FBI closes 2001 anthrax investigation

WASHINGTON — In June 2008, just weeks before he turned up dying from an overdose of Tylenol, Bruce E. Ivins was frantically trying to tell a friend about months of pressure in the cross-hairs of the FBI's anthrax investigation.

"It worries me when I wake up in the morning and I've got all my clothes and my shoes on, and my car keys are right beside there," the government scientist said, admitting that things were happening that he was not in control of. "And I don't have it in my, in my, I, I can tell you I don't have it in my heart to kill anybody."

On Friday the FBI and Department of Justice officially closed their investigation into the anthrax case that began in the fall of 2001 with contaminated letters sent to Capitol Hill and journalists in New York and Florida, led to five deaths and worried the nation that foreign terrorists might have had struck again so closely after the attacks of Sept. 11 that year.

In releasing thousands of pages of summaries, e-mails, search warrants and other evidentiary material, officials said their evidence "established that Ivins, alone, mailed the anthrax letters," apparently in an all-night drive to New Jersey like the night he described to his friend. Had he not died in an apparent suicide, authorities said, he would have been charged, likely with the use of a weapon of mass destruction.

Ivins, who worked at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Ft. Detrick, Md., had protested his innocence, a sentiment echoed Friday by his lawyer, Paul Kemp. "There's absolutely no evidence he did anything," the lawyer said. The allegations against Ivins were first reported by The Los Angeles Times.

Kemp scoffed at the FBI's assertion that their investigation was "extraordinarily complex" and turned on new "groundbreaking" scientific evidence. "It was a big screw-up," the lawyer said of the federal probe. "If they don't admit that, then they are not facing reality."

Rep. Rush Holt, a Republican from central New Jersey where the anthrax letters were mailed, also was not satisfied. "This has been a closed-minded, closed process from the beginning," said the congressman. "The evidence the FBI produced would not, I think, stand up in court."

But the FBI, working with postal inspectors and federal prosecutors, strongly defended their conclusions. It said Ivins had plenty of opportunity to create and maintain the spore batches of anthrax, noting he often worked late at night alone in the lab where the material was stored, grown and harvested. "In addition," the report said, "Dr. Ivins was among the very few anthrax researchers nationwide with the knowledge and ability to create the highly purified spores used in the mailings."

His motive, they said, was born out of "intense personal and professional pressure." He had devoted his entire 20-year career to the anthrax vaccine program, and feared that the project was being phased out. "Following the anthrax attacks, however, his program was suddenly rejuvenated," authorities said.


He collected guns and powder and body armor. Sometimes he wrote in code, fascinated with constructions like TTT and AAT and TAT, similar to the bold-face letters on the anthrax letters, apparent references to a chain of nucleic acids in the DNA genetic chain.

He struggled with mental health issues like a "man driven by obsession," according to a 92-page summary of the investigation released with several thousand pages of documents. In the month before he died, he posted violent messages on the Internet and leveled death threats at a group therapy session. His doctors considered him "homicidal and sociopathic." Just months earlier he had tried suicide at home in Frederick, Md.; he had been taking antidepressants.

In the period leading up to the mailings, he often was depressed and confused. He wrote nonsensical poetry with lines like:

"Hickory dickory Doc

"Doc Bruce ran up the clock."


But the federal investigation was not without its missteps and false turns. Officials spent the first years running down suspicions that the mailings were the work of al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden's terrorist network. They devoted blocks of time and resources investigating Steven J. Hatfill, a former researcher at Ft. Detrick, ultimately clearing his name.

Yet there remains unresolved whether Ivins actually used the mailbox at Princeton University in New Jersey to send the letters. "Notwithstanding exhaustive efforts, no direct links to Dr. Ivins to this mailbox were discovered," the report conceded. However, they said, "strong circumstantial links between Dr. Ivins and the mailbox in question were established."

Their circumstantial evidence, the government said, is that the mailbox is near the offices of the school's Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority, which Ivins reportedly had obsessed over. But even here, the dead scientist's attorney said the connection was preposterous.

"I drove up there to see how long it would take me, and what was there," Kemp said. "It's a full block from their office to the mailbox, and it's not the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority anyway. It's a mail drop for people interested in that sorority. Just a business drop. There were no girls there."


(c) 2010, Tribune Co.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


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