Biodefense labs under microscope
Calling it “a most urgent public health and national security issue,” two ranking lawmakers said Friday that they were expanding their congressional investigation into the risks associated with the nation’s biodefense labs to focus on how someone as mentally unstable as accused anthrax killer Bruce E. Ivins could have worked unsupervised with deadly biological agents for so long.
Reps. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), head of the panel’s subcommittee on oversight and investigations, said they would investigate personnel security at Ft. Detrick, Md., where Ivins worked with anthrax cultures for at least seven years after he began showing signs of paranoia and mental instability.
Ivins, who was 62 when he died July 29, remained with the lab long after the FBI determined that he was probably the culprit in the 2001 attacks that killed five people and sickened 17 who had handled tainted mail. He ingested a lethal dose of acetaminophen as authorities were preparing to charge him with murder.
On Friday the government cleared Dr. Steven J. Hatfill, another researcher, of any complicity in the attacks -- something it did not do in June when it paid him a $5.8-million settlement or this week when authorities said publicly they believed Ivins was the sole culprit.
Hatfill didn’t get the apology that he was looking for. But the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Jeffrey A. Taylor, sent a letter to one of Hatfill’s lawyers saying the existing evidence “excluded your client as a subject or target of the investigation.”
Taylor said that scientific techniques ultimately used to trace the specific batch of spores to Ivins did not exist in 2002, when the FBI was focusing mostly on Hatfill.
Hatfill had no comment. His lawyers said that Taylor’s letter was appreciated but that it did not go far enough in explaining why their client was not ruled out as a suspect years ago, once the new technologies apparently cleared him.
Dingell and Stupak said recent disclosures about Ivins’ mental state heightened their security concerns. The Justice Department and the FBI released reams of investigative material in the Ivins case this week to make public their case for his guilt.
The documents, including e-mail messages from Ivins, portrayed the microbiologist as increasingly troubled and potentially homicidal at least as far back as 2000 and most likely earlier.
“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,” Ivins wrote in one 2000 e-mail message to a friend.
In another message that year, Ivins wrote: “The thinking now by the psychiatrist and counselor is that my symptoms . . . may be that of a ‘Paranoid Personality Disorder.’ ”
Over the next six years, he was prescribed antidepressants, antipsychotics and anti-anxiety drugs. One colleague said that Ivins was a “manic basket case,” and another said he would weep openly at his desk, according to documents in the case. But he continued to work with anthrax and other dangerous pathogens until at least last November.
Officials at Ft. Detrick have said they have stringent security measures in place to weed out troubled scientists.
But Dingell and Stupak said they were increasingly concerned about all of the nation’s so-called Biosafety Level 3 and 4 labs, which research highly infectious viruses and other biological agents that can cause serious injury or death.
To date, their committee’s investigation has identified serious shortcomings in the security at other labs, which are run by universities and civilian government agencies. The problems include poor training, sloppy security, lack of oversight, and releases of dangerous pathogens.
In a letter the lawmakers sent Friday to President Bush, they asked the White House to launch its own inquiry of biodefense labs.
Dingell questioned whether the estimated 14,000 scientists working with deadly substances were being scrutinized properly for the kind of mental illness Ivins exhibited.
“I’m deeply troubled by the allegations raised about security at one of our nation’s premier labs handling some of the deadliest germs in the world,” Dingell said in a statement. “Our nation is at serious risk if one of our government’s most prominent scientists could have a decade-long battle with mental illness without anyone noticing.”