Why The Post-9/11 Anthrax Attacks Are Still Unsolved

Microphotograph of a Gram stain the bacterium Bacillus anthracis which causes anthrax

Microphotograph of a Gram stain the bacterium Bacillus anthracis which causes anthrax

Edward Jay Epstein reviews some questions that remain worryingly unsolved concerning the anthrax attacks that followed 9/11, for the Wall Street Journal:

The investigation of the 2001 anthrax attacks ended as far as the public knew on July 29, 2008, with the death of Bruce Ivins, a senior biodefense researcher at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) in Fort Detrick, Md. The cause of death was an overdose of the painkiller Tylenol. No autopsy was performed, and there was no suicide note.

Less than a week after his apparent suicide, the FBI declared Ivins to have been the sole perpetrator of the 2001 Anthrax attacks, and the person who mailed deadly anthrax spores to NBC, the New York Post, and Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. These attacks killed five people, closed down a Senate office building, caused a national panic, and nearly paralyzed the postal system.

The FBI’s six-year investigation was the largest inquest in its history, involving 9,000 interviews, 6,000 subpoenas, and the examination of tens of thousands of photocopiers, typewriters, computers and mailboxes. Yet it failed to find a shred of evidence that identified the anthrax killer—or even a witness to the mailings. With the help of a task force of scientists, it found a flask of anthrax that closely matched—through its genetic markers—the anthrax used in the attack.

This flask had been in the custody of Ivins, who had published no fewer than 44 scientific papers over three decades as a microbiologist and who was working on developing vaccines against anthrax. As custodian, he provided samples of it to other scientists at Fort Detrick, the Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio, and other facilities involved in anthrax research.

According to the FBI’s reckoning, over 100 scientists had been given access to it. Any of these scientists (or their co-workers) could have stolen a minute quantity of this anthrax and, by mixing it into a media of water and nutrients, used it to grow enough spores to launch the anthrax attacks.

Consequently, Ivins, who was assisting the FBI with its investigation, as well as all the scientists who had access to the anthrax, became suspects in the investigation. They were intensely questioned, given polygraph examinations, and played off against one another in variations of the prisoner’s dilemma game. Their labs, computers, phones, homes and personal effects were scrutinized for possible clues.

As the so-called Amerithrax investigation proceeded, the FBI ran into frustrating dead ends, such as its relentless five-year pursuit of Steven Hatfill, which ended with an apology in 2007 and Mr. Hatfill receiving a $5.8 million settlement from the U.S. government as compensation. Another scientist, Perry Mikesell, became so stressed by the FBI’s games that he began to drink heavily and died of a heart attack in October 2002.

Eventually, the FBI zeroed in on Ivins. Not only did he have access to the anthrax, but FBI agents suspected he had subtly misled them into their Hatfill fiasco. A search of his email turned up pornography and bizarre emails which, though unrelated to anthrax, suggested that he was a deeply disturbed individual.

The FBI turned the pressure up on him, isolating him at work and forcing him to spend what little money he had on lawyers to defend himself. He became increasingly stressed. His therapist reported that Ivins seemed obsessed with the notion of revenge and even homicide. Then came his suicide (which, as Eric Nadler and Bob Coen show in their documentary “The Anthrax War,” was one of four suicides among American and British biowarfare researchers in past years). Since Ivins’s odd behavior closely fit the FBI’s profile of the mad scientist it had been hunting, his suicide provided an opportunity to close the case. So it held a congressional briefing in which it all but pronounced Ivins the anthrax killer.

But there was still a vexing problem—silicon…

[continues in the Wall Street Journal]

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