[This is a long and sordid tale about what I believe is one of the more important ‘political gates’ of our time. I’m sorry it’s so long and has so many links! In August 2008 I began following the story in earnest, and posted two entries on my personal blog, Hypocrites and Heffalump Traps:
Doubts About Bruce Ivins as Anthrax Mailer and Innocent Explanation for Ivins’ “False Anthrax Sample”
If you are at all interested in the science behind the investigations, I heartily recommend Dr. Meryl Nass’ blog. She has been speaking out about this case since it happened, and is not only a foremost expert on anthrax, but also one of the most credible and courageous voices you could listen to. In her latest post (February 16, 2011), she pulls together a history of what she and others have written about Amerithrax.
TLDR – The conclusions reached by the FBI in the Amerithrax case cannot be proved with science or with physical evidence; therefore, we may well still have the killer loose among us.]
Sudden End to a Long, Error-filled Investigation
|Dr. Bruce Ivins|
The FBI investigation into who prepared and mailed the anthrax letters in September and October of 2001 remained unsolved for nearly seven years. Further investigation into Amerithrax, as the case came to be called, came to an abrupt conclusion in August 2008 with the FBI’s statement that Dr. Bruce Ivins was the sole culprit. Unfortunately, Ivins had apparently committed suicide just a week before the announcement. He was never indicted, much less tried and convicted by a court. In spite of protests from many quarters, including the scientific and biodefense communities, the FBI officially closed the case in February, 2010 and sealed their findings.
Here is a PDF of the summary report released by the FBI a year ago.
According to the FBI’s Amerithrax Task Force, their case against Ivins relied heavily on “scientific proof” that the anthrax sent in the letters could only have come from a specific flask of anthrax cultures under Ivins’ control. In August 2008, Newsweek reported,
After years of forensic examination, the FBI concluded that the anthrax used in a series of postal attacks almost seven years ago had such a unique scientific signature it could only have come from a single flask controlled by government scientist Bruce Ivins, according to newly unsealed government documents. The flask, known as RMR-1029, was a persuasive piece of evidence convincing prosecutors that he was the principal and, officials say, the sole perpetrator of the attacks.
The FBI even proudly claimed that, “new scientific methods were developed that ultimately led to the break in the case.”
In an article a couple of days ago, Sciencemag.org reminds us, “In the absence of a trial, there was considerable public pressure on the government to conduct an independent review of the FBI’s investigation. In September 2008, the FBI asked the National Academies to review the science behind the case.” Keep in mind that the only aspect of the investigation that was allowed a review was the “science.”
Fresh Scientific Data Released
Now, one year later, and after interference by the FBI, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has released its report—and it refutes the FBI’s assertion that Dr. Ivins had to have been the sole perpetrator. Again, from Sciencemag.org‘s reading of the report, “The science behind the U.S. government’s investigation into the 2001 anthrax mailings does not rule out the possibility that the spores used in the attacks came from a source other than the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) in Frederick, Maryland.”
Pushing back against the significant conclusions in the NAS report, the FBI published a press release on February 15, 2011, stating, “The FBI has long maintained that while science played a significant role, it was the totality of the investigative process that determined the outcome of the anthrax case.”
FBI Credibility Was Already Tarnished
The truly awkward part of this “totality” is that once the FBI zeroed in on Bruce Ivins as a result of their new scientific methods, their efforts seemed to consist in doing their best to manufacture a circumstantial case. There has been no physical evidence found that tied Ivins to either the powdered anthrax production or the letter mailing. And what’s worse, the circumstantial case failed on several accounts.
For example — we were told that the water used to culture the anthrax was definitely found only in or near Frederick, MD, the location of the laboratory in which Ivins had worked for 15 years. (Two quotes from Rockcreekfreepress🙂
By early 2004, FBI scientists had discovered that out of 60 domestic and foreign water samples, only water from Frederick, Maryland, had the same chemical signature as the water used to grow the mailed anthrax.
Biochemistry labs use only highly purified water, such as double-distilled. Distilled water is created by boiling water and collecting the steam. To obtain double-distilled water, the process is done twice, so that all impurities and minerals are removed. Distilled water has the same chemical signature, namely none, no matter where in the world it originates.
History Commons remembers we were also told that the envelopes used to mail the anthrax were unique to post offices in Frederick, MD, which also turned out to be untrue.
All four recovered anthrax letters used the same pre-stamped envelope, and the envelopes had a tiny printing defect. All of the envelopes with this defect were sold at post offices in Virginia and Maryland. Ivins was living in Frederick, Maryland, and rented a mailbox at the Frederick post office. Jeffrey Taylor, US Attorney for Washington, DC, says that investigators eventually concluded that “the envelopes used in the mailings were very likely sold at a post office in the greater Frederick, Md. area. [Washington Post, 8/7/2008]
However, it is not clear how the FBI narrowed it down to just Frederick and not elsewhere in Maryland or Virginia. The New York Times reported,
[P]eople who were briefed by the FBI said a batch of misprinted envelopes used in the anthrax attacks… could have been much more widely available than bureau officials had initially led them to believe. [New York Times, 8/15/2008]
In yet another fail for the FBI’s circumstantial case, we were told that Bruce Ivins had a “window of opportunity” that gave him time to drive to New Jersey and mail some of the anthrax letters. Yet,
The anthrax-laced letters contained no traces of DNA. There is no evidence indicating Ivins visited Princeton, N.J., at the time the letters were mailed—no fingerprints or hair samples from the “smoking mailbox,” no time-stamped photos at New Jersey automated teller machines or convenience stores, no gas receipts. [Washington Examiner. 11/16/2008]
|Swabbing a mailbox for anthrax residue|
Additionally, History Commons tells us,
On August 8, 2008, the Washington Post prints an FBI leak that on September 17, 2001, anthrax attacks suspect Bruce Ivins took administrative leave from his job at USAMRIID (the US Army’s top biological laboratory) in the morning and did not return to a work appointment until about 4 or 5 p.m. later that day. USAMRIID, in Frederick, Maryland, is about three hours away from the Princeton, New Jersey, mailbox where the first batch of anthrax letters are mailed that day. This would give him just enough time to drive to Princeton and then quickly return. The Post says that “government sources” believe “the gap recorded on his time sheet [offers] investigators a key clue into how he could have pulled off” the anthrax attacks. [Washington Post, 8/8/2008]
However, Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald soon points out, “But almost immediately after the FBI leaked this theory as to when and how Ivins traveled to New Jersey undetected, it was pointed out in several online venues… that this timeline made no sense whatsoever—that, indeed, the FBI’s own theories were self-contradictory.” In other recently released documents, the FBI defines the “window of opportunity” for mailing that batch of letters as beginning on September 17 at 5 p.m. and ending sometime on September 18, because the last mail pick up is at 5 p.m. and the letters in question have a September 18 postmark. Ivins could not have traveled by day to Princeton and posted the letters after 5 p.m. if he was already back in his Maryland office by 5 p.m. [Salon, 8/18/2008]”
The circumstantial evidence is all much like this, and in some cases even more suspect and less compelling.
Brief History of Amerithrax
Shortly after the events of September 11, 2001, America suffered another terrorist attack. Envelopes containing deadly anthrax spores arrived at several locations including news organizations in New York City and the Hart Senate building in Washington, DC. Five people died after inhaling the microscopic, powdered pathogen, and seventeen more were sickened. Post Offices and mailrooms shut down. Government buildings shut down. People who might possibly be affected started taking Ciprofloxacin, a drug intended to mitigate or prevent an anthrax infection.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the Senate was debating the Patriot Act, a compex bill that had been waiting on a shelf until the time was right. This is the same Patriot Act the US Congress is debating extending, as I write this. Two leading Democratic Senators, Patrick Leahy and Tom Daschle, objected to the extreme extension of powers and invasion privacy granted by the act. Both of their offices received envelopes containing anthrax. The Patriot Act passed.
Initially the investigation into the perpetrators of this act of biological terrorism centered on Iraq or Al Qaeda. Letters accompanying the contaminated envelopes were examined for clues, but the investigators soon declared they had no idea who was behind the attacks and appealed to the public for help to solve the case. The FBI suggested that the perpetrator could be an opportunist ‘lone wolf’ in the US.
In 2002, the FBI fingered Steven Hatfill as the anthrax culprit and tried to make a case against him over the next few years. In what turned out to be a rather large black eye for the agency, in June, 2008, the FBI settled with Hatfill by paying him $5.82 million in compensation for having invaded his privacy and ruining his career. When it became obvious they had no evidence against Hatfill, the Task Force pounced on Bruce Ivins as their next subject for intimidation and harassment.
I don’t use the terms intimidation and harassment lightly. For example, Ivins’ son was bribed with $2.5 million dollars if he would implicate his father, and Ivins’ daughter, while in the hospital, was badgered by showing her pictures of deceased anthrax victims.
But Ivins clearly knew investigators were closing in. His house had been under surveillance for a year, federal agents followed him wherever he went and he had been interviewed by investigators several times. Ivins had a history of mental illness, but the pressure led to a further decline in his condition, colleagues have said, to the point that he was hospitalized.
Case Not Closed for Me
The worst part is, the anthrax killer may still be loose.
I wish I could do a better job of providing the mountain of details that go to show just how misguided this investigation appears to have been. There are still hundreds of active links to various aspects of the case available online, and if you have questions please let me know and I’ll try to point you in fruitful direction.
Here’s current information from Jim White at Firedoglake, who has long written about the case:
And Glenn Greenwald has also written about this extensively:
We may never know who carried out this domestic biological terror attack in late 2001. The good news, I suppose, is that a couple of politicians are raising questions anew and calling for further investigation, namely US Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ) and US Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA). Please give them your support, especially if you are a constituent.