Outside View: Anthrax letters: Was Bruce Ivins hounded to death?

By LAWRENCE SELLIN, UPI Outside View Commentator   |   April 22, 2010 at 6:07 AM

HELSINKI, Finland, April 22 (UPI) -- In the weeks following the airliner attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, the United States was subjected to a biological weapons attack.

Two sets of letters containing dried, powdered anthrax spores were mailed to journalists and politicians, eventually killing five people and infecting dozens of others.

The FBI investigation, which would become known as "Amerithrax," initially focused on foreign terrorists as the source of the attack. Later, after the anthrax in the letters was identified as a strain originating in the United States the focus of the investigation shifted to domestic terrorism.

It has been postulated by the FBI that the source of the anthrax spores was the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md. It doesn't preclude the possibility that the anthrax used in the letters was obtained from Army stock but grown elsewhere.

In my March 2004 UPI article "FBI behind the anthrax curve," I wrote that the initial FBI investigation was based on a false assumption, which stated that investigators were dealing with a single suspect who fits a profile similar to serial bombers such as "Unabomber" Theodore Kaczynski.

Reinforced by a number of armchair detectives from academia, the FBI produced a profile of the anthrax mailer who was described as a lone person living within the United States, who had experience working in labs and was smart enough to produce a highly refined and deadly product.

He is a non-confrontational person, at least in his public life. He lacks the personal skills necessary to confront others. He chooses to confront his problems "long distance" and not face-to-face. He may hold grudges for a long time, vowing that he will get even with "them"

one day and prefers being by himself more often than not.

In other words, Ted Kaczynski with germs.

All this allegedly led to Steven Hatfill, who, we soon learned, had worked at Fort Detrick, had a shady past involving Rhodesia and South Africa, behaved suspiciously and had a questionable resume.

Lacking sufficient evidence to name Hatfill as a suspect, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft anointed him with the freshly minted label of "person of interest."

At the time, I wrote, "The most concrete result of the FBI's efforts will likely be a lawsuit against the U.S. government."

In June 2008 Hatfill accepted $5.82 million from the government to settle his claim that the Justice Department and the FBI invaded his privacy and ruined his career.

As described by David Freed in the May 2010 issue of The Atlantic Magazine:

"His story provides a cautionary tale about how federal authorities, fueled by the general panic over terrorism, embraced conjecture and coincidence as evidence and blindly pursued one suspect while the real anthrax killer roamed free for more than six years. Hatfill's experience is also the wrenching saga of how an American citizen who saw himself as a patriot came to be vilified and presumed guilty, as his country turned against him."

Hatfill was eventually exonerated when the FBI announced that another Fort Detrick researcher, Bruce E. Ivins, was the prime suspect. Ivins commited suicide in July 2008 and the FBI concluded in August 2008 that he was the sole perpetrator of the anthrax mailings.

It has been reported that Ivins underwent a similar degree of harassment and subjected to an equivalent amount of leaking of confidential information as Hatfill, before the case was officially closed in February 2010. The FBI allegedly told Ivins' children that he was a murderer, showed them photos of the victims and offered his son cash and a sports car if he turned against his father.

Perhaps the only difference between the two was Hatfill's ability to withstand the pressure.

I knew Bruce Ivins, although not well. During my time at Fort Detrick I worked with botulinum toxin, while Ivins worked with anthrax. So, our paths didn't cross in the laboratories. As others have described him, I found Ivins eccentric, geeky and a bit socially inept. He didn't strike me as being dangerous and I was, therefore, both surprised and shocked that the FBI concluded that he was the anthrax mailer.

I have also learned that the FBI case against Ivins may not be rock solid as they seem to indicate. Jeff Adamovicz, chief of bacteriology at Fort Detrick and Ivins' supervisor stated that more than two samples taken from laboratories and tested by the FBI, Fort Detrick being one of them, possessed the anthrax strain linked to the mailings. What about the other samples?

Adamovicz also noted that the first anthrax mailing, which presumably occurred six days after 9/11, contained a unique bacterial contaminant, which could have provided an additional forensic marker.

Was this investigated?

Finally, as Adamovicz has noted and which has been reported by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee in the March 2010 issue of Science magazine, the issue of the high levels of silicon present in the second, far more dangerous mailing hasn't been resolved.

Apparently, equivalent levels of silicon in the anthrax spore coats weren't found at Fort Detrick. If true, then the anthrax in the second mailing may not have come from there. Silicon isn't required to grow anthrax but must be added. It isn't only a common constituent of anti-foaming agents used during the fermentation process in anthrax production but it can help make a better anthrax aerosol to generate greater lethal effects.

Is it reasonable to presume that in the days and weeks after 9/11 that Ivins had the time and expertise to carry out the attacks alone and without any witnesses? Furthermore, a number of anthrax experts claim that at the time Fort Detrick didn't have the equipment necessary to produce anthrax of the type found in the anthrax letters.

It is interesting to note that the second more lethal anthrax letters were likely mailed between Oct. 6 and Oct. 9, 2001. The coalition attack on Afghanistan began Oct. 7, 2001.

Could the phrase "We have this anthrax" have referred to the high potency anthrax in the second mailing and meant, not only to instill panic, but also as a mutually assured destruction-type threat to limit or prevent effective action against Taliban and al-Qaida targets in Afghanistan?

Was Bruce Ivins the sole perpetrator of the anthrax mailings as the FBI claims or did his suicide result from the pressure of the investigation and the possible revelation of damaging personal information as occurred in the Hatfill case? Did Ivins, like Hatfill before him, simply fit the profile?

In the opinion of many, the Amerithrax investigation still appears far from conclusive.

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(Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D., is a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve and a veteran of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army or government.)

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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