FBI reveals trail that led to scientist
In an extraordinary attempt to prove the guilt of a suspect now beyond their reach, government officials Wednesday released a wealth of new details about the troubled life of Bruce E. Ivins, and said they had evidence that would have convicted him in the 2001 anthrax mailings that killed five people.
Hundreds of pages of previously secret documents show how the FBI, using new scientific tools, began to establish the guilt of one of the very scientists it had been relying on to crack the case. Ivins, 62, died of an apparent suicide July 29.
“We stand here today, firmly convinced that we have the person who committed those attacks,” said Jeffrey A. Taylor, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, whose office would have prosecuted Ivins. “And we are confident that, had this gone to trial, we would have proved him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” He said Ivins had acted alone.
Ivins was the “sole custodian” of the unique strain of anthrax that caused the deaths of five Americans, and had started working late in his laboratory the nights before the letters were mailed, according to a federal affidavit from Thomas F. Dellafera, a postal inspector who was part of the investigation team.
When asked for samples of the anthrax he was working with, the affidavit said, Ivins purposely provided the wrong or unusable material until an FBI agent marched into his secure lab and seized a flask of the lethal bacterium.
The government used Ivins’ own desperate words, found in e-mails sent in the months and days before the attacks, to show a man racked by paranoia who described himself as “scary.” At the same time, he was increasingly upset by the trouble besetting an anthrax vaccine he was trying to return to production.
As described by authorities Wednesday, Ivins may have perpetrated the attacks in an effort to create fear that would, in turn, spur greater federal spending and overall support for biodefense.
The unveiling of the evidence implicating a man who last week apparently killed himself was met with relief from many relatives of the anthrax victims -- and with derision from Ivins’ lawyers.
“The government’s press conference was an orchestrated dance of carefully worded statements, heaps of innuendo and a staggering lack of real evidence, all contorted to create the illusion of guilt,” said attorneys Paul F. Kemp and Thomas M. DeGonia.
But Maureen Stevens, widow of the first victim, Robert Stevens, said she felt relieved after flying from Florida to Washington to attend a special FBI briefing.
“They’ve put it all together. . . . There is so much that they have gathered, and they worked so hard. I feel I can rest now,” she said.
Taylor, joined by officials from the FBI and the U.S. Postal Service, referred to genetic testing of material retrieved from the tainted letters and the victims and detailed other evidence that he said proved Ivins’ guilt. Yet the presentation fell well short of providing specifics that many experts say would be needed to rigorously analyze the government’s conclusion that the anthrax powder could only have originated from a flask in Ivins’ laboratory.
“I assume they can prove it,” said Dr. Philip K. Russell, a virologist and retired Army major general who formerly oversaw research conducted at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Ft. Detrick, Md., where Ivins worked. “But the question is, does that ‘genetic match’ match anything else in the world? Show us the data -- and let’s see it published.”
Asked at the news conference when the genetic-testing data would be made public, Joseph Persichini, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Washington field office, said: “I’m not going to comment on when the publications and the process will come out, but the FBI lab will do that accordingly.”
The government’s presentation also raised questions about why the FBI for years exhaustively targeted Dr. Steven J. Hatfill, a former researcher at Ft. Detrick, while agents did not seek to search Ivins’ home or vehicles for traces of anthrax until last fall.
This June, the government agreed to pay Hatfill $5.8 million to settle a lawsuit in which he asserted that the FBI and Justice Department had improperly leaked information about him -- some of it misleading or inaccurate -- to news organizations.
Wednesday’s news conference was not attended by senior Bush administration officials, such as FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, who has presided over the investigation since soon after the mailings occurred in the fall of 2001. Earlier in the day, Mueller met with families of some of the anthrax victims. The director also briefed current and former congressional officials who were affected by the mailings that killed five people, injured 17 others and unleashed new fear after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Taylor, who has been the local U.S. attorney since late September 2006, presided at the news conference, although he is a relative newcomer to the anthrax investigation. He pointed to investigative documents, newly unsealed by a federal judge, along with other evidence that he said proved Ivins had perpetrated the anthrax mailings:
* Genetic testing and follow-up investigation of Ivins and others at Ft. Detrick
“We were able to identify in early 2005 the genetically unique parent material of the anthrax spores used in the mailings,” Taylor said, adding that the anthrax had come from “a single flask of spores . . . that was created and solely maintained by Dr. Ivins at USAMRIID.”
“This means that the spores used in the attacks were taken from that specific flask, regrown, purified, dried and loaded into the letters. No one received material from that flask without going through Dr. Ivins.”
Taylor also said, “We thoroughly investigated every other person who could have had access to the flask, and we were able to rule out all but Dr. Ivins.”
Investigators also traced the limited-circulation, pre-stamped envelopes in which the tainted letters were sent to mid-Atlantic postal facilities, including one in Frederick, Md., where Ivins lived.
* Records and interviews showing that Ivins used a specially equipped lab at USAMRIID several times before and soon after the anthrax mailings
“In the days leading up to each of the mailings, the documents make clear that Dr. Ivins was working inordinate hours alone at night and on the weekend in the lab where the flask of spores and production equipment were stored,” Taylor said, adding that records established that Ivins had not spent so many late-night hours in the lab “at any time before or after this period.”
“When questioned about why he was in the lab during those off-hours prior to each of the mailings, Dr. Ivins was unable to offer any satisfactory explanation.”
Ivins was routinely vaccinated against anthrax as a required part of his work as a staff microbiologist at USAMRIID.
* Ivins’ statements and other actions suggesting that he was trying to cover up his crimes
Taylor pointed to the many investigative documents unsealed earlier in the day, including postal inspectors’ sworn statements in support of various search warrants.
In one of the most recent affidavits, dated July 11, Inspector Charles B. Wickersham said, “Ivins is believed to have submitted false samples of anthrax from his lab to the FBI for forensic analysis in order to mislead investigators.”
One night within the last several months -- after his house in Frederick had been searched by investigators -- Ivins “took highly unusual steps to discard a book and article on DNA coding while under 24/7 surveillance,” Taylor said.
Those and other steps taken by Ivins, including “far-reaching efforts to blame others and divert attention away from himself,” Taylor said, “suggest consciousness of guilt.”
One of the search warrant documents unsealed Wednesday provided elaboration.
“Dr. Ivins repeatedly claimed that the anthrax used in the attacks resembled that of another researcher at USAMRIID and was dissimilar” from the strain used in Ivins’ laboratory, Dellafera wrote.
Three colleagues of Ivins’ at USAMRIID told investigators that they did not have access to the signature “parent” strain of anthrax as Ivins had claimed, the investigative documents show.
Documents also suggest that Ivins had a decades-long obsession with a sorority whose chapter at Princeton University is located 60 feet from the only U.S. mailbox where spores from the letters were found.
* Ivins was motivated both by his commitment to overcome a regulatory obstacle to the anthrax vaccine and by his social conservatism
As of summer 2001, the FDA was blocking resumed production of the only U.S. government-licensed anthrax vaccine, made by a private company that Ivins -- in his government role -- was assisting. Soon after the anthrax mailings, the FDA green-lighted resumed production of the vaccine by the company, then called BioPort.
As of mid- to late 2001, Taylor said, Ivins was “a troubled individual. . . . He’s very concerned, according to the evidence, that this vaccination program he’s been working on may come to an end. . . . And a possible motive is [that], by launching these attacks, he creates a situation, a scenario where people all of a sudden realize the need to have this vaccine.”
Ivins, a Catholic whose two children attended a parochial school in Frederick, described himself in a 2002 e-mail to a colleague as “pro-life . . . consistent with a Christian.”
Two of the intended recipients of anthrax-tainted letters -- then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) -- are Catholics who favor abortion rights.
Moreover, the newly unsealed documents also quote from an e-mail that Ivins sent on Sept. 26, 2001 -- nine days before the death in Palm Beach County, Fla., of Stevens, the first anthrax-related fatality in the case.
“It’s interesting that we may now be living in a time when our biggest threat to civil liberties and freedom doesn’t come from the government but from enemies of the government,” Ivins wrote. “Osama Bin Laden has just decreed death to all Jews and all Americans, but I guess that doesn’t mean a lot to the [American Civil Liberties Union].”
In the anthrax letters that he is alleged to have mailed to Leahy, Daschle and news media figures, this language was included in a photocopied, handwritten note:
“DEATH TO AMERICA. DEATH TO ISRAEL. ALLAH IS GREAT.”
Times staff writer Josh Meyer in Washington and researcher Janet Lundblad in Los Angeles contributed to this report.