Feature

The anthrax attacks: Has the killer been found?

Bruce E. Ivins, 62, committed suicide last week just as the FBI was about to charge him with mailing anthrax spores in the fall of 2001.

Bruce E. Ivins, 62, was a soft-spoken Ph.D. who played the church organ and volunteered for the Red Cross. He juggled and wrote funny songs about his colleagues. And in the fall of 2001, said David Willman in the Los Angeles Times, he may have perpetrated the worst act of bioterrorism in U.S. history. Last week Ivins committed suicide just as the FBI was about to charge him with mailing the anthrax spores that killed five, sickened 17, and panicked a nation already on edge after Sept. 11. Ivins, a skilled microbiologist specializing in developing vaccines against anthrax and other deadly pathogens, worked at the government’s elite biodefense research complex at Fort Detrick, Md. After the attacks, he actually participated in the FBI investigation by analyzing spores from the mailings. More recently, as the FBI pressed its hunt for the culprit, sophisticated DNA analysis traced the spores back to a specific lab at Fort Detrick. At that point, “FBI agents plunged deep into Ivins’ history.”

What they found, said Scott Shane in The New York Times, was someone who fit the criminal profile they’d created: “a disgruntled American scientist or technician who wanted to raise an alarm about the bioterrorism threat.” Ivins had been caught taking unauthorized anthrax samples from the lab, and his psychotherapist, Jean Duley, said he had a long history of making death threats against women who spurned him and other “enemies.” As the FBI scrutiny intensified, said Amy Goldstein in The Washington Post, Ivins took to “drinking a liter of vodka some nights, taking large doses of sleeping pills, and typing out rambling e-mails into the early morning hours.” He bought a gun and began talking about slaughtering his co-workers; Duley called him a “sociopathic, homicidal killer.” Finally, as investigators were preparing to discuss a plea deal, Ivins took a fatal overdose of Tylenol with codeine.

What a “monumental screw-up” this entire case has been, said Gabriel Schoenfeld in the Los Angeles Times. Ivins, “the prime suspect, was directly under the FBI’s nose for years, practically sporting a scarlet ‘A’ on his forehead.” Yet the bureau wasted its time hounding Steven Hatfill, Ivins’ Fort Detrick biowarfare colleague. Just two months ago, with his reputation and career wrecked, Hatfill “was effectively exonerated” when he reached a $5.8 million settlement with the federal government. Given the FBI’s seven-year-long history of botching this case, how can anyone be sure they’ve got it right this time?

If Ivins was the culprit, said Peter Canellos in The Boston Globe, he did worse than kill five people. He also helped the Bush administration make its case for toppling Saddam Hussein. “When the anthrax attacks occurred, Iraq was immediately fingered by many neoconservative hawks as a possible source.” ABC News even quoted unnamed government officials who said the anthrax contained bentonite, an additive that only Iraq used in creating its biological weapons. Later on, though, it emerged that “no tests found or even suggested the presence of bentonite,” said Glenn Greenwald in Salon.com. So someone in the U.S. government deliberately leaked bad information to ABC that made it appear that Saddam and Iraq posed “grave, existential threats to this country.” Did Ivins himself plant the bogus bentonite story to draw suspicion away from himself? Or was the Bush administration the source, as it built support for the war the neocons so badly wanted? “The death of Bruce Ivins raises far more questions than it answers.”

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