For 7 years the Justice Department couldn’t seem to get anything right about the anthrax letters. For years, it harrassed Steven Hatfill, a self-described bodyguard for South African white supremacist Eugene Terrblanche and an unlicensed physician, despite a shocking lack of evidence. He is now $5.8 million richer as a result.
But the White House told press just days after the letters started appearing that the anthrax came from a government lab. Then that claim was buried as the justice department “pursued” the case everywhere else. Only recently were the press informed that government scientists were being investigated regarding the crime.
Ph.D. scientist Bruce Ivins worked at Fort Detrick, the Army’s center for biodefense, since about 1980. He was one of a small group of scientists who worked exclusively on anthrax, and most of his career dealt with the development of anthrax vaccines.
I first met Bruce at a conference on biowarfare in the spring of 1991 at the University of Maryland. We happened to sit next to each other, in the front row, and enjoyed chatting. Bruce sent me information relevant to my research on Zimbabwe’s anthrax epidemic, and I commented on his work. We continued to correspond occasionally for about ten years. Bruce had a chronic blood disorder, which he thought might have been due to his many anthrax immunizations, and encouraged me to continue investigating the vaccine’s side effects. He shared papers with me on the effects of the vaccine’s aluminum adjuvant in experimental animals.
Now it turns out that Bruce was one of several scientists the justice department turned its spotlight on, after Hatfill succeeded in not only getting them to leave him alone, but also pay him for destroying his (admittedly tawdry) reputation. Bruce was a gentle guy, the opposite of Hatfill. While Hatfill stirred up a cauldron of controversy, held press conferences and initiated many legal efforts (I was subpoenaed as a witness for his case against the New York Times), Bruce got depressed. Then killed himself, apparently.
Bruce wasn’t the anthrax perpetrator. First off, he had no motive. He didn’t need to direct money toward the bioterrorism effort, or increase interest in it. He had a very solid job, since he was the army’s top expert on anthrax vaccines. He didn’t move on to a better job in industry, unlike many of his colleagues at Fort Detrick, after the anthrax letters made bioterrorism a profitable industry.
Second, he had no access to dry, powdered anthrax, according to Fort Detrick spokespersons, who said that only liquid anthrax was used at the Fort Detrick facility in animal aerosolization experiments. If he had been making dry anthrax, it would have been detectable: because anthrax forms a protective spore, the bacteria contaminate the facilities where they are produced. A wet swab can then be used to remove them from surfaces for culture and identification. So if Bruce had made enough anthrax (at least 10-20 grams) to fill the letters, it would have been detectable and the strain would have matched that of the letters. It would not take 7 years to perform the forensics for this experiment, though it could take 7 months. His colleagues would have noted something amiss: half an ounce of dried anthrax requires a lot of fermentation and processing to prepare.
So, we have what appears to be a deliberately botched investigation of the anthrax letters case, and it is all going to end with the suicide of an ill and depressed scientist who lacked a motive and probably lacked access to powdered anthrax.
In my opinion anyway, this case is not closed. Here is a link to an article I wrote about this investigation in early 2002, to provide additional perspective, and a statement made by Bruce’s attorney:
Paul F. Kemp
August 1, 2008
For more than a year, we have been privileged to represent Dr. Bruce
Ivins during the
investigation of the anthrax deaths of September and October of 2001.
For six years, Dr.
Ivins fully cooperated with that investigation, assisting the
government in every way that
was asked of him. He was a world -renowned and highly decorated
scientist who served
his country for over 33 years with the Department of the Army. We are
saddened by his
death, and disappointed that we will not have the opportunity to
defend his good name
and reputation in a court of law. We assert his innocence in these
killings, and would
have established that at trial. The relentless pressure of accusation
and innuendo takes its
toll in different ways on different people, as has already been seen
in this investigation.
In Dr. Ivins’ case, it led to his untimely death. We ask that the
media respect the privacy
of his family, and allow them to grieve.