When Death Is Hand Delivered


September 18, 2011

by 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 institute.

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 anthrax.

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 $5.82 million.

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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