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Details Slowly Emerge in Anthrax Attacks Investigation

August 4, 2008 at 6:25 PM EST
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A flurry of controversy over the apparent suicide of Bruce Ivins, the chief suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks, has raised more questions for investigators. A New York Times reporter navigates the latest developments.
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MARGARET WARNER: New details emerged this weekend about Bruce Ivins, the Army scientist who committed suicide last week after learning he was the prime suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five people.

Ivins worked with anthrax at the Army’s Fort Detrick Lab in Frederick, Maryland. This weekend, two very different portraits of the scientist came to light. The first came from a tape of his therapist at a court hearing 10 days ago when she sought a protective order against Ivins.

JEAN DULEY, Bruce Ivins’ Therapist: As far back as the year 2000, the respondent has actually attempted to murder several other people either through poisoning — he plots and actually tries to carry out revenge killing. I’m scared to death.

MARGARET WARNER: She said that, at a session on July 9th, he outlined a plan to kill his coworkers.

JEAN DULEY: He was extremely agitated, out of control. He was going to go out in a blaze of glory.

MARGARET WARNER: But some neighbors and coworkers painted a very different picture.

NORMAN COVERT, Ivins’ Coworker: Bruce was very involved in the community and his church. And it would seem way out of character.

MARGARET WARNER: There was also some skepticism this weekend about the government’s seven-year-long investigation. After first naming a different Fort Detrick scientist a person of interest in the case, the government gave Steven Hatfill a financial settlement last month of $5 million.

Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, whose office was a target of the attacks, expressed his reservations on “FOX News Sunday.”

TOM DASCHLE (D), Former Senator of South Dakota: From the very beginning, I’ve had real concerns about the quality of the investigation. Given the fact that they already paid somebody else $5 million for the mistakes they must have made gives you some indication of the overall caliber and quality of the investigation. And I’m hopeful that some day soon we’ll have the answers we deserve.

MARGARET WARNER: The Department of Justice has said it won’t discuss the case publicly until court documents are unsealed and victims’ families have been updated.

Long focus leads to Ivins

MARGARET WARNER: And for the latest, we turn to Scott Shane. He's covering the story for the New York Times.

Scott, thanks for being with us. How close is the government now to letting the public know what it knows about Bruce Ivins and whether, in fact, he is the anthrax killer?

SCOTT SHANE, New York Times: We don't know for sure. We know that they're working on getting grand jury secrecy lifted from the investigation, declaring the investigation closed, and getting a judge to essentially give permission to make information that's been secret public.

They're talking about possibly doing it as early as Wednesday, but no time has been set. In the meantime, they're contacting the family members of those five people who died of the anthrax and the 17 survivors, because Robert Mueller, the FBI director, has promised to brief them before the public gets the information.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what have we -- what have you learned in the past few days, since the story broke, about why the FBI has zeroed in on Ivins, in particular, and how long he's been the special focus?

SCOTT SHANE: Well, the anthrax investigation has been going on, of course, for almost seven years. And at the very beginning, the FBI, by its own admission, was fairly clueless about what they now call microbial forensics, the idea of using the genetic and other attributes of the bacteria to trace it back to a source.

But they've developed a lot of science over the first few years of the investigation. And certainly, by about 2005, they had been able to track the anthrax to Fort Detrick, the Army's lab in Frederick, Maryland.

Now, at that point, they had a supply of anthrax they could match to the letters, but quite a number of people had access to the lab. I'm told that about 10 people used it regularly, and perhaps several times that number had passed through it at various times.

So the FBI then began the painstaking process of trying to eliminate the people who'd worked in that lab.

About a year-and-a-half ago, they began to focus intensively on Bruce Ivins. This was partly because they had eased up on a focus that had lasted for two or three years on Steven Hatfill, another scientists at the Fort Detrick Lab, who had worked there from '97 to '99. Dr. Ivins continued to work at the lab up until his suicide last week.

The FBI kept him under surveillance, followed him around in vans for at least a year. They interviewed his family, his colleagues. And they have convinced themselves that he was the anthrax mailer.

Now, having focused so intensely on Dr. Hatfill and then, just in June, having paid Dr. Hatfill about $5 million after deciding it wasn't he who had mailed the anthrax spores, there's certainly reason to be cautious in pinning that biological attack on Dr. Ivins, who's no longer around to defend himself.

Just short of indictment

MARGARET WARNER: How close were they to actually bringing an indictment against him? There have been conflicting reports on that.

SCOTT SHANE: I'm told that they were still planning to have witnesses before the grand jury this week and perhaps next week. It sounded like they were probably a few weeks away from indicting him, although they expected to indict him.

They pulled some computers from a public library in Frederick after his death last week, which also suggested that they were still trying to shore up the case against him.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, as Ivins came under greater and greater suspicion -- and you said they'd been really focusing on him for a year-and-a-half -- yet he retained his security clearance all this time. How does the FBI explain that?

SCOTT SHANE: Well, they didn't really have the grounds to pull his security clearance unless they believed that they could charge him with this crime. And, of course, he committed suicide before they charged him.

So we don't know how close they were. I think one indication of the situation that they found themselves in was, as we've heard, his therapist made a statement that he had ranted about killing a large number of people and killing himself.

But even after learning of that, the FBI did not feel they were able to arrest him at that time, which, you know, obviously, if they'd had sufficient evidence to charge him, would have been a prudent thing to do.

MARGARET WARNER: So it was the day after that -- at least the meeting at which he says this occurred -- that they did bar him from the lab. Were those two related?

SCOTT SHANE: Yes, they did bar him from the lab after he was believed by colleagues to be a danger to himself and possibly to others. And he spent almost two weeks in a mental health facility in Frederick, Maryland.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Scott Shane, more to come, of course. Thank you so much.

SCOTT SHANE: Thank you.