Monday, February 22, 2010

FBI Consultant, Biochemist Researcher, Blamed for Anthrax Attacks

February 20, 2010

F.B.I., Laying Out Evidence, Closes Anthrax Case

New York Times

WASHINGTON — More than eight years after anthrax-laced letters killed five people and terrorized the country, the F.B.I. on Friday closed its investigation, adding eerie new details to its case that the 2001 attacks were carried out by Bruce E. Ivins, an Army biodefense expert who killed himself in 2008.

A 92-page report, which concludes what by many measures is the largest investigation in F.B.I. history, laid out the evidence against Dr. Ivins, including his equivocal answers when asked by a friend in a recorded conversation about whether he was the anthrax mailer.

“If I found out I was involved in some way...” Dr. Ivins said, not finishing the sentence. “I do not have any recollection of ever doing anything like that,” he said, adding, “I can tell you, I am not a killer at heart.” But in a 2008 e-mail message to a former colleague, one of many that reflected distress, Dr. Ivins wrote, “I can hurt, kill, and terrorize.”

He added: “Go down low, low, low as you can go, then dig forever, and you’ll find me, my psyche.”

The report disclosed for the first time the F.B.I.’s theory that Dr. Ivins embedded in the notes mailed with the anthrax a complex coded message, based on DNA biochemistry, alluding to two female former colleagues with whom he was obsessed.

The report described how an F.B.I. surveillance agent watched in 2007 as Dr. Ivins threw out a article and a book, Douglas Hofstadter’s “Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid,” that could betray his interest in codes, coming out of his house in Frederick, Md., at 1 a.m. in long underwear to make certain the garbage truck had taken his trash.

Whether the voluminous documentation will convince skeptics about Dr. Ivins’s guilt was uncertain on Friday. Representative Rush D. Holt, a New Jersey Democrat and a physicist who has sharply criticized the bureau’s work, said the case should not have been closed.

"Arbitrarily closing the case on a Friday afternoon should not mean the end of this investigation,” Mr. Holt said, noting that the National Academy of Sciences was still studying the F.B.I.’s scientific work. He said the F.B.I. report laid out “barely a circumstantial case” that “would not, I think, stand up in court.”

Dropped into a mailbox in downtown Princeton, N.J., the anthrax letters were addressed to news organizations and two United States senators and contained notes with radical Islamist rhetoric that appeared to link them to the Sept. 11 attacks, which occurred a week before the first of the two mailings.

In the jittery wake of 9/11, they set off a nationwide panic over random discoveries of white powder that people feared might be more anthrax. The real anthrax — a few teaspoons of very fine powder — infected at least 22 people, including several postal workers, and killed 5.

Congressional offices and the Supreme Court were evacuated as a result of anthrax contamination, and the Postal Service spent hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up mail-processing centers. The federal government increased spending on biodefense, with a total of nearly $60 billion since 2001, and rejuvenated the faltering military anthrax vaccine program on which Dr. Ivins had worked for many years.

The investigation included more than 10,000 interviews on six continents, the report said, and F.B.I. investigators conducted preliminary investigations of 1,024 people and “in-depth investigations” of more than 400 people, examining those with possible financial motives, links to the drug and pesticide industries or a history of corresponding with the lawmakers targeted by the mailings.

In response to requests under the Freedom of Information Act, the bureau also posted on the Web more than 2,700 pages of interview notes and investigative documents to bolster its case.

Dr. Ivins, a microbiologist who had worked with anthrax for decades as part of the vaccine program at the Army’s biodefense laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md., took a fatal overdose of Tylenol in July 2008 at the age of 62, after months of intense scrutiny by the F.B.I., which had placed a GPS device on his car, examined his trash and questioned his wife and two children.

They discovered his penchant for taking long drives at night, sometimes mailing letters and packages from distant spots under assumed names. They discovered his obsession with a sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma, and with images of blindfolded women, hundreds of which were found on his computer, the report says.

Days after his suicide, Justice Department and F.B.I. officials said they believed that Dr. Ivins had carried out the anthrax attacks alone and they released search warrant affidavits that included some of the evidence against him.

The affidavits included e-mail messages in which he confessed to paranoia and delusion; time records showing he had worked alone in the laboratory late at night before the anthrax mailings in September and October 2001; and genetic analysis tracing the mailed anthrax powder to a flask overseen by Dr. Ivins and stored in his lab.

But some of Dr. Ivins’s colleagues at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick, including several supervisors who knew him well, publicly rejected the F.B.I.’s conclusion. They said he was eccentric but incapable of such a diabolical act, and they questioned whether he could have produced the deadly powder with the equipment in his lab.

Skeptics also pointed to F.B.I. investigators’ long focus on another suspect, Dr. Steven J. Hatfill, another former Army scientist whom the F.B.I. pursued in 2002 and 2003, keeping him under constant surveillance. In 2008, the government exonerated Dr. Hatfill and agreed to a settlement worth $4.6 million to resolve a lawsuit alleging that his privacy rights had been violated.

Long before he became a serious suspect, Dr. Ivins, one of the government’s most experienced anthrax researchers, was a valued consultant to the F.B.I. investigators on the letters case. Only after path-breaking genetic analysis led to his lab did investigators consider that their genial scientific adviser might actually be their quarry.

As they focused on Dr. Ivins and read his e-mail messages, the report said, they began to be increasingly convinced that he was the mailer. And as he became aware that he was under scrutiny, he directed the F.B.I. repeatedly to other potential suspects. Once, in 2007, he wrote what the F.B.I. calls “an illogical 12-point memo” suggesting that the two female former colleagues with whom he was obsessed might have mailed the letters.

When one of the women, made aware of the memo, confronted Dr. Ivins about it in 2008, he wrote to her, blaming an alternate personality he called “ ‘Crazy Bruce,’ who surfaces periodically as paranoid, severely depressed and ridden with incredible anxiety.” He complained that “it seems as though I have been selected as the blood sacrifice for this whole thing.

No comments: