerprinting, the FBI was able to track genetic mutations in the anthrax used in the attacks back to a "large flask of highly purified anthrax spores" identified as RMR-1029 stored in the B3 biocontainment suite in Building 1425 of the U.S. Army Medical Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID). at Fort Detrick, Maryland. This sentence emerges like a bullet from the search warrant affidavit. "Dr. Bruce Ivins has unrestricted access to the suite and has been the sole custodian of RMR-1029 since it was first grown in 1997." This suggests that Ivins had the means to carry out the attacks -- access to the lethal agent. Ivins had the training and expertise to work with anthrax. He had supervised spore production from the Ames strain-- the killer strain used in the attacks -- for two decades. He had access to and experience in using the special equipment needed to dry and weaponize the spores --lyophilizers, biological safety cabinets, incubators and centrigues.

2) After the story broke, some of the scientists who worked at USAMRIID with Ivins suggested that he couldn't have carried out the attacks, because the lab did not work with dry spores and someone would have noticed what Ivins was doing. The affidavit provides a convincing rejoinder: a chart showing that Ivins was spending an usually long amount of time at nights and on weekends alone in the B3 hot suite with RMR-1029. The first letters containing the deadly anthrax were mailed out on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2001. Lab records show that on Friday, Sept. 14, Ivins went to Building 14.25 at 8:54 p.m. and stayed past midnight to 12:22 a.m., spending 2 hours and 15 minutes inside the B3 hot suite. The next day, a Saturday, he came back to work at 8:05 p.m. and stayed until 11:59 p.m., again spending 2 hours and 15 minutes in B3. Then he came back on Sunday, at 6:38 p.m. and stayed until 9:52 p.m., once again spending 2 hours and 15 minutes in B3. The same pattern occurred before the Oct. 9 mailing of the second batch of anthrax letters -- Ivins worked 10 hours and 14 minutes alone in B3 late at night between Oct. 3 and Oct. 5. When asked to explain why he was working such long hours in B3, Ivins could provide no legitimate reason, according to the files opened today. He told investigators "home was not good" and he went to the lab "to escape." Yet September and October, and to a lesser degree August, were the only months in 2001 where Ivins exhibited such a pattern. This establishes that Ivins had the opportunity to carry out the attacks. "Since producing anthrax spore preparations was one of Dr. Ivins's principal responsibilities at USAMRIID, he had multiple and unfettered opportunities to produce or divert Ames strain spores for illegitimate purposes," the federal affidavit states.

3) Ivins was suffering serious mental health problems in the months before the attacks, telling a coworker that he had "incredible paranoid, delusional thoughts at times" and fearing he could not control his actions. He talked of "the other half of Bruce" that would "push Bruce aside," exchanging personalities. He openly worried in an e-mail two months before the attacks that he feared seeing a headline in the National Enquirer saying, "PARANOID MAN WORKS WITH DEADLY ANTHRAX." Sometimes he said he felt that he was standing outside himself, watching as he worked. "There's nothing like living in both the first person singular AND the third person singular." This qualifies as possible motive, but this seems the most difficult part of the FBI's case, absent a confession, a suicide letter or incriminating statements from witnesses.

4) One of the most damning portions of the affidavit is the account of Ivins possibly using deception to thwart an investigative avenue pointing in his direction. In April 2002, Ivins, as custodian of RMR-1029, was asked by FBI investigators to provide a sample that could be compared with the anthrax used in the attacks. He submitted a sample that did not match. It was not until after the FBI accompanied Ivins into B3 and seized the RMR-1029 flask in April 2004 that the bureau was able to match RMR-1029 with the strain in the letters. The correct sample of RMR-1029 was sent out for testing on June 17, 2004. Was Invins obstructing justice? Had the correct sample been matched in April 2002, could the case have been solved two years earlier? Sometime after June 2004, the outside labs matched RMR-1029 to the killer strain. When Ivins was confronted about this on March 31, 2005, he adamantly insisted that he had given investigators the correct version of RMR-1029 back in April 2002. He also told investigators he knew all along that his stock of anthrax matched the ones used in the attacks, because an FBI agent and other scientists had told him. But the agent and the scientists denied telling Ivins that. The affidavit also reports that Ivins tried to mislead investigators in another way: "Dr. Ivins repeatedly claimed that the anthrax used in the attacks resembled that of another researcher at USAMRIID and were dissimilar to the Bacillus anthracis Ames organisms maintained in his laboratory, which included RMR-1029," the affidavit states. As an interesting aside, one can wonder why Ivins was allowed to continue working at USAMRIID for more than three years after the RMR-1029 discrepancy was discovered.

5) The affidavit points out that Ivins was under pressure because a private company working on an anthrax vaccine for U.S. troops had losts its FDA approval. The affidavit never establishes that Ivins had a direct financial motive, but it provides plenty of evidence that the problems with the vaccine had put severe stress on the scientist. "If it doesn't pass, then there are not more lots to test, and the program will come to a halt," he wrote in an e-mail on June 28, 2000. "That's bad for everyone concerned, including us. I'm sure the blame will be spread around." Just four days before 9-11, he wrote, "Everything is in limbo." The anthrax spurred a renewed interest in the vaccine. That is possible motive.

There are other circumstantial bits, but they seem more speculative:

The language Ivins used in his e-mails slightly resembles the language used in the anthrax letters. Ivins had reason to be angry at NBC news, which received an anthrax letter to anchor Tom Brokaw, because an NBC investigative reporter was demanding his lab notes for a possible expose. He had reason to be angry at Sen. Leahy and Congressman Daschle, both of whom received letters, because they were pro-abortion Catholics and he was an anti-abortion Catholic. He was obsessed with a sorority that had a house near the mail box in New Jersey where one of the anthrax letters was mailed.

The Washington Post reported today that prosecutors were planning to meet with Ivins and his lawyer to go over the evidence they had gathered in order to coax Ivins into accepting a plea bargain. This indicates that the case was not a "slam dunk," but one in which prosecutors would be willing to accept a lesser sentence -- most likely life in prison -- in exchange for sparing Ivins from the death penalty.

The fine points will be debated for a long, long time. But the solid evidence of means, motive and opportunity will remain.

..

By The Editors |  August 6, 2008; 6:17 PM ET
Previous: To Our Readers | Next: McCain's 'Florida Money Man' Finds Unlikely Donors

Comments

Please email us to report offensive comments.



Perhaps "centrigues" would be "centrifugues," no?

Posted by: D Anderson | August 6, 2008 8:03 PM

What about DR Zach, who was caught breaking into the lab where the anthrax was kept after he lost his clearance, and who sent a letter to the police accusing his co-worker of being behind an anthrax attack prior to the first anthrax letter even being sent?
Try covering that.

Posted by: Uncle Sam | August 6, 2008 8:05 PM

Where is the exculpatory evidence? Anything told by the FBI should be viewed with with a hearty helping of skepticism. The FBI identified Stephen Hatfield, and later paid Mr. Hatfield over $5M as a result of its flawed investigation. The FBI pursued Richard Jewell identifying him as the Atlanta Olympic bomber. Lastly, the FBI never found Theodore Kaczynski, it was his brother who identified him.

This seems especially convenient that after someone dies that the FBI identifies someone as the person delivering Anthrax. Until the FBI delivers the exculpatory evidence, and releases all of the information in its files for professional, critical review, I find that the government's credibility is too low to accept the evidence because the FBI says that this is the person.

Who knows, maybe if Mr. Ivins had not died, he would have received $10M from the FBI in 5 years as a result of the flaws in this investigation.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 6, 2008 8:09 PM

This is a ludicrous speculation: "He had reason to be angry at Sen. Leahy and Congressman Daschle, both of whom received letters, because they were pro-abortion Catholics and he was an anti-abortion Catholic."

Why the need to stretch abortion into this?

Posted by: Dave | August 6, 2008 8:13 PM

Dave,

Ivins' wife headed the local chapter of their Right to Life group which published an article that stated that Leahy and Daschle should be excommunicated for being pro-choice Catholics. Daschle and Leahy were also the targetted with the most potent form of anthrax. It would seem they were the mailer's prime targets. It's all circumstantial but still seems like a reasonable motive.

Posted by: Joe | August 6, 2008 8:27 PM

It is important to remember that the FBI is incapable of solving any crime in which there is no informant or confession (mainly due to the "drug war" which reduces police work to little more than informant-management). As this and other cases (eg., the "Unabomber") demonstate, when confronted with a crime that requires a genuine, skilled, methodical investigation, the FBI is entirely helpless to solve it until and unless someone emerges to tell them whodunnit.

In the Ivins case, they were simply unable to solve it after 7 years, so they harassed the man and then drew up this tenuous tissue of allegations and circumstantial evidence in the hope of coercing a confession or securing a conviction. Ivins promptly offed himself, saving them the trouble of a show trial. Pats on the back all round.

Posted by: Corey | August 6, 2008 8:27 PM

I'd like more particulars on the following: what language in the emails resembled the language accompanying the letters containing anthrax? What was the nature of the "obsession" with the sorority? Is there evidence that he actually went to that site due to the obsession? Are there members that could discuss his obsession?

Your article wisely omits references to the female counselor who accused Ivins of threats. She seems totally unreliable. But other, more reliable people surely would have noticed things, such as other members of the counseling group, or his wife and co-workers. Can we expect to hear more from such persons? Can any of them provide alabi evidence related to when the letters must have been mailed?

Posted by: manning120 | August 6, 2008 8:28 PM

"Fine points"? FINE POINTS???!!!

Arrrggggh. Get a grip. There still isn't anything remotely solid here.

This sounds like MSM smarm. Get off your deadline and back into your brains.

Posted by: Europerson | August 6, 2008 8:46 PM

None of this contradicts anything in the letter for Irvin's colleage that appeared in the Wall Street Journal, such as how was he able to charge the anthrax, and make it military grade when he and no one else in the lab had the equipment or know-how to do this (that piece of equipment for drying the wet spores is incapable of doing this).

I have to agree with the posters above. This looks to be another of a long line of cases where the FBI went after and harrassed the wrong guy.

Posted by: Chester | August 6, 2008 8:49 PM

Who is McCain's SOURCE? McCain went on Letterman in 2001 and claimed his SOURCE says it was the IRAQI's who did the Anthrax attacks. That was tantamount to false propaganda for the purpose of leading us into war. That's a crime.
Who is McCain protecting?

Posted by: Bruce becker | August 6, 2008 8:59 PM

McCain went on Letterman in 2001 and claimed his SOURCE said it was the IRAQI's who did the Anthrax attacks.
The SOURCE provided false propaganda for the purpose of leading us into war.
That's a crime.
Who is McCain protecting? Why is he still hiding the identity of the SOURCE of false propaganda to lead us into war?
Is McCain complicit? Even if it is Bush or Cheney, Pelosi already is on record, she is not going impeach anyone so late in the term of service. Why not come clean, McCain?
Is it ALL on you?

Posted by: Bruce Becker | August 6, 2008 9:06 PM

"Is it strong enough? Pundits, lawyers and historians will debate for years whether the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office could have made the case."
Why do so many controversial events with major political ramifications end up with these sorts of unsatisfactory conclusions?
Why is the Washington Post so complacent about it?

Posted by: jc | August 6, 2008 9:39 PM

The accused had no access to the military equipment necessary to change the vial of liquid anthrax into coated sprayable magnetized particles.

This is: make up some stuff about a dead guy with a history of mental illness. They tried to pin this on a different person and he pushed back and got $5 million.
Why exactly was a person with a history of violent mental illness working in a secret bio-terrorism lab? Its nice that he was apparently working on a vaccine related to anthrax and had some liquid in a vial but if they want us to pretend he somehow mysteriously produced the coated sprayable magnetized military version with no specialized equipment, they should have used the fairy tale that McCain spun as propaganda in OCT 2001.
McCain's SOURCE knew that the IRAQI's did it. That's McCain's version on Letterman, OCT 2001.

Posted by: Bruce Becker | August 6, 2008 10:22 PM

That's it? That's all they have? There needs to be an investigation into this. The feds won't do it, so maybe the press, WaPo?

I feel sorry for Ivins and his poor family. Quite literally hounded to death. But of course if the Feebs ever get ahold of this post and map it to me, well.... we can only guess what other circumstantial evidence would heap up around me.

Posted by: Mickey | August 6, 2008 11:21 PM

Your work on this is a cut above what I've seen elsewhere in the media. Probably it would be better to study the source documents rather than media reports about them, but I don't have time. At any rate, the information about Mrs. Ivin's anti-abortion group spotlighting Daschle and Leahy as pro-choice Catholics is certainly important, and could be verified. As could the information about NBC News and Ivins having a dispute. Another of your articles mentioned that language in Ivin's Sept. 26, 2001 email -- that Osama Bin Laden "decreed death to all Jews and all Americans" -- resembles the phrases in the anthrax letters, "DEATH TO AMERICA," "DEATH TO ISRAEL." That's persuasive evidence. I would also note, regarding the letters, that the writer tried to make it appear he/she was barely literate in English, if literate at all, and a Muslim. I doubt that an unsophisticated person would be able to carry out such an attack, and I think the Muslim connection could well be fake. I haven't heard of Muslims who've personally carried out terrorist attacks leaving writings, let alone writings in English, in relation to their operations.

I don't have patience with those who dwell upon the tactics and errors of the FBI investigators. We need to study the evidence. How the investigation was conducted is relevant to the case only to the extent it affects the credibility of the evidence. By the way, the focus on Hatfill could have been an intentional ploy to smoke out the real culprit. And allowing Ivins to stay at his post could also have been arranged to see if he would somehow incriminate himself.

Posted by: manning120 | August 6, 2008 11:44 PM

The most damning evidence is in #4. I said several days ago on one of the forums that if there is evidence that Ivins misled investigators while he was helping with the investigation, that that would be compelling evidence that he was obstructing justice and attempting to divert investigators from evidence of his involvement. Point # 4 accuses Ivins of exactly that. I'm assuming they still have the physical evidence to back up their assertions here. If they do, that alone would have convicted him in front of a jury, in my opinion.

In an investigation as important as this one was, it simply is not believable that one of the most respected researchers in the field of anthrax could make such a blatant mistake.

Posted by: theduke | August 7, 2008 12:37 AM

It is clear that the Anthrax letters deliberately targeted
political enemies of the Bush administration.

It is also resoundingly clear that the Bush administration et al launched a massive false flag fear campaign attempting to link Iraq and Saddam to the attacks.

We have to wonder why Amy Jeffress is involved in the prosecution of this case.
She is the daughter of Bill Jeffress, the person who kept Scooter Libby out of Jail.

It is clear that the DOJ is infested with hard core Bush insiders .

What we have here is indisputable "probable cause" to open a full scale congressional investigation.

Posted by: OgreDaddy | August 7, 2008 9:25 AM

they never explained the first "attack"...
the letter was addressed to Jennifer Lopez and was opened in the Sun Media's mailroom.

i don't think the FBI ever explained Dr. Ivins' mysterious link to Jennifer Lopez

"Sources at American Media said the FBI has asked company employees about any “enemies” the company or its papers might have. Given the content of the weekly tabloids, “that list would go on forever,” joked one employee. Alarmed workers say they are urgently trying to recall receiving suspicious or unusual letters and packages. Several are focusing on a letter that arrived at the company about a week before the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. It was described by sources as a “weird love letter to Jennifer Lopez”—similar, outwardly, to the types of mail the tabloids often get. But inside the oddly-worded letter was what was described as a “soapy, powdery substance” and in the pile of that a cheap Star of David charm. The letter, per routine, was taken in by the joint mailroom of the company. Employees said the letter was handled both by Stevens and Blanco."

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3067576/

this squares with the salon.com article in which the author references John McCain's appearance on the David Letterman show and
the statement a "senior White House official made about White House and administration officials taking the antibiotic CIPRO around the week of 9/11.

The MSNBC report states that the letter was handled PRIOR to 9/11 -- therefore, that might blow away some of their theories about Ivins being a suspect.

Posted by: frank | August 7, 2008 12:22 PM

A) It is true that for years the FeeBee's said they closed
cases "with a dime and a dime" [informants & wiretaps..] but
I'll admit it's not their only approach.

B) I admit they have a pile of fingers to point,
but as a reporter I know said "It's the Bureau.."
since they are never ever wrong [oops Hatfill, oops Jewell, oops...]
it is hard to believe they are never wrong this time as well.

C)I will submit that 24x7x52 Feebee harassment could drive most of us to suicide.

Posted by: George B | August 11, 2008 5:09 PM

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