Burying the anthrax story

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 culprit and started to wrap up the case. Is the case truly "solved"?

With the F.B.I. preparing to close the case, The New York Times has taken the deepest look so far at the investigation, speaking to dozens of Dr. Ivins's colleagues and friends, reading hundreds of his e-mail messages, interviewing former bureau investigators and anthrax experts, reviewing court records, and obtaining, for the first time, police reports on his suicide in July, including a lengthy recorded interview with his wife.

That examination found that unless new evidence were to surface, the enormous public investment in the case would appear to have yielded nothing more persuasive than a strong hunch, based on a pattern of damning circumstances, that Dr. Ivins was the perpetrator. (Scott Shanes, NYT)

Hunch may even be too strong. The FBI does paint a convincing portrait. Some people even think it is conclusive. What do you think of this?

For months, agents had been growing more focused on Dr. [Ivins], a physician and virologist who had worked from 1997 to 1999 at the Fort Detrick institute.

He had earned a medical degree but had forged his Ph.D. diploma, written an unpublished novel about a covert bioattack on Washington and bragged on his résumé of a "working knowledge" of biowarfare pathogens. In his apartment, agents found a harmless bacteria commonly used as an anthrax simulant and a notebook on anthrax dissemination.

Then there was the timing. One month before the anthrax attacks, the government suspended Dr. [Ivins's] security clearance after questionable results on a polygraph test, and he told friends he expected to be fired from his job as a bioterrorism consultant. Two days before each of the two anthrax mailings, Dr. Hatfill filled a prescription for Cipro, an antibiotic that protected against anthrax.

This is a very convincing story. But it isn't the story of Dr. Ivins. I substituted Ivins's name (in brackets) for that of Dr. Steven Hatfill, the "person of interest" the FBI hounded for four years, finally paying him a half million dollars for their behavior and clearing him completely. The FBI has a fairly convincing sounding story about Ivins, too, although not as convincing as their story about Hatfill to my ears. The public didn't learn most of the Ivins story until Ivins was dead, allegedly by his own hand when learning that the FBI was closing in on him.

The Times reconstruction of his last days does not convince me his death was a suicide, nor that he was silenced in some kind of vast conspiracy. It sounds much more as if he died of a Tylenol caused toxic hepatitis. The active ingredient, acetominophen, especially when combined with alcohol (and Ivins had been drinking heavily) is well known to be a potential cause of fatal liver failure even at the usual therapeutic dose. Ivins had guns and access to much tidier ways to kill himself. Three days in a hepatic coma is not a plausible method of suicide for a knowledgeable scientist with many alternatives.

Whatever the cause of his death, his exit from the scene was certainly convenient for the FBI, who had botched the investigation from the outset. They didn't even have to bury the evidence. Ivins was cremated, as was his wish. The FBI doesn't much care that his reputation and memory were irreparably damaged.

It could close the case.


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I'm not entirely surprised that there's still been no clear resolution of the anthrax letter case. I am surprised that the FBI has done even as much as it has. At the time, when it was discovered that the anthrax used in the attacks almost certainly came out of a US government lab, I assumed that the investigation would go nowhere. Because it would focus too much attention on US bioweapon programs, security problems with such programs, and a possible "domestic" (nonmuslim) terrorist (going against the prevalent meme) it wasn't in the administration's interest to follow that line. Possibly the FBI was under pressure to find a scapegoat to close the case, then bury the loose ends in secrecy (to seed conspiracy theorists).

if the case isn't buried, a LOT of people will have to stop using the "there hasn't been a terrorist attack on US soil since 9/11" meme. many of the people using that meme are still currently in power. thus, the case will be buried, or at least closed, with or without resolution. QED

Just have to mention this... You forgot to replace Dr. Hatfill's name in the last sentence ("Dr. Hatfill filled a prescription for Cipro"), but I completely didn't notice it until I read the next paragraph about what you'd done. There's Cog Psych for you...

I'm inclined to agree with your assessment, but shouldn't he also as a scientist have been well aware of the Tylenol interactions?

By Ben_Wraith (not verified) on 12 Jan 2009 #permalink