The 2001 anthrax attacks: solved?

Real life work has once again stepped in, so I won't have the Helicobacter posts up until next week. However, in the meantime, a big story has broken regarding the 2001 anthrax attacks--a potential suspect, and his suicide before he could be arrested. Will we ever actually get to the bottom of this? More discussion below...

A bit of a primer on the anthrax attacks, as it's been awhile since they were in the news. Recall that just after the chaos of 9/11 in 2001, envelopes containing anthrax were sent to a number of news organizations and senators, resulting in 22 cases of anthrax and 5 deaths. In the early days, the investigation seemed to rapidly close in on a suspect--Dr. Steven Hatfill, a virologist who had worked at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease (USAMRIID), where he carried out work on potential agents of biological warfare. However, subsequent investigations veered away from Hatfill, and he recently won a large settlement from the government.

So with Hatfill no longer the main "person of interest," the investigations seemed to languish for many years. Though the attack strains were typed as the Ames strain--a strain that had been used at USAMRIID (among other places). And while the spores and handling procedures were described in a 2006 publication, anniversaries of the attack came and went with seemingly no movement in the case. Several months ago a report surfaced that four people were being investigated. And now--almost 7 years later--it seems that one of these suspects was identified--and committed suicide before he could be charged:

Bruce E. Ivins, was a leading military anthrax researcher who worked for the past 18 years at the government's biodefense labs at Fort Detrick, Md. The laboratory has been at the center of the FBI's investigation of the anthrax mailings.


Other U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the ongoing grand jury investigation, said prosecutors were closing in on Ivins, 62. They were planning an indictment that would have sought the death penalty for the attacks, which killed five people, crippled the postal system and traumatized a nation still reeling from the Sept. 11 attacks.

Authorities were investigating whether Ivins released the anthrax as a way to test his vaccine, officials said. The Justice Department has not yet decided whether to close the investigation, officials said, meaning it's still not certain whether Ivins acted alone or had help. One official close to the case said that decision was expected within days.

The story goes on to say that Ivins has cooperated with investigators for the past year, and Ivins' attorney says that his death is due to "relentless pressure of accusation and innuendo." Certainly this is something Hatfill and others have learned--guilty or innocent, such investigations can destroy one's life and livelihood. Indeed, Ivins had apparently been forced to take retirement starting next month, and had been escorted away from his lab and was on a suicide watch and under treatment for depression. His friends and family suggested he had been under strain for a year, as the government searched his home multiple times and had a car sitting and watching his house.

The story also reports that Ivins behaved strangely following the 2001 anthrax attacks, "when he conducted unauthorized testing for anthrax spores outside containment areas at the infectious disease research unit where he worked." It's suggested that a motive may have been to test anthrax treatments in the field, as Ivins reportedly "...complained of the limited supply of monkeys available for testing and said testing on animals is insufficient to demonstrate how humans would respond to treatment."

Was Ivins' guilt or fear of being caught a motive for his suicide--or was he hounded out of his job and into a spiral of depression by the government, looking to finally close this case after years of inaction? As I asked above, will we ever really get to the bottom of this? Even with this potential lead, it's not looking a whole lot rosier than it did almost 7 years ago that we'll ever know what really happened.

More like this

Yesterday's New York Times carried a very long piece (more than 5000 words) by Scott Shanes on the anthrax attacker case. You may remember that shortly after Dr. Bruce Ivins, the Fort Detrick scientist who worked on anthrax, allegedly committed suicide (see posts here), the FBI announced he was the…
So, after almost a week of intense media scrutiny and finger-pointing at USAMRIID scientist Bruce Ivins as the perpetrator of the 2001 anthrax attacks, the FBI has now released its documents pertaining to the case, and declares that Ivins was indeed their man. However, a lot of unanswered…
With all that's going on we sometimes forget about all that went on, even all that went on recently. Like "solving" the anthrax attacks case. Fortunately the New York Times reporters on the case are still on the case. And so is Congress: A month after the F.B.I. declared that an Army scientist was…
I've had serious doubts all along about the anthrax investigation, but the latest turn raises even more questions about the government's case. According to former co-worker of Ivins' and former USAMRIID microbacteriologist Henry Heine, the science doesn't seem to support Ivins' guilt (italics mine…

What about the new and improved Anthrax vaccine ?

The US invested $2B+ in a crash program for a better Anthrax vaccine, from the top of my head.

Any vaccine to show for it ?

The Hatfill investigation was also complicated by Hatfill's having been a very, very strange guy (when called on the fact that he included an unearned Ph.D. on his vita, he claimed he thought he'd actually received one.) But one thing that was lacking was any hard evidence that Hatfill was connected to the anthrax releases.

So -- did the feds really have evidence that Ivins was responsible for unleashing weaponized anthrax, or was he just another weird guy who was a conveniently unsympathetic target? I'd like to believe the former, simply because it would be a major relief to have such an awful crime solved, but the track record of this investigation hasn't really inspired confidence.

By Julie Stahlhut (not verified) on 01 Aug 2008 #permalink

Well, if the FBI does claim the case is closed, they will likely finally release details of the evidence they have. I think, given their track record on this case, we have to view their actions with some skepticism. The sad thing is, it is completely possible that this man was innocent and that harassment drove him to suicide. Look at what happened to Hatfill, where they drove him out of a job and into exile basically. I think the issue here is that a lot of people working in conjunction with US Bioweopons research are creepy. And so they just seem like great suspects. We will have to wait and see if evidence is released just how sound it is.

The LA Times piece presents some damning evidence against Ivins. The Times pulled statements from a May 2002 army report obtained via a FOIA request. He appeared to be lying about an anthrax contamination episode in the lab he worked in. He blamed a lab technician for 20-some breaches and then said he could not remember if he re-swabbed contaminated areas after initial cleanup. That is pretty hard to swallow. Would you remember what you did when dealing with release of an extremely hazardous material that was a national news item? It is now being reported that he had been committed to a psychiatric hospital in the past and he had a history of making death threats.

What I find most disturbing about this is the keystone cops nature of the police work. Hatfill's name should never have been leaked. And the press really fell down by letting themselves be used as mouthpieces. Read what Glenn Greenwald has to say about ABC news. Atrocious reporting there.

The fact that he was under a suicide watch, but was still able to accomplish this doesn't inspire confidence in the authorities either.

The Hatfill investigation was also complicated by Hatfill's having been a very, very strange guy (when called on the fact that he included an unearned Ph.D. on his vita, he claimed he thought he'd actually received one.)

Also, Hatfill, although an American, had lived for a time in Rhodesia (white-ruled current Zimbabwe) and even served in the Rhodesian SAS! A very weird and sinister fellow indeed. But anecdotal evidence of weirdness proves nothing -- which is probably the same problem with the obviously mentally ill Ivins.

Ivins lived three blocks from my house - very strange series of events. Until we see the evidence that the FBI (which has been wrong before) has, it is hard to pass judgment. He had some quirky characteristics, including threatening behavior, but if quirkiness were a damning characteristic, most of us scientists would be very worried indeed. The threats he was alleged to have made are worrisome, though.

I am not saying Ivins is innocent. But imagine if he was. The FBI starts questioning all your family, friends and colleagues. And you know what happened to Hatfill. You basically can assume that your career will be ruined. So it would be an incredible stress. Thus the fact that he got stressed and overwhelmed and depressed is not evidence of guilt. Again, he may well have done this, but right now, all we know is that under the strain of an intensive investigation, he got stressed. The FBI needs to release some information about the evidence soon.

I don't know anything about Ivins. But when we sequenced the DNA of the attack strain (isolated from the first victim) of B. anthracis back in 2001-2, it ended up being identical to the strains available from Ft. Detrick. We published our first results in 2002 (Read, Salzberg, et al., Science 296, 2028-2033), we made it clear the source was pretty closely tied to Ft. Detrick. (Note: we were *not* officially part of the investigation - we were acting as an independent scientific team.)

Frankly, given that our initial guesses turned out correct, I can't understand why it took nearly 7 years to identify Ivins - if it was him. He seems to fit the bill perfectly - loner scientist, worked on anthrax at Ft. Detrick, etc. The only part I haven't read, which also would fit, is his political leanings. We speculated at the time - though not in our Science paper, of course - that the perpetrator was a right-winger, because he mailed the anthrax to several "liberal media" outlets and to 2 leading Democratic Senators (Leahy and Daschle). I'm guessing we'll find out that Ivins was quite right wing, if indeed it was him.

Great post. THanks for writing it.

I was in central Jersey at the time and remember not being able to mail the final corrections on my PhD in because there was no postal delivery. I hope they release what they know soon, it will be good to know the story.

My grandfather used to say that, where there is smoke, there is fire... And when the river makes noise it's because it's carrying water... Etc. The FBI and other agencies MUST have their ducks in a row for this one, or it's going to be yet another misstep in "the war on terror". I sure hope they do, or their credibility, and that of the American system of justice, will be the one to suffer.

"Before the Sept. 11 attacks, Ivins had worked on and held a share of two anthrax vaccine patents, at least one of which was licensed to VaxGen, Inc., a California firm that later won an $877 million contract to make the vaccine for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Bioshield program. But when VaxGen failed to meet deadlines, the government scrapped the contract."

Possible motive.

"I sure hope they do, or their credibility, and that of the American system of justice, will be the one to suffer"

The US justice system has already dealt itself a self-inflicted wound. He probably killed himself because he was convinced he would end up in Guantanamo.

Usually, I am the one laughing at government conspiracy theorists, but I have to reserve judgment in this case. One thing has been clear to me from the start: One way or another, the stuff was stolen from a freakin' biological weapons laboratory somewhere. Depending on how it actually happened, it's perfectly reasonable to think that a cover story might be needed. The spooks have had enough time to come up with a pretty good one if they needed it, and I doubt whether I will ever be sure I know the truth.

By CherryBomb (not verified) on 08 Aug 2008 #permalink

I do not have much faith in the us justice system.

"Other U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the ongoing grand jury investigation, said prosecutors were closing in on Ivins, 62"

Is he the scape goat?


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What nonsense.

The attacks pointedly targeted enemies of Bush/Cheney's "Patriot Act," and the editor of a newspaper who published a story about the Bush girls' drunken spree. Bruce Ivins? Come on.

The anthrax was weapons grade, impossible for Ivins to have created alone, at night, in his laboratory, in eight days.

This is pure terrorism perpetrated against representatives of the people of the United States to coerce (terrify) them into obediance.


By Joseph Ciolino (not verified) on 27 May 2010 #permalink