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Government Details How Anthrax Investigation Led to Army Scientist

August 6, 2008 at 6:25 PM EDT
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The government released documents Wednesday pertaining to the 2001 anthrax attacks, saying that deceased Army scientist Bruce Ivins was solely responsible for the deadly mailings. A reporter details the day's findings.

JEFFREY BROWN: On the day a memorial service was held for Bruce Ivins, the Department of Justice unveiled evidence that it said made him the lone suspect in the anthrax attacks of 2001.

Ivins killed himself last week. He had known for some time that he was the target of the probe. His attorney maintains his late client’s innocence.

Ivins worked for years at Fort Detrick, Maryland, where much of the military’s research into infectious pathogens and biological weapons occurs.

The mailings in the fall of 2001 rattled the nation just weeks after September 11th. The anthrax attacks killed five people and sickened 17 others.

Today, families of the anthrax victims arrived at the FBI for a briefing by Director Robert Mueller that detailed the evidence collected during the nearly seven-year probe. This afternoon, government officials spoke to the press.

Jeffrey Taylor, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, outlined several key factors in the case that led investigators to focus on Ivins, beginning early in 2007, more than five years after the attacks.

JEFFREY TAYLOR, U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia: We were able to identify in early 2005 the genetically unique parent material of the anthrax spores used in the mailings.

As the court documents allege, the parent material of the anthrax spores used in the attacks was a single flask of spores known as RMR-1029 that was created and solely maintained by Dr. Ivins.

This means that the spores used in the attacks were taken from that specific flask, re-grown, purified, dried, and loaded into the letters. No one received material from that flask without going through Dr. Ivins.

Leading up to each of the mailings, the documents make clear that Dr. Ivins was working inordinate hours alone at night and on the weekend in the lab where the flask of spores and production equipment were stored.

A review of his access records reveal that Dr. Ivins had not spent this many off-hours in the lab at any time before or after this period. When questioned about why he was in the lab during those off-hours prior to each of the mailings, Dr. Ivins was unable to offer any satisfactory explanation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Taylor also said Ivins had a history of mental health problems, including paranoid delusions.

He also had a history of writing letters to Congress and the media. Anthrax letters were sent to both.

Taylor conceded some evidence was circumstantial, but said the government had hard evidence, as well.

JEFFREY TAYLOR: We have a flask that’s effectively the murder weapon from which those spores were taken that was controlled by Dr. Ivins. The anthrax in that flask was created by Dr. Ivins.

Circumstantial evidence, sure, some of it is, but it’s compelling evidence and, in our view, is — we are confident it would have helped us prove this case against Dr. Ivins beyond a reasonable doubt.

JEFFREY BROWN: As the motive, Taylor said one theory was that Ivins was concerned that his work on an anthrax vaccine might be discontinued and that may have led him to send the letters.

FBI closes the case on Ivins

Mark Hosenball
... at the time (Ivins) committed suicide, number one, they had met with him and his lawyer, or at least his lawyer. A few days earlier, they had scheduled a meeting to tell them that, you know, (investigators) were closing in on him.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mark Hosenball was at today's press conference and has been covering the case as an investigative reporter for Newsweek magazine. He joins me now.

The clearest thing that comes through there today is that the government thinks they have their man and he was the sole guy.

MARK HOSENBALL, Newsweek: Oh, they made it clear that they thought that he was the guy who did it, they had enough evidence to prosecute and convict him beyond a reasonable doubt -- this is what they said -- and that he did this on his own. That's what they said.

JEFFREY BROWN: And they said they were sorry that they were not going to be able to present this evidence.

MARK HOSENBALL: That's correct, although they also noted that, at the time that this guy committed suicide, number one, they had met with him and his lawyer, or at least his lawyer. A few days earlier, they had scheduled a meeting to tell them that, you know, they were closing in on him.

And, number two, he was under 24-hour surveillance. So he did this, he killed himself while they were watching him.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is it clear now how close they were to actually indicting him?

MARK HOSENBALL: Not 100 percent clear to me. I asked them whether they had sent him a target letter, which is a signal that you're about to get indicted. And they said, well, no, they had scheduled a meeting in which they called a reversed proffer in which they were going to lay out the evidence they had against him.

I guess that may be a step before a target letter. It's not clear to me. But they made it clear that they thought they could indict him and they thought they could convict him beyond a reasonable doubt.

Evidence was physical, personal

Mark Hosenball
(The FBI) had to teach themselves and they had to essentially experiment, and investigate, and create a new field of anthrax identification science.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, let's walk through a little bit of the evidence, a little bit more than what we just heard. First, there's the scientific evidence, the DNA analysis that links the anthrax to Ivins. It's pretty clear now that they linked this to the lab as early as 2005, but it took a couple years to narrow it down to Dr. Ivins.

MARK HOSENBALL: To this single flask. They say that there's no doubt in their mind that the anthrax that was in those letters that were sent to Capitol Hill and the New York media came from that one flask that he had essentially sole control over and that he controlled total access to.

And they said that there may have been other people who had access to the contents of that flask through him, but that they investigated all these people -- this is what they said -- and they ruled them out, so that this is one of the reasons why they were convinced.

Now, again, the science is perhaps new science, DNA science. Could there be flaws in it? Well, they said, no, they said there couldn't be flaws in it. They said this is validated science that they could bring into court.

You know, of course, you have to get into court before it's tested, but they were -- this is probably their most persuasive point. And, you know, they were -- at in their own minds -- convinced that this was valid evidence and that this was really going to get this guy.

JEFFREY BROWN: And this was also why they talked about why this all took so long, because they had to build up -- they had to learn the science.

MARK HOSENBALL: They had to teach themselves and they had to essentially experiment, and investigate, and create a new field of anthrax identification science.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Then there's the evidence -- they called it "behavioral evidence," both at work and outside. What types of things jumped out at you?

MARK HOSENBALL: Well, I mean, they said -- and, again, you know, I can't verify this 100 percent myself -- they said that Dr. Ivins, you know, sent a whole bunch of weird e-mails in the year before the attacks to one of his friends, in which he made various paranoid remarks, talked about going out of his mind, or talked about being very paranoid, and right after September 11th, started going on about how Osama bin Laden had anthrax or had biological weapons and how he was going to get the Jews in America.

They said that some of these phrases were similar to what was in the anthrax letters that were sent to the media and to Capitol Hill. Maybe. I mean, it's a pretty loose point, I thought.

Also, they said that Dr. Ivins behaved very weirdly, that he had habits of, you know, driving to strange places without telling anybody. One of the places they believe was Princeton, New Jersey. He was obsessed and apparently had been for many years with a Kappa Kappa Gamma -- a university sorority...

JEFFREY BROWN: A sorority?

MARK HOSENBALL: ... which is something I don't completely understand, but he was like totally obsessed by this. And they discovered that the letter box, the mailbox through which all the letters they believe were posted, the anthrax letters, was only 60 feet from the Princeton University chapter of this Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority.

Now, somebody asked them, the government, at the press conference that I went to, "Well, OK, so do you have any receipts, like a gasoline receipt, or a traffic ticket, or something showing that he was in that area of the country or New Jersey at the time that these anthrax letters were posted?" And they said no.

So it's not 100 percent persuasive, I don't think. But, I mean, clearly the guy had mental problems. But there are a lot of people out there with mental problems. Does that make you an anthrax killer? No.

The case for convicting Ivins

Mark Hosenball
(The FBI) expect to close the case and that they believe he was the perpetrator beyond a reasonable doubt and the sole perpetrator.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, there's also the motive question. I know you asked this at the press conference. I heard it. We mentioned in the set-up this theory that perhaps -- that they put forth that perhaps he was worried that the vaccination would be dropped.

MARK HOSENBALL: Right. I mean, he was -- they said, and there was some evidence in the e-mails that he was worried that one of the projects he was working on, an anthrax vaccine for the troops, was under pressure and might be dropped and, in fact, became very controversial.

Interestingly enough, some of the e-mails on this were sent before September 11th. So he was worried about this stuff, and they say that the motive or at least that part of the motive, which is not very clearly defined, at least as far as I can tell, originated before September 11th.

And I asked them, you know, did you connect the motive directly with September 11th? And they didn't really reply very directly to that. So, you know, the motive is very muddled to me and seems to be principally based on their notion that he was mentally unbalanced.

JEFFREY BROWN: One thing they were very insistent on today was that they did not -- the investigators did not hound him into suicide.

MARK HOSENBALL: They said that. I mean, there's certainly been media reports which were not addressed at the press conference today -- and I don't really know anything independent about them -- that, you know, they harassed his family, they offered them -- on the one hand, they harassed them. On the other hand, they tried to induce their cooperation with, you know, promises of lots of money and a car.

I mean, this is the sort of thing that the FBI does. And the FBI can be, you know, nasty on some occasions. And the FBI, as we know from this very investigation, can make mistakes, as they've admitted that they did in, you know, pursuing very aggressively another scientist who worked in the same place for a number of years, Dr. Hatfill, who now has been completely exonerated and the government had to pay him a whole bunch of money to, you know, compensate him for his trouble.

That case alone at least raises the precedent for, you know, raising questions about their work in this case. But, you know, on the other hand, this guy seemed to show certainly, you know, more potential problems than Dr. Hatfill had, although he had some weirdness in his background, as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: As far as the government is concerned though now, they seemed to make it pretty clear that they're planning to close the case.

MARK HOSENBALL: They said that they have a few more details to investigate, but they've said clearly that they expect to close the case and that they believe he was the perpetrator beyond a reasonable doubt and the sole perpetrator.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that they felt that they could prove that in court?

MARK HOSENBALL: And they felt that they could convict him in court. That's correct.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Mark Hosenball of Newsweek, thanks very much.