Delving into the suspect’s state of mind
Bruce E. Ivins, the bioweapons scientist who apparently killed himself as the government was preparing to indict him in the 2001 anthrax attacks, had a long history of mental illness that flared just before mail contaminated with the fatal spores was received in New York, Florida, Connecticut and Washington, D.C.
Newly released government documents show that in the months before the mailings that led to the deaths of five people and made 17 ill, Ivins -- who had worked at the Army’s top biodefense laboratory for 28 years -- told a friend that he had “incredible paranoid, delusional thoughts at times” and feared that he might not be able to control his behavior.
Details of Ivins’ disturbed emotional state, including his possession of firearms and a makeup kit and his obsession with a sorority, were presented Wednesday as the Justice Department explained -- first to those directly affected by the anthrax attacks, then to the public at large -- the government’s case against him.
The revelations have sparked questions at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill about how someone known to have such disturbed thoughts was still allowed access to the government’s infectious-disease laboratories at Ft. Detrick, Md., where anthrax and other deadly plagues were studied in classified projects. Ivins’ apparent suicide from an overdose of acetaminophen occurred just as prosecutors were readying murder charges against him.
In the last several days, the public learned of Ivins’ recent threats toward a therapist and others he thought had wronged him. But those outbursts occurred after he was informed that he was a suspect in the case and had been barred from the top-secret labs.
The information released Wednesday showed a much longer history of emotional turbulence within a man whose outward veneer of respectability was enhanced by the government awards he had received for his research. The documents provided detailed evidence showing that Ivins’ mental illness flared about the time of the 2001 anthrax mailings.
According to U.S. Atty. Jeffrey A. Taylor, “Dr. Ivins had a history of mental health problems and was facing a difficult time professionally in the summer and fall of 2001" -- in part because an anthrax vaccine he was working on was failing.
Ivins’ problems before and around the time of the mailings -- including strange physical symptoms and treatment with Celexa, an antidepressant -- were detailed in e-mails and other documents released to reporters after they were unsealed by a federal judge.
On June 27, 2000, Ivins wrote in an e-mail to a friend: “Even with the Celexa and the counseling, the depression episodes still come and go. That’s unpleasant enough. What is REALLY scary is the paranoia.”
A week later, on July 4, he wrote to his friend that his psychiatrist and his counselor now thought that his symptoms “may not be those of depression or bipolar disorder, they may be that of a ‘paranoid personality disorder.’ ”
That Aug. 12, he wrote about what he called one of his “worst days in months.”
“I wish I could control the thoughts in my mind. It’s hard enough sometimes controlling my behavior. When I’m being eaten alive inside, I always try to put on a good front here at work and at home, so I don’t spread the pestilence. . . .” he wrote. “I get incredible paranoid, delusional thoughts at times, and there’s nothing I can do until they go away, either by themselves or with drugs.”
In one e-mail he acknowledged, “Sometimes I think that it’s all just too much.”
The first deadly mailings -- anthrax-laced letters sent to news media in New York and Florida -- were postmarked Sept. 18, 2001, a week after Islamic terrorists hijacked four passenger jets and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field. A second batch of letters was sent that Oct. 9. After sophisticated tests were developed to identify the genetic material of anthrax spores, investigators used it in 2005 to trace the particular blend of spores recovered from the letters back to Ivins, then set about building a case against him.
The letters -- which mentioned Allah and called for the destruction of Israel and the United States -- forced the closing of a Senate office building, a newspaper headquarters and a large postal facility, and they made the entire nation, already on edge from the Sept. 11 attacks, fearful that foreign terrorists were now targeting the U.S. with a deadly microbe.
On Oct. 16, 2001, one of Ivins’ co-workers communicated to a former colleague that “Bruce has been an absolute manic basket case the last few days.”
From 2000 through 2006, Ivins was prescribed “various psychotropic medications including antidepressants, antipsychotics and anti-anxiety for his mental issues,” the documents showed.
Long before, however, Ivins had acted oddly; for example, the documents released Wednesday said that he had used two post office boxes over 24 years to “pursue obsessions” -- including an intense interest in the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority. One confidential witness said Ivins had admitted breaking into a Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority house to steal a secret handbook, apparently while he was pursuing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of North Carolina.
The documents also included a message board post by Ivins on a conspiracy theory website, www.abovetopsecret.com "> www.abovetopsecret.com . Asking for replies at the e-mail address email@example.com , he wrote that the sorority had labeled him as an enemy decades ago. “I can only abide their ‘Fatwah’ on me,” he said.
The posting was significant, according to a government document, because “in his own words Dr. Ivins defines the depth of his obsession” and knowledge of the sorority. The document noted that letters containing anthrax were deposited in a mailbox in Princeton, N.J., just 60 feet from a building the sorority used.
The documents also revealed the results of searches of Ivins’ property, including the contents of a black briefcase -- Glock 34, Glock 27 and Beretta pistols, makeup and “false hair,” and a copy of Albert Camus’ book “The Plague.”
Federal law restricts scientists’ access to potentially deadly materials if they have been judged mentally disturbed. Last week, after Ivins was identified as the target of the anthrax investigation, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told the Associated Press that it was time to reexamine the rules.
Collins said that federal standards should not discourage scientists from working in government labs, but that someone as disturbed as Ivins should not “have access to some of the most lethal substances imaginable.”
Also last week, the Army issued new regulations barring access to lethal biological or chemical agents to anyone aggressive or threatening toward others. A Pentagon spokesman, Geoff Morrell, said that the Defense Department took “precautions below the radar when there is someone who is under investigation and they still retain a security clearance. But yanking the clearance would . . . in all likelihood jeopardize the investigation.”
Times staff writer Peter Spiegel contributed to this report.
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Part of the FBI investigation of Bruce E. Ivins focused on his mental health issues. The agency said in an affidavit released Wednesday that Ivins was undergoing significant stress in both his home and work life. These are excerpts from e-mails Ivins sent to a friend:
July 23, 2000
“It’s been a really stressful week, from all stand points. Home, work, and it’s not going well with the counselor I’m going to. . . . Sometimes I think that it’s all just too much.”
Aug. 12, 2000
“Last Saturday, as you probably guessed from my email, was one of my worst days in months. I wish I could control the thoughts in my mind. It’s hard enough sometimes controlling my behavior. When I’m being eaten alive inside, I always try to put on a good front here at work and at home, so I don’t spread the pestilence. . . . I get incredible paranoid, delusional thoughts at times, and there’s nothing I can do until they go away, either by themselves or with drugs.”
March 4, 2001
“The people in my group just don’t pick up on what I try to say. . . . The psychiatrist is helpful only because he prescribes the Celexa. . . . The woman I saw before I went into group wanted to get me put in jail. That wasn’t very helpful either. . . . [T]here are some things that . . . I feel I can’t tell ANYONE.”
Sept. 15, 2001
“I am incredibly sad and angry at what happened, now that it has sunk in. Sad for all of the victims, their families, their friends. And angry. Very angry. Angry at those who did this, who support them, who coddle them, and who excuse them.”
Source: U.S. Department of Justice