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Book review: ‘The Mirage Man’ by David Willman

The Mirage Man: Bruce Ivins, the Anthrax Attacks, and America’s Rush to War

David Willman

Bantam: 449 pp., $27

The anthrax-laced letters that killed five people in the fall of 2001, shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, heightened America’s sense of being a nation under siege. The Bush administration used the letters as support for the invasion of Iraq, seizing on dubious evidence that the anthrax in them had been “weaponized” as proof that Saddam Hussein’s regime was involved. The FBI botched the anthrax investigation so badly that it eventually paid $5.82 million to researcher Steven J. Hatfill, targeted for years as the bureau’s principal suspect amid a flood of publicity, after a district court judge declared there was “not a scintilla of evidence” linking Hatfill to the letters.

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So it’s unsurprising that not everyone was convinced when the FBI announced on Aug. 6, 2008, that the actual culprit was Bruce Ivins, a microbiologist at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) who had committed suicide a week earlier. David Willman is convinced, and he builds a persuasive case against Ivins in his carefully reported book, partly based on Willman’s articles in the Los Angeles Times.

The circumstantial evidence Willman lays out is strong, though not undisputed. Scientific tests identified the anthrax in the letters as coming from a unique batch Ivins had mixed at USAMRIID. He had worked alone in a “hot suite” (a lab designed to keep dangerous germs from escaping) on a series of nights immediately before the two mailings of anthrax letters in September and October 2001. His whereabouts were unaccounted for long enough for him to have driven on both occasions from Fort Detrick, Md., to the mailbox in Princeton, N.J., where the letters were posted — a mailbox adjacent to the office of Kappa Kappa Gamma, a sorority with which Ivins had been obsessed ever since one of its members turned him down for a date in college in the 1960s.

Why would someone considered a harmless geek by his colleagues commit this murderous act? Willman plausibly argues that by early September 2001 Ivins believed “the anthrax vaccine program — the apex of his life’s work — was stalemated” because of the doubts government officials had about its effectiveness and necessity. The anthrax letters buried those doubts, and Congress quickly voted a massive increase in funding for biological defense, including the anthrax vaccine. At the very least, Ivins should have been among the suspects the FBI scrutinized in the investigation’s early days, especially after a phone call in January 2002 from scientist Nancy Haigwood telling them she thought Ivins was the anthrax killer.

The personal demons that Willman believes played a role in driving Ivins to the anthrax attacks were evident in his relations with Haigwood. While they were both at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill during the late ‘70s, he learned that she had been a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma. Haigwood had no interest in discussing her former sorority, or in the married Ivins’ pushy attempts at emotional intimacy. When the notebook containing all of her doctoral research was stolen and then returned, she was sure Ivins had done it to punish her. Other female colleagues over the years would also be subjected to Ivins’ inappropriate overtures, and to menacing reproaches if they were insufficiently responsive. Drawing on these women’s experiences and on information about Ivins’ psychiatric treatments, Willman paints a creepy portrait of a man desperate to please yet consumed with inner rage, someone who was a smiling team player in public while privately pursuing personal vendettas.

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Willman delves at length into the blinkered leadership that kept the FBI focused on Hatfill as the prime suspect long after mounting evidence pointed to Ivins. He also takes some well-deserved slaps at the media, not just for irresponsible reporting on Hatfill, but for hysterical coverage about the alleged weaponizing of anthrax. Slipshod journalism helped muster public support for the invasion of Iraq, and confusion bred by the later discrediting of these sensational stories prompted much of the skepticism when, in Willman’s judgment, the FBI finally got the right man.

Regrettably, though Willman’s reporting is solid, the text reads like a series of newspaper articles stitched together, supplemented by poorly incorporated additional research. The impact of compelling pieces of evidence is muffled by repetition. Willman details Ivins’ suspicious stints in the hot suite, for example, in a chapter relating the events of September-October 2001; then he gives the same information again 180 pages later, when the FBI learned about it in 2007. The chronology is also bumpy. Too often, Willman backtracks from an intriguing development to go off in another direction. We’re in late February 2002 hearing about anthrax samples on one page, thrown back to late 2001 on the next, then forward to April 2002 for a convoluted exposition of incidents involving stray anthrax spores sprayed with bleach that seem significant, but the author neglects to explain exactly why.

Such problems hinder full understanding of a complex case. By the time Willman shows the FBI finally closing in on Ivins in the fall of 2007 and relates the grim psychic unraveling that preceded his suicide in 2008, readers have too much information and not enough meaningful interpretation. Willman provides good evidence to back up his conviction that Ivins was guilty. What he doesn’t provide is a well-organized structure to unite the multiple strands of a shocking news story into a strong full-length narrative.

Smith is a contributing editor for the American Scholar and reviews books for The Times, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune.


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