Saturday, January 18, 2020

Down the Memory Hole - The Anthrax Mailings

Anthrax letter addressed to Senator Tom Daschle
Anthrax is a killer disease caused by bacillus anthracis, a rare bacterium that lives in certain animal products & spreads in the air via spores.  It causes 4 main types of infection:  skin, inhalation, injection & intestinal.  In the wake of 9/11, the U.S. was hit with a largely forgotten string of anthrax attacks through the U.S. mail.  The kind of anthrax involved was the inhalation type.  It was a "dry" powder rather than the "wet" type, the former of which requires more refining & is harder to contain during preparation, making it much more deadly.  More on that later.

It was only after the death of suspect Bruce Edwards Ivins in 2008 that the FBI declared him the likely anthrax mailer of 2001.  They did so with certainty even though nearly everyone who knew, worked with & cared about Ivins expressed serious doubts about his guilt.  Legal experts also raised concern that the case against Ivins never would've gotten far in court due to all the reasonable doubt present.  Furthermore, the FBI's previous person of interest, Steven Hatfill, had quietly been cleared & paid a $5.8 million dollar settlement after being wrongly hounded by the agency & media for months.  Was Ivins a convenient scapegoat or active perpetrator?  Or maybe a smaller player in a bigger conspiracy?

About Bruce Ivins

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Bruce Edward Ivins

Bruce Ivins was born in 1946 to an unwilling mother who tried to abort him by throwing herself down the stairs, hitting her butt on every step on the way down.  She was cold & physically abusive at times, leading Bruce to become passive-aggressive with his emotions--particularly anger.  Like many troubled geniuses, Ivins was something of a "nutty professor" type but with a darker side that he hid quite well.  So well, in fact, that he had no trouble getting security clearance to work at the highest levels of the military with one of its most restricted bioweapons.  But then again, they never evaluated his psychiatric fitness in the first place back in 1980 when he was hired as a civilian microbiologist at Ft. Detrick.  In fact, he wasn't even banned from Army premises until July 17, 2008...less than 2 weeks before he committed suicide after a lengthy FBI investigation in the anthrax attacks.  
"When I get all steamed up, I don't pout.  I push Bruce Aside, then I'm free to run about!" 
(excerpt from a poem sent from Ivins to former colleague in December 2001)  

Bruce Ivins was successful as a scientist, husband & father with two adopted kids.  He lived in a nice neighborhood & was reasonably well-liked at work.  He enjoyed juggling & the TV show Survivor.  Yet he sought help from psychiatrists through the years for what he called "psychotic tendencies" & took a number of antidepressant & antipsychotic medications.  Dr. David Irwin, his psychiatrist in the late '90s, confided that Ivins was the "scariest patient" he had ever worked with.  Scarier yet, Ivins told his counselor in July 2000 that he'd planned to poison his former assistant Mara Linscott with cyanide, and that he'd previously procured ammonium nitrate to make a bomb.  Thankfully he never carried out these plots.  

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Ivins in his youth

And then there's his well-documented obsession with Princeton sorority Kappa Kappa Gamma and his related stalking of one of its members.  This went on for decades, even after he was married with kids.  He once broke into sorority headquarters & stole their cipher--a secret book of rules & codes that he recited to the members when invited in off the street one night.  They called the cops on him post haste.  All this went unnoticed by the military until the post-2001 investigation.

So Ivins was certainly good for a crime like this on paper.  He had access to the anthrax, a devious interest in poisons & punishing people, a documented psychiatric history & a record of stalking/harassment.  His violent, erratic behavior would only escalate after the FBI began investigating him.

Digging Deeper

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The evidence is suggestive but far from conclusive

But even if Bruce Ivins was "crazy" in general, what motive did he have to send anthrax through the mail?  The FBI's theory is that he was disgruntled about the failure of the anthrax vaccine, which had been blamed in part for causing Gulf War Syndrome by some veterans in the '90s & was being discontinued.  This was his baby; something he'd worked on for years to develop & now he was being told to switch his focus to some other germ, allegedly. 

But peers in the field say this is wrong--that Ivins actually stood to profit from his work on a new anthrax vaccine around the time of the 9/11 attacks.  All he needed was a big event to spark fears (and create a perceived demand) for the vaccine.  Perhaps this was it?  The FBI speculated that, since the anthrax letters instructed recipients to take antibiotics, the sender hadn't intended to actually kill anyone.  Rather, they just wanted to highlight the need for a preventative vaccine during an already safety-sensitive time.  Who better to do this than one of the co-inventors of the new anthrax vaccine?

There were a few holes with this theory, however. 

First, Ivins had no experience manufacturing dry anthrax.  None whatsoever.  His years in the lab were spent working with the "wet" variety which is much easier to handle & less likely to spread & contaminate others.  There were indeed no dead people or animals in the vicinity of Ivins' lab.  Secondly, the spores in the anthrax letter sent to Senator Daschle were tiny--1.5 to 3 micrometres across, many times smaller than the finest known grade produced by the Soviet or American bioweapons programs.  It also contained silicon, an anti-clumping additive, which suggests a high degree of sophistication.  The specialists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory were unable to duplicate this effect after 56 attempts.  That's significant.  

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Portion of the anthrax letter

One of the main accusations against Ivins was that he'd submitted a false set of anthrax samples to the FBI in 2002 as an attempt to throw them off his trail.  These samples didn't show the telltale genetic variants found in both the attack powder & Ivins' lab flask.  However, records obtained by ProPublica, Frontline & McClatchy show for the first time that this is not the case.  Ivins submitted at least THREE other samples after he supposedly tried to deceive investigators in April.  One of these was a match to the attack letter.  This debunks the charge that he was trying to cover his tracks.  Unfortunately, this information was kept from Ivins' lawyer Paul Kemp who was lead to believe his client had deceived the FBI.  How can an attorney defend against a claim he doesn't know isn't true?

There's also no evidence that Ivins made the trip to the mailbox from which the letter was sent.  (This mailbox was a relatively short distance from the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority headquarters).  Furthermore, the FBI lacked proof that Ivins had written the hateful letters meant to mimic Islamic terrorist threats.  There were also questions about the accuracy of the FBI's anthrax morph testers, which picked up conflicting results on the same test tube--one positive & the other negative.  

While Bruce Ivins still may have been involved in the anthrax attacks in some way, all of these flaws in the FBI's investigation would've been problematic in a court of law.  It's dubious for them to claim he would've been "convicted as the anthrax mailer--case closed" when their own evidence was so shaky & they'd already accused the wrong man (Hatfill) in such a public way.  While Ivins definitely had a dark past he deserved to be held accountable for, that doesn't prove he was responsible for the anthrax attacks.  There are a lot of creepy, unstable people walking among us--more than we'd like to imagine.  The percentage of them who go on to commit high-profile terrorist attacks is infinitesimally small.  

Mental Instability As Evidence

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Bruce Ivins in his latter years

The problem with using Ivins' mental instability to retroactively prove his guilt is, that very same instability could've been what drove him to crack under the pressure of a high-stakes FBI investigation with life or even death in prison as the outcome.  Even if he was innocent, the fear of being railroaded & having some of his unrelated dark secrets exposed by the agency could've been too much to bear.  (He claimed he liked to dress in women's clothes & engage in other "kinks" during one interrogation).  Someone with a loose grip on reality or schizotypal personality under that kind of stress could easily slip into paranoid delusions that cause them to say or do things that look suspicious independent of their actual innocence or guilt.  Imagine having your darkest secrets exposed to your kids, wife & co-workers.  The FBI doesn't play.  

Ivins allegedly made violent threats at a therapy group shortly before his suicide according to his therapist Jean Duley.  He also made a "confession" to sending the anthrax letters, claiming he never meant for anyone to die.  While that sounds damning, remember that false confessions are not rare by any means.  Most of his co-workers, friends & family do not support the idea that Bruce was the culprit of this brutal crime.  His funeral & obituary gave no hint of the investigation he was under; he was remembered fondly by those who knew him.  Fellow researcher Henry S. Heine compared accusing Ivins of the crime to "tracing a murder to a store clerk who sold bullets to the actual shooter" & claimed "none of the senior scientists [at the Army's biodefense lab] believed he was guilty".

There are a lot of questions & some residual anger at the FBI for what happened to Mr. Ivins.  He ended his life with a painful Tylenol overdose on July 29, 2008, after a previous suicide attempt shortly before.  The signs were all there:  this was a deeply troubled man who couldn't take the pressure of a lengthy federal investigation.  If they were going to apprehend him, they should've either shat or got off the pot rather than stalking & surveying him, digging through his garbage & interrogating him at work in front of peers.  That would be enough to cause even the most stable person severe distress.  

According to this creepy article, the FBI literally stalked the Ivins family for months:  

Ivins complained privately that FBI agents had offered his son, Andy, $2.5 million, plus “the sports car of his choice” late last year if he would turn over evidence implicating his father in the anthrax attacks, according to a former U.S. scientist who described himself as a friend of Ivins.

Ivins also said the FBI confronted Ivins’ daughter, Amanda, with photographs of victims of the anthrax attacks and told her, “This is what your father did,” according to the scientist, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because their conversation was confidential.
Ivins' co-workers weren't spared either.  One man was hounded until he "sat at his desk & wept."  Ask yourself:  Would this kind of treatment by one of the nation's most powerful agencies cause YOU to crack under pressure?  


In the years since 9/11, the deadly anthrax attacks seem to have disappeared down the memory hole for the most part.  But why?  If this lone nut truly acted alone, how culpable is the U.S. military for not bothering to do a mental health or background check before hiring him to work with such a deadly substance?  And what if he's NOT the only player in the attacks?  What if he wasn't involved at all?  

I think it's possible he was involved but did not act alone.  Maybe his samples were hijacked by someone with ill intent without his knowledge.  The sophistication of the materials suggests government involvement, just as the plutonium poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko did with the Russian government.  Perhaps that's why the anthrax mailings are buried in our collective consciousness & nearly lost to history--they'd rather we forget they ever happened.  

I suspect the attacks were used as yet another justification to go to war with Iraq/Afghanistan by implying they had "weapons of mass destruction" at a time when the country was already reeling from the plane hijackings.  In fact, it was claimed that the anthrax came from an Iraqi source at one point though this was roundly debunked.  The fact that it's the Ames strain & of such high quality proves it was made in a government lab most likely on American soil.  The only question is whether Bruce Edward Ivins was solely, partially or not at all responsible for its creation & mailing.  His conveniently timed death means we'll probably never know.             

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