TOPICS > Politics

Suspect’s Apparent Suicide Marks New Turn in Anthrax Probe

August 1, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
Loading the player...
An Army microbiologist reportedly committed suicide just as Federal prosecutors were preparing to file criminal charges against him in connection with the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five people. A reporter and a bioterrorism expert examine the case.

RAY SUAREZ: Before government scientist Bruce Ivins was identified in published reports today as a possible suspect in the anthrax case, there was a seven-year-long investigation into what had happened.

The first anthrax case came just after the attacks of September 11th, with the nation on edge about terrorism. Within weeks, the anthrax mailings had killed five people, sickened 17 others, and led thousands more to suspect exposure to the deadly bacteria.

It began in early October, when Robert Stevens, photo editor for the Sun Newspaper, a Florida-based tabloid, died of what’s called inhalation anthrax. Initially, the Bush administration said it was an isolated case.

Soon after, more cases appeared. Letters containing the bacteria had been mailed nationwide to Washington, New York, Florida.

One letter was sent to then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle in the Hart Senate Office Building. Another letter went to Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy. The Hart Senate Building would be closed for months before it was deemed safe.

Thousands thought to be exposed to the bacteria were treated with ciprofloxacin, or Cipro, a powerful antibiotic.

TOM BROKAW, Former Host, “NBC Nightly News”: Bioterrorism is here…

RAY SUAREZ: Letters arrived at the offices of CBS, ABC, and NBC News, including then-anchormen Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather. Assistants to both men were exposed and contracted the less serious, skin-based form of the infection, what’s called cutaneous anthrax. Rather tried to calm nerves.

DAN RATHER, Former Host, “CBS Evening News”: Our biggest problem is fear. And we understand, and have talked about among ourselves, that those who are most afraid are in the most danger.

RAY SUAREZ: But by mid-October, fear was widespread. At postal facilities in Washington, Trenton, New Jersey, and elsewhere, workers had been exposed. Procedures for handling suspicious mail were instituted nationwide.

Postmaster General John Potter.

JOHN POTTER, Postmaster General: Don’t shake it. Don’t taste it. Don’t sniff it. Put it in a plastic bag and seal it.

RAY SUAREZ: The question remained: Who was doing this?

ROBERT MUELLER, FBI Director: So far, we have found no direct link to organized terrorism.

RAY SUAREZ: A week later, the Washington Postal Service sorting facility that handled the Daschle letter announced two of its employees had died of inhalation anthrax.

Spores of the bacteria were found in the mailrooms at the Supreme Court and a White House facility. The text of some of the letters included the phrase “Death to America.”

Attorney General John Ashcroft made this pronouncement.

JOHN ASHCROFT, Former Attorney General: You don’t send anthrax through the mail without the kind of intent and conduct that’s I think fairly labeled as “terrorism.” And so we believe these to be terrorist acts.

RAY SUAREZ: Two women, the last victims, died in the New York area in late October and November 2001. The government later indicated the strain of anthrax was likely produced in a U.S. laboratory.

In 2002, the Department of Justice characterized roughly two dozen people as “persons of interest” because of their backgrounds and expertise in germ warfare.

None was more scrutinized than bio-weapons expert Steven Hatfill, who worked at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland. Anthrax was made and studied at the facility.

Hatfill’s name was leaked to various news organizations. The doctor angrily denounced the leaks as character assassination.

STEVEN HATFILL, Biological Weapons Scientist: I am not the anthrax killer. I know nothing about the anthrax attacks. I had absolutely nothing to do with this terrible crime.

RAY SUAREZ: Hatfill remained under suspicion for years. But last month, the U.S. government agreed to pay Hatfill $5.8 million to settle a privacy violation lawsuit.

And today’s revelations showed that investigators returned to the same weapons lab, but trained their sights on a different target.

A history of mental health problems

Ari Shapiro
National Public Radio
To be able to work with anthrax, you should not have a history of homicidal threats and actions. And so one big question that we're looking at now and going forward is, how did the system fail to catch this?

RAY SUAREZ: For a closer look at recent developments, as well as the original 2001 attacks, we turn to Ari Shapiro, who's been covering the story today for National Public Radio, and Leonard Cole, who wrote a book about the investigation called "The Anthrax Letters: A Medical Detective Story." He's an expert on bioterrorism and adjunct professor of political scientist at Rutgers University.

Ari, what's emerged in the last 72 hours about Bruce Ivins?

ARI SHAPIRO, National Public Radio: One of the most striking things that's emerged is that he had serious mental health problems, at least according to a temporary restraining order that was issued against him last week.

This was just released today. Jean Duley, his mental health counselor, requested the restraining order. And in it she describes Dr. Ivins as having a history dating to his graduate days of homicidal threats, actions, plans.

She says his psychiatrist called him homicidal, sociopathic. In this temporary restraining order, she writes, "I will testify with other details, FBI involved, currently under investigation, and he will be charged with five capital murders."

She writes, "I have been subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury in Washington, D.C., on August 1, 2008." That's today. And obviously, that testimony did not happen.

RAY SUAREZ: What kind of work was Dr. Bruce Ivins doing at Fort Detrick?

ARI SHAPIRO: He was studying vaccines for anthrax. And one of the really unusual twists to this story is that, after the attacks took place in 2001, Dr. Ivins actually studied one of the envelopes, one of the envelopes that was sent to Capitol Hill.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, wouldn't he have needed, in order to work in that kind of facility, with those kinds of agents, wouldn't he have needed a very high security clearance?

ARI SHAPIRO: Absolutely. And he undoubtedly had a very high security clearance. We've been working today to try to figure out whether it was top secret, something slightly below that.

But regardless of what level the security clearance was, to be able to work with anthrax, you should not have a history of homicidal threats and actions. And so one big question that we're looking at now and going forward is, how did the system fail to catch this?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor Cole, how did the system fail to catch this? It took seven years.

LEONARD COLE, Author, "The Anthrax Letters": Well, indeed. And hearing the report about this finding about homicidal tendencies is stunning, shocking to me, as well, and I've been looking at the issues.

I can only tell you that, in many cases, if a person were to commit a crime, serious crimes -- the FBI has unfortunately been unable to solve all mysteries -- it doesn't surprise me that somebody who would be sending a bioterrorism threat or actual agent out would also not necessarily be nailed very easily or quickly.

In a way, if we discover that this Bruce Ivins was responsible for the anthrax letters, that will afford all of us a certain sense of relief.

A widespread investigation

Leonard Cole
Author, "The Anthrax Letters"
As open as the FBI was during the first months following the attack, it quickly became closed soon after the 2002 effort. In fact, by mid-2003, the FBI was no longer giving briefings to members of the Congress.

RAY SUAREZ: Was there a certain period of time after the attacks began after which the trail went cold at the FBI?

LEONARD COLE: Well, as the FBI itself acknowledged through spokespersons, they opened up to the public information in an unprecedented way. Never before had they provided such open information in an investigation as they did early on.

November 9th, they put up a profile on their Web site about who they thought the likely killer would be: a lone, disaffected, perhaps somewhat deranged individual who had access to some anthrax, obviously, a scientist type, if not a scientist himself, likely a man middle-aged. It was rather close to the Ted Kaczynski model in which they acknowledged influenced their profiling.

In addition, they did something else that was unprecedented. In January of 2002, the assistant director for the FBI sent a letter to every member of the American Society for Microbiology; 32,000 people received letters asking them for personal help, saying -- and I'm using almost the exact words that were in the letter -- "You may know somebody who perhaps was involved with this anthrax investigation. We're asking you," in effect, "to think about this and report to us if you have any findings."

RAY SUAREZ: Now, 32,000 letters sent out, but it must have been a much smaller pool of people working in America who would have the knowledge, the wherewithal to make these kind of attacks.

LEONARD COLE: Assuming they could get the strain of the bacteria, this particular bug -- there are tens of thousands, and perhaps hundreds of thousands, of people with modest microbiology laboratory training who could grow bacteria and process them in the way that they ultimately were formed into spores in powder form and sent out in the terrible letters.

RAY SUAREZ: Was there a point at which the investigation was refocused, re-engineered, turned away from Steven Hatfill and toward another target?

LEONARD COLE: As open as the FBI was during the first months following the attack, it quickly became closed soon after the 2002 effort. In fact, by mid-2003, the FBI was no longer giving briefings to members of the Congress, either the Senate or the House, which brought an outcry from members of both parties in both houses of Congress.

So I think there's a call for some kind of accountability to the elected representatives. The FBI said it stopped doing this because, when it was giving classified briefings, leaks were coming out from the recipients of the briefings.

Suspect "under tremendous strain"

Ari Shapiro
National Public Radio
As one former law enforcement official said to me today, the FBI always gets their man. It may take them seven years, he may be dead, and they may get the wrong man first, but eventually they get their man.

RAY SUAREZ: Ari, did Bruce Ivins know he was going to be arrested?

ARI SHAPIRO: Oh, yes. He had been questioned. He had been searched. His lab, in fact, had been the target of many visits by the FBI. He was recently escorted from his office and restricted from accessing any sensitive information. So he was well aware of this.

In fact, family members and people close to him, his colleagues described him as being under tremendous strain. He was hospitalized for depression. And it was just after he was released from the hospital on Tuesday that he apparently overdosed with painkillers and committed suicide.

RAY SUAREZ: Had his lawyer been officially notified by the FBI or the Department of Justice that his client was going to be arrested?

ARI SHAPIRO: Yes, his lawyer actually, yes, released a statement today saying that they had been cooperating fully with the FBI for the last six years, maintaining Dr. Ivins' innocence, regretting that they would not be able to prove his innocence in court now.

And the quote the lawyer used was "relentless pressure of accusation innuendo" that he said led to his client's death this week.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, Professor Cole, you have been very careful in the way you've told this story not to say that it was definitely Bruce Ivins. And clearly that's true; we don't know that.

But absent an arrest, an arraignment, and a trial, and now absent a prime suspect, are there things that we simply may never know about this case?

LEONARD COLE: Certainly that's a possibility. I wouldn't say probable. I suspect now there will be really intensive efforts to interview people who have known Bruce Ivins closely, both professionally and personally, beyond whatever has been done until now.

There will be a strenuous effort, I am sure, to identify with certainty or near certainty, if possible, whether he was or was not the perpetrator of the anthrax attacks.

RAY SUAREZ: Has the FBI had anything to say on what happens now?

ARI SHAPIRO: No, and this is the amazing thing, is that the FBI and the Justice Department have been almost completely mum about this today. They put out a statement that said almost nothing. They say, "We may get more next week."

But, you know, the FBI really feels as though they just cannot get a break in this case. As one former law enforcement official said to me today, the FBI always gets their man. It may take them seven years, he may be dead, and they may get the wrong man first, but eventually they get their man. And that's assuming, of course, that Dr. Ivins even was their man.

Lasting changes

Leonard Cole
Author, "The Anthrax Letters"
Since 2002, there is a requirement that, if you have anthrax in your freezer, you are obliged to let the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, know about this.

RAY SUAREZ: Whoever did this, Professor Cole, did the country -- was the country changed? Were certain -- the way we do business changed by these attacks?

LEONARD COLE: At some level, we surely have changed things. Until 2002, there was not even a federal regulation that required laboratories that contained what are called select agents -- like anthrax or other dangerous, really serious, dangerous microbiological agents -- to register with the federal government if they have them.

But since 2002, there is a requirement that, if you have anthrax in your freezer, you are obliged to let the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, know about this.

So we had very loose oversight systems previously. Surely we're better than we were.

But, you know, start with the basics. Anthrax, including the strain that was used in the letter, is a naturally found organism. It was discovered in a southwest Texas pasture in 1981, the particular strain that was used in the letters.

So there is no foolproof way of certainty that you are going to protect and prevent. But we should have -- we do have better oversight than we had before. We obviously need much more, based on what we're hearing about this man's psychological issues.

RAY SUAREZ: In the course of the investigation, were these various attacks in different places up and down the eastern seaboard traced to one strain of anthrax, so at least there's a common killer or a common origin for these things?

LEONARD COLE: Right, give the FBI credit and the people that it contracted out. Within a couple of weeks, there was a confirmation based on genetic structure -- the DNA -- genetic modeling of the strain that was found in the letters that not only matched those of the victims and the places that were contaminated, the postal buildings and others, all the same Ames strain. And they were identified as Ames strain fairly quickly by good microbiological forensics.

RAY SUAREZ: So case closed? Where do things stand at the moment? Has a date certain been given about when the government will speak to reporters or to the people about where things stand?

ARI SHAPIRO: What we're hearing quietly behind the scenes is that we may know more next week. There are documents that are still under seal. People are working to get those unsealed.

It's not clear whether there may be anybody besides Dr. Ivins that investigators may be looking at. If so, then they, in all likelihood, would not close this case.

But we have no reason to believe that they are. Right now, the documents are sealed. Everything we're hearing comes from anonymous leaks. And we're going to wait until next week to see what we can learn publicly.

RAY SUAREZ: Ari Shapiro, Professor Cole, thank you both.

LEONARD COLE: Thank you.

ARI SHAPIRO: Good to be here.