When Death Is Hand Delivered
September 18, 2011
Edward Jay Epstein
Biological warfare came
to America soon after the 9/11 attack. In Florida, a photo
editor died of inhalation anthrax. At the time it was thought
to be an isolated incident. But then anthrax was found in
New York in the newsrooms of NBC and the New York Post, together
with letters dated “09-11-2001" and warning: “Death
to America Death to Israel Allah Is Great.” These were
followed by anthrax-laced letters, with a similar message,
sent to Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee,
and Majority Leader Tom Daschle. The clouds of trillions of
spores closed down Congress. In all, five people died from
the killer anthrax, and more than a dozen required treatment.
It was quickly established that all the anthrax was from the
deadly Ames strain. All the envelopes carried the same Trenton,
N.J., postmark, but the FBI had little else to go on. There
were no fingerprints, fibers or DNA traces on the envelopes,
on the tape used to seal them or on the photocopied letters
inside. After testing every mailbox that used that postmark,
the FBI found one in Princeton, N.J., that tested positive;
investigators found no witnesses to the mailings. Though the
FBI eventually identified a few suspects and ultimately insisted
that it had found its man, no one was ever prosecuted.
Now two excellent books give a thorough chronicle of the anthrax
terror campaign and try to clarify what happened. “American
Anthrax” is Jeanne Guillemin’s brilliant examination
of how America responded, while David Willman’s “The
Mirage Man” focuses more tightly on the FBI investigation,
exposing the inner workings of one of most extensive efforts
in the bureau’ s history.
The only lead was the killer anthrax itself. The FBI team
narrowed its probable source to three facilities: the U.S.
Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in
Maryland; the Battelle Memorial Institute in Ohio; and the
Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.
One early suspect was microbiologist Perry Mikesell, who had
worked in 1999 at Battelle. Under the pressure of the FBI’
s scrutiny, he drank heavily and had a fatal heart attack
in October 2002. According to family members, he had drunk
himself to death. Next, the FBI suspected Steven Hatfill,
a virologist who had worked in 1999 at the U.S. Army Medical
Research Institute. Finally, five years later after the FBI
gave up on its flimsy Hatfill suspicions the investigation
started to focus on Bruce Ivins, a microbiologist at the same
Ivins had passed his polygraph exam, but he had been targeted
by a DNA tool developed for the investigation by the Institute
for Genomic Research. It used the DNA of minute changes in
the spores as “genetic fingerprints.” Among the
anthrax samples collected from different labs, only one matched
the “fingerprints” of the killer anthrax in the
letters. It was from flask RMR-1029 in Ivins’s lab.
This anthrax had been created in 1997 at the Dugway Proving
Grounds and sent to Ivins for tests.
The FBI considered all the other scientists whom Ivins had
given access to RMR-1029, then eliminated them as suspects
for one of three reasons: They had not worked solo in their
labs and thus lacked the privacy needed to process the wet
spores into dry powder; they lacked the skills to do the job;
or they were too far away to mail the letters in Princeton.
Through this process of elimination, the FBI arrived at Ivins,
who worked alone in his lab, had the skills and could have
driven the nine-hour round trip to from Frederick, Md., to
Princeton and back.
In 2007, the FBI interrogated Ivins. It also searched his
home, computer, car and personal effects and offered his grown
children a $2.5 million reward if they provided evidence against
their father. Meanwhile his security clearance was withdrawn,
barring him from work. The intensive search came up with no
evidence linking him to the killer anthrax, but it uncovered
embarrassing evidence of pornography use and Web aliases.
As the pressure continued, and legal fees threatened to bankrupt
him, he drank heavily, took prescription antidepression drugs,
behaved erratically and had a mental breakdown.
Finally, his life a shambles, on July 29, 2008, Ivins killed
himself with a Tylenol overdose. Though he was never charged
with a crime or brought before a grand jury, the FBI identified
him as the anthrax killer. To validate the science it had
used to narrow the search, it contracted with the prestigious
National Academy of Science to conduct an independent assessment
of its methods. It took until this February for the assessment
to be completed. The result was not what the FBI expected.
The report concluded that the FBI’s key assertion ”that
its genetic fingerprinting showed that the killer anthrax
could have only come from the flask in Ivins’ ”was
flawed.” “The scientific data alone do not support
the strength of the government’s repeated assertions
that “RMR-1029 was conclusively identified as the parent
material to the anthrax powder used in the mailings,”
the report stated. “It is not possible to reach a definitive
conclusion about the origins of the B. anthracis in the mailings
based on the available scientific evidence alone.” Without
a scientific basis for tracing the killer anthrax to Ivins’
lab, the FBI’s case against him was reduced to inferences
from his odd behavior.
Ms. Guillemin’s “American Anthrax” benefits
from her experience, as a fellow in the Security Studies Program
at MIT, interviewing survivors of the 1979 accidental anthrax
contamination of the population of Sverdlovsk, Russia. She
obviously knows a great deal about how an anthrax crisis unfolds.
Ms. Guillemin is particularly insightful in making the case
that during the 2001 crisis in the U.S. some biodefense experts
exploited public (and government) ignorance about anthrax
to push their own causes.
She also explains that some early confusion proceeded from
different bio-scientists seeing different things through microscopes.
Two scientists from the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute
of Infectious Diseases discerned in the spores a “goop”
that might be bentonite, an additive once used by Iraq to
weaponize its anthrax. When this finding leaked to ABC News,
it morphed into stories placing Iraq behind the attack. Then,
according to Ms. Guillemin, two other scientists, using powerful
electronic, determined that there was no bentonite in the
To be sure, Ms. Guillemin is not without her own political
agenda. She is concerned that hawks will exaggerate bioweapon
fears to justify wars. In the case of bentonite, however,
it was the media that ran amok, not the Bush White House,
which steadfastly denied that the additive was ever detected.
While Ms. Guillemin tends to play down the possibility that
anyone beyond our shores was involved (hence the title “American
Anthrax” ”she is scrupulous when it comes to evidence
and omits nothing of relevance. Her ability to elicit information
from her interview subjects is a model for journalistic investigation.
This is a spellbinding, chilling book.
In “The Mirage Man” David Willman, a Pulitzer
Prize-winning reporter for the Los Angeles Times, provides
similarly impressive reportage. He reveals how FBI bureaucratic
inertia kept the bureau pursuing an innocent man, Stephen
Hatfill, for five years. As the author shows, the entire Hatfill
case was built on inferences drawn from suspicious behavior:
The scientist had shown signs of stress on a polygraph exam
when applying for a security clearance; he had taken the antibiotic
Cipro shortly before the killer anthrax was mailed; he had
written the novel “Emergence” about a biowarfare
attack; and he had drawn the attention of a bloodhound trained
to react to traces of anthrax.
So began the FBI campaign to crack him. After local TV reporters
were alerted, FBI agents in photogenic moon suits descended
on his home. Surveillance cars followed him so closely that
one ran over his foot. The federally funded institute where
he worked fired him, and he was informed that he would likely
be prosecuted on technical infractions unrelated to the anthrax.
Isolated from colleagues, he began drinking heavily, but instead
of breaking he sued the government. In August 2008, a federal
judge expressed outrage that the FBI had pursued him for so
long without a “scintilla of evidence” leading
the Justice Department to exonerate Mr. Hatfill and pay him
This injustice was made even worse, as Mr. Willman shows,
by the ways in which the media, fed by leaks from FBI files,
created myths about Mr. Hatfill that made him a pariah. The
author tells how New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof
published damaging fictions about the scientist based on tips
from interested parties. Of course, in such cases, journalists
are only as good as their sources.
The only fault I find with “The Mirage Man” is
that it does not take sufficient account of the National Academy
of Science report. Consider, for example, its revelation that
the killer anthrax in the New York Post letter had a silicon
content, “10 percent by mass.” Ivins’ anthrax
had no Silicon. Willman suggests it could have come naturally
from “the broth like culture medium” in which
the anthrax was presumably grown. Maybe so. But when the FBI
attempted to test this theory by having the Lawrence Livermore
National lab grow anthrax in broth laced with silicon, 56
times, it failed to match to the silicon signature. Many results
were a whole order of magnitude lower, with some as low as
.001%. The FBI had other labs attempts to reverse engineer
the killer anthrax, but the closest it came to the silicon
signature was in some results from Dugway Proving Grounds.
This Army lab had been making dry Ames anthrax since the late
1990s to test detectors. And employed a multi-stage process
to mill it with a “silica-based flow enhancer. “
Not only did Dugway anthrax have a silicon signature, but
the NAS panel concluded in 2011 that the killer anthrax in
the letters could have easily come from Dugway as Ivin’s
lab. So it is at least possible that someone at Dugway stole
a minute ampule of anthrax any time after 1997 and, like any
classic espionage operation, delivered to another party, foreign
or domestic, who used it in September 2001.
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When Death Is Hand Delivered
September 18, 2011
Edward Jay Epstein