A Strong Circumstantial Case
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
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