Long, Crooked Road of the Anthrax Probe
The bioweapons lab at Fort Detrick north of Washington, where anthrax suspect Bruce Ivins had worked since 1990, became a focus of federal investigators soon after anthrax-laced letters [pictures of the letters here] arrived at media organizations and Senate offices following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Five people died from the anthrax mailings.
Many feared that the anthrax letters were the work of al Qaeda or other foreign terrorists. But investigators decided early on that few people in the world had the high degree of technical and scientific sophistication to handle anthrax strains, and that most of those people worked in the United States. In mid 2002, FBI officials said the agency was scrutinizing 20 to 30 scientists who might have had the knowledge and opportunity to send the anthrax letters.
That year, Steven J. Hatfill, a bioweapons expert and a former Fort Detrick scientist, was the only scientist called a "person of interest" in the investigation by then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft. Investigators searched Hatfill's apartment, car, a storage unit in Florida and his girlfriend's home. They seized his computer and bags of personal items he had thrown away in preparation for moving. Hatfill vehemently denied any connection with the letters.
(Hatfill later sued the government -- and some reporters, seeking their confidential sources -- saying he has struggled to find employment as a scientist after reporters and federal agents tailed him for years. Little more than a month ago, he reached a settlement with the Justice Department valued at $5.85 million.)
As the Hatfill lead evaporated, some doubted the FBI "mad scientist" theory. Official ambivalence might have handicapped the investigation, however. Marilyn Thompson, a Washington Post editor who authored a book on the case, "The Killer Strain," said in 2003 that agents lost valuable time when they took months to get around to interviewing Fort Detrick veterans who worked on weaponized anthrax.
In 2003, Ivins, who had authored many scientific papers on anthrax, and two of his colleagues at the USAMRIID -- 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 an anthrax vaccine.
Five years into the case, then-Sen. Tom Daschle, who had been one of the targets of the letters, wrote that the investigative trail had gone cold because of early missteps. That same year the FBI changed the leadership of the investigation and seemed to cast a wider net.
After the Hatfill settlement, some criticized the FBI for continuing to focus on domestic suspects. A Wall Street Journal editorial ridiculed the "mad scientist" theory as an invention of the political left.
But as early as last March, there were indications that the Army lab was still in the FBI's sights. Fox News reported that the bureau had narrowed its focus to about four suspects, at least three of whom were linked to Fort Detrick.
In June, the Los Angeles Times reported that investigators involved in the case felt it was undermined by leaks and a premature fixation on a single suspect. Today the Times reported that Ivins apparently committed suicide as investigators were closing in.
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