A joint investigation withMcClatchy DCProPublica

Judge Allows Feds to Revise Filing in Anthrax Case

by FRONTLINE; Greg Gordon, McClatchy Newspapers; and Stephen Engelberg, ProPublica

WASHINGTON — Justice Department lawyers, defending a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of the first victim of the 2001 anthrax letter attacks, won a judge’s approval Friday to withdraw a court filing that seemed to undermine the FBI’s assertion that an Army researcher was the killer.

U.S. District Judge David Hurley of West Palm Beach, Fla., accepted a government attorney’s declaration that the FBI and federal prosecutors didn’t alert the government defense team to 10 errors in a statement of facts until after it had been filed in court on July 15.

The initial filing asserted flatly that the U.S. bioweapons facility that employed researcher Bruce Ivins, whom the FBI accused of manufacturing the anthrax, did not have “specialized equipment” needed to produce the deadly powder in the secure biocontainment lab where Ivins had a workspace.

The revised filing said that Ivins had access to a refrigerator-sized machine known as a lyophilizer, which can be used to dry solutions such as anthrax, at the facility in a less secure lab. In addition, it said that Ivins also had a smaller “speed-vac” that could be used for drying substances in his containment lab.

Ivins committed suicide on July 29, 2008, not long after federal prosecutors advised his attorney that they were on the verge of seeking his indictment on five capital murder counts.

Early last year, the Justice Department closed its eight-year, $100 million investigation into the case and officially declared that the career anthrax researcher had mailed the letters shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The letters were addressed to three media outlets and Democratic U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

The legal flip-flop occurred as the government sought the dismissal of the $50 million wrongful death suit, which had been filed eight years ago by the family of Robert Stevens, a photo editor for American Media, Inc., in Boca Raton, Fla.

Stevens was the first person in U.S. history known to have died from an anthrax attack. Four others died from exposure to anthrax, including two postal workers, and 17 people were sickened.

In the suit, Stevens’ family argues that the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), was negligent in failing to secure stocks of anthrax, one of the world’s deadliest pathogens. Ivins and other scientists conducted anthrax vaccine research at the Frederick, Md., facility.

The government also retracted statements that suggested that live anthrax spores from a flask in Ivins’ lab had been distributed more widely than the FBI had asserted in making its case against Ivins.

In its initial filing in the Stevens case, the government said that the spores were shipped to several private laboratories, including “at least” the Battelle Memorial Institute in West Jefferson, Ohio; Covance in Princeton, N.J., and BioPort in Lansing, Mich.

But in its revised declaration, the government said Battelle was the only lab known to receive live spores.

It said that “a witness indicated” that material sent to Covance “would have likely been irradiated (killed) before shipment to Covance” and that the anthrax marked in Ivins’ log as going to BioPort actually was associated with another researcher at USAMRIID and was “thus presumably used in-house … and not shipped to BioPort.”

The FBI has said that it eliminated all suspects other than Ivins, including those from outside laboratories.

blog comments powered by Disqus

In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

Solitary NationApril 22nd

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS
Frontline Journalism Fund

Supporting Investigative Reporting

Funding for FRONTLINE is provided through the support of PBS viewers and by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Major funding for FRONTLINE is provided by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Park Foundation, the Wyncote Foundation, and the FRONTLINE Journalism Fund with major support from Jon and Jo Ann Hagler on behalf of the Jon L. Hagler Foundation.PBSPark FoundationMacArthur FoundationwyncoteCPB

FRONTLINE   Watch FRONTLINE   About FRONTLINE   Contact FRONTLINE
Privacy Policy   Journalistic Guidelines   PBS Privacy Policy   PBS Terms of Use   Corporate Sponsorship
FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of WGBH Educational Foundation.
Web Site Copyright ©1995-2014 WGBH Educational Foundation
PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.