The Anthrax Files
Seven years after the anthrax attacks shut down Congress, sowed panic nationwide, killed five, sickened 17, and allowed neocon propagandists to variously blame al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, the FBI claims to have gotten its man. But the official story doesn’t fully accord with the facts. Any reasonable assessment of the evidence suggests that the same powerful interests that might have been served by prolonging the investigation would have had a stake in finally bringing it to a tidy conclusion. That doesn’t mean that the killer was caught.
The acknowledged certainty is that the anthrax letters weren’t the work of Islamists or Iraqis. The attacks were perpetrated by someone with high-level access to U.S. government supplies of the deadly bacteria. Ground zero of the investigation has long been the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, Maryland. But the lab had dropped from the headlines until recently, much as the FBI had seemingly allowed its investigation to languish.
The first week of August, the popular press got back in the game, reporting the apparent suicide of USAMRIID scientist Bruce E. Ivins, alleged to be the sole operator behind the anthrax letters. The Associated Press reported that Ivins, who is said to have killed himself on July 29 with an overdose of prescription Tylenol mixed with codeine, was “one of the government’s leading scientists researching vaccines and cures for anthrax exposure.” According to the AP, he was “brilliant but troubled.” His lawyer, Paul Kemp, says that Ivins passed a pair of polygraph tests and that the grand jury investigating the case was weeks from returning an indictment. Yet within days of his death, the bureau announced that it was beginning the shutdown of its “Amerithrax” investigation. “Anthrax Case a Wrap,” blared theDaily News on Aug. 4.
In April, it was reported that the FBI had been focusing on as many as four suspects. Fox News identified them as a “former deputy commander,” presumably in the U.S. Army, a “leading anthrax scientist,” and “a microbiologist.” The fourth suspect was given no description. Now the bureau is “confident that Dr. Ivins was the only person responsible for these attacks,” according to the assurances of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia.
The Ivins news came close on the heels of a far quieter announcement on June 27 that the FBI’s investigation of the previous top anthrax suspect, Steven Hatfill, also a USAMRIID bioresearcher, ended not with a trial and conviction but with a $5.8 million settlement effectively admitting that the bureau had the wrong guy. Hatfill had been hounded by investigators for three years, his career and reputation ruined.
Ivins was subjected to similar treatment. According to the AP, he complained to friends that agents had “stalked” him and his family. They offered his son $2.5 million and “a sports car of his choice” to rat out his father. They approached his hospitalized daughter to turn evidence on him, plying her at bedside with pictures of the murdered anthrax victims and telling her, “This is what your father did.” W. Russell Byrne, Ivins’s supervisor at USAMRIID, told the AP that Ivins, 62, was emotionally broken by the FBI’s behavior: “One person said he’d sit at his desk and weep.”
Francis Boyle, a professor of law at the University of Illinois who drafted the 1989 Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act signed by President George H.W. Bush, advised the FBI in its initial investigation of the anthrax letters. Along with several other American bioweapons experts—among them Jonathan King, professor of molecular biology at MIT, and Barbara Rosenberg, who studied biowarfare with the Federation of American Scientists—Boyle warned early on that the spores issued from inside a U.S. research operation, possibly one that was classified. He provided the FBI with lists ofÂ scientists, contractors, and laboratories that had worked on anthrax projects, but he is skeptical of Ivins as the lone killer: “The Feds pursued the same strategy against Ivins as they did against Hatfill—persecute him until he broke, which Ivins did and Hatfill did not. Dead men tell no tales.”
Ivins, says Boyle, just doesn’t fit the bill. “It does not appear that he had the technological sophistication to manufacture this super weapons-grade anthrax, which would have included aerosolization, silicon coating, and an electrostatic charge.” Jeffrey Adamovicz, who directed the bacteriology division at Fort Detrick in 2003 and 2004, told McClatchy that the anthrax mailed to Sen. Tom Daschle was “so concentrated and so consistent and so clean that I would assert that Bruce could not have done that part.”
Following the release of the FBI’s public case against Ivins, the New York Times editorialized that “there is no direct evidence of his guilt” and decried the “lack of hard, incontrovertible proof.” The Washington Post called the case “admittedly circumstantial.” Investigators failed to place Ivins in New Jersey on the dates in September and October 2001 when the letters were reportedly mailed from a Princeton location. They swabbed his residence, locker, several cars, the tools in his laboratory, and his office space, but found no trace of anthrax that genetically matched the bacteria in the letters. Indeed, some of the evidence—all circumstantial, none forensic—was downright laughable. Ivins at one time maintained a mailbox under an assumed name where he received pornographic magazines. He had once been “obsessed” with a Princeton sorority because of a failed college romance, and the Princeton mailbox where one of the letters originated was located within 100 yards of a storage facility used by the sorority—in a location Ivins apparently last visited 27 years ago. He drank. He made homicidal statements to a mental-health support group. He wrote rambling letters to the editor of his local paper. How any of this motivated Bruce Ivins to kill fellow Americans with a bioweapon is not established.
Moreover, his former colleagues have repeatedly told the media that, as far as they are aware, Ivins didn’t know how to weaponize anthrax. He was a vaccine specialist, not a weaponizer. The assumption is thatÂ Ivins kept his weaponizing skills secret from his coworkers. But how did he learn those skills? Perhaps colleagues at Ft. Detrick provided the help in casual conversation. Yet there’s not the slightest indication that during his years at Ft. Detrick Ivins even once asked fellow scientists about weaponizing techniques.
Nor is it clear why Ivins—a registered Democrat—would single out Sens. Patrick Leahy and Tom Daschle to receive lethal letters. Interestingly, both had been critical impediments to passage of the Patriot Act. The first wave of anthrax mail, sent Sept. 18, 2001, targeted major media; the second round, posted Oct. 9, went to Congress. On Oct. 25, amid widespread panic, the act passed. Yet it is improbable that a mad scientist would specialize in such targeted political activity—or that he personally benefited from the repercussions. Many others did, however.
“In the absence of the anthrax attacks, 9/11 could easily have been perceived as a single, isolated event,” Salon’s Glenn Greenwald writes. “It was really the anthrax letters that severely ratcheted up the fear levels and created the climate that would dominate in this country for the next several years â�¦ that created the impression that social order itself was genuinely threatened by Islamic radicalism.”
By Oct. 28, ABC was reporting, “four well-placed and separate sources have told ABC News that initial tests on the anthrax by the U.S. Army at Fort Detrick, Maryland, have detected trace amounts of the chemical additives bentonite and silica”—bentonite being a hallmark of the Iraqi weapons program. (In 2007, ABC admitted that no bentonite was ever detected but refused to unmask its sources.) “Some are going to be quick to pick up on this as a smoking gun,” Peter Jennings said at the time.
The administration’s acolytes did not disappoint. William Kristol and Robert Kagan complained, “What will it take for the FBI and the CIA to start connecting the dots here? A signed confession from Saddam?” “The leading supplier suspect has to be Iraq,” the Wall Street Journal opined, “The government has to do everything possible to destroy the anthrax threat at its state-sponsored source.” Added Laurie Mylroie in National Review, “Iraqi intelligence was intimately involved in the 9/11 attacks and [the] military grade anthrax sent to Senators Leahy and Daschle almost certainly came from an Iraqi lab.” As late as 2007, long after it became apparent that the anthrax was homegrown, outlets like Fox News continued to insist on a Middle Eastern link.
Those making the case for war in Iraq and seeking to advance the administration’s domestic security agenda had good reason to resist a swift resolution to the case—especially one involving an American perpetrator. Whether by suggestion or as a result of its own incompetence, the FBI obliged.
As early as November 2001, the New York Times was reporting that the bureau’s “missteps” were “hampering the inquiry.” Indeed, from the beginning, the FBI has been in possession of a key piece of evidence that it apparently ignored.
Among the first suspects to come into the FBI’s sights was an Egyptian-born ex-USAMRIID biologist named Ayaad Assaad. He appeared on the radar because of an anonymous letter sent to the bureau identifying him as part of a terrorist cell possibly linked to the anthrax attacks. Yet, according to theHartford Courant, the FBI did not attempt to track down the author of the letter, “despite its curious timing, coming a matter of days before the existence of anthrax-laced mail became known.”
Assaad was quickly exonerated by FBI investigators, and the matter swiftly dropped—though the letter may have provided the best piece of evidence in the case. It was sent prior to the arrival of the anthrax letters, suggesting foreknowledge of the attacks, and its language was similar to that of the deadly mail. Moreover, it displayed an intimate knowledge of USAMRIID operations, suggesting that it came from within the limited ranks of Fort Detrick researchers —a relatively small group with access to and expertise in weaponized anthrax.
The FBI has refused to make a copy of the letter publicly available—or even to give one to Assaad himself. It did, however, share the contents with a Vassar College professor and language forensics expert named Don Foster, who famously fingered Joe Klein as the anonymous author behind Primary Colors and helped to catch the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bomber. After reading news reports, he requested a copy of the letter, and, following his review of documents written by “some 40 USAMRIID employees,” Foster “found writings by a female officer that looked like a perfect match,” according to an article he authored in the October 2003 Vanity Fair. When he brought this seemingly crucial clue to the attention of the FBI’s anthrax task force, however, the bureau declined to follow up. According to Foster, the senior FBI agent on the case had never even heard of the Assaad letter. (For the record, Foster isn’t an unimpeachable source. He strayed from his area of professional expertise and published unrelated circumstantial evidence in his Vanity Fair piece that wrongly fingered Hatfill, who sued the magazine, which settled on undisclosed terms.)
“The letter-writer clearly knew my entire background, my training in both chemical and biological agents, my security clearance, what floor I work on, that I have two sons, what train I take to work, and where I live,” Assaad told reporter Laura Rozen. Since he was almost immediately cleared, attempting to frame him served no purpose, except to indulge a personal enmity. To that end, Assaad suggested that the FBI question the pair of USAMRIID colleagues most likely to carry a grudge against him, Marian Rippy and Philip Zack, who years earlier had been reprimanded for sending Assad a racist poem. Though the Courant reported video evidence of Zack making after-hours trips to labs where pathogens were stored, there is no record of the FBI ever investigating him or Rippy, a colleague with whom he was having an extramarital affair.
The FBI’s failures don’t end there. The anthrax used in the terror attacks has been identified as similar to strains held at laboratories in Ames, Iowa. The Ames database, maintained and overseen by Iowa State University, was a comprehensive culture collection of some 100 vials gathered since 1928. It listed all parties, agencies, and labsÂ thatÂ acquired its anthrax strains.Â When researchers, fearful of terrorists breaching the lab, offered to destroy the anthrax cultures, the FBI did not object. “This was an astonishing thing to do,” Francis Boyle tells me. “It should have been preserved as evidence. This was a roadmap of everybody and anybody that had gotten access to develop the super-strain that hit Leahy and Daschle.”
Questions about the Ames database point to a bigger concern: where was the weapons-grade anthrax in the letters produced? If the FBI had an airtight case that the anthrax killer worked at Ft. Detrick—thanks to new DNA techniques supposedly linking the spores to that lab—surely the Assaad letter would be a key piece of evidence in the case against Ivins. At the very least it would have to be explained away rather than ignored.
Another possibility is that the attacks didn’t originate at USAMRIID at all, and the FBI has once again accused an innocent man. Ironically, it was Ivins who, among other investigators, was initially tasked by the FBI with analyzing the anthrax in the letters. Dr. Gerry Andrews, a professor of microbiology at the University of Wyoming and former colleague of Ivins at Ft. Detrick, wrote in the New York Times, “When [Ivins’s] team analyzed the powder, they found it to be a startlingly refined weapons-grade anthrax spore preparation, the likes of which had never been seen before by personnel at Fort Detrick.” Granted, Andrews has an interest in exonerating his former lab, but he goes on to make an astonishing allegation: “It is extremely improbable that this type of preparation could ever have been produced at Fort Detrick, certainly not of the grade and quality found in that envelope.”
If the scientists at Fort Detrick did not have the capacity to produce this kind of anthrax, who did? Boyle suggests an answer in his book, Biowarfare and Terrorism. He alleges that the evidence in the anthrax spores, if properly pursued, would have “led directly back to a secret but officially sponsored U.S. government biowarfare program that was illegal and criminal, in violation of [the] Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989.” This might be easily dismissed as conspiracy theory except that a source no less reputable than the New York Times published a similar charge on Sept. 4, 2001: “the United States has embarked on a program of secret research on biological weapons that, some officials say, tests the limits of the global treaty banning such weapons. â�¦ earlier this year, administration officials said, the Pentagon drew up plans to engineer genetically a potentially more potent variant of the bacterium that causes anthrax.”
Boyle suggests possible perps: the Pentagon, the CIA, or perhaps private sector scientists acting under covert contract with the government. According to a 2002 BBC report, the CIA may indeed have been investigating “methods of sending anthrax through the mail which went madly out of control.” “The shocking assertion,” offered the BBC, “is that a key member of the covert operation may have removed, refined and eventually posted weapons-grade anthrax.” Boyle theorizes that the FBI’s investigation was purposely bungled as part of a cover-up. He argues that the legal process ensuing from a thorough investigation “would, in a court of law, directly implicate the United States government, its agencies, its officials, and its agents, in conducting illegal and criminal biowarfare research.”
But if such a program exists, why would anyone associated with it risk exposure by sending crude anthrax letters? Perhaps for the oldest motive in the world: money. In the wake of the postal terror, biowarfare funding under the rubric of “biodefense” received a major shot in the arm. By a vote of 99-0, the Senate passed the BioShield Act of 2004, which, on top of $22 billion for civilian biowarfare-related “defense work” funded between 2001 and 2005, allocates $5.6 billion through 2014 “to purchase and stockpile vaccines and drugs to fight anthrax, smallpox, and other potential agents of bioterror.” Critics claim that BioShield is a form of covert offensive biowarfare planning.
Such research could come at a high price—beyond the billions Congress readily rubber-stamped. “The bioterror programs are far more likely to generate new risks to public health, rather than to provide additional protections,” MIT microbiologist Jonathan King says. Programs such as BioShield are “also generating a network of small and large companies planning to profit.”
Hillel W. Cohen, associate professor of epidemiology and population health at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, offers a similar assessment. “Before 2001, some of us in public health described bioterrorism as an exaggerated threat,” Cohen says. “No one had ever died from bioterrorism, and we warned that the proliferation of laboratories studying anthrax and other biological weapons agents was a terrible mistake, diverting money from real health needs and dangerously multiplying the number of people with access. After the 2001 anthrax letters, our warnings were buried in an avalanche of fear-mongering.” Today, Cohen says, “billions are being spent to support many more such labs.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley is calling for a Congressional investigation, but we may never know the identity of the anthrax killer. Was it the uninvestigated Ft. Detrick letter-writer with compelling foreknowledge? The dead scientist the FBI initially asked to investigate the attacks then later turned against? Or some other individual or group, with access to high-grade strains, who stood to benefit from a bioterror scare? We know who didn’t put anthrax in the mail: Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden. Beyond that, all we know is that the FBI’s conduct—whether by bureaucratic bungling or some kind of cover-up—makes it unlikely this case will ever be definitively closed.
Christopher Ketcham writes for Vanity Fair, GQ, Harper’s and many other magazines.