Reviewing The Anthrax Evidence
“Based upon the totality of the evidence we had gathered against him, we are confident that Dr. Ivins was the only person responsible for these attacks.”
– Jeffrey Taylor, U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia
(August 6, 2008)
A little more than a month has passed since the FBI released its cache of evidence against Bruce E. Ivins, the Army microbiologist accused of planning and executing 2001’s anthrax attacks-by-mail. Over four hundred pages of warrants, affidavits, and lists of seized materials were made public in a document dump chockablock with details that ensure Ivins will be remembered forevermore as a mentally unstable and all-around bizarre character. The portrait of addiction, paranoia, and sociopathic conduct that has emerged over the past few weeks has convinced many that he was at least capable of perpetrating the attacks. Still: as persuasive as the circumstantial evidence might seem, the FBI’s case is devoid of solid proof that Bruce Ivins is solely—or even partially—responsible for the anthrax mailings. Not a single piece of truly damning evidence has yet been put forth, and what’s more, some of the more compelling evidentiary tidbits that have emerged fall apart under closer scrutiny.
The cornerstones of the case insofar as it has been presented to the public are as follows:
1) Painstaking DNA sequencing has traced the anthrax found in the letters to a single flask of anthrax (called RMR-1029) that was under Dr. Ivins’ custodianship.
2) Dr. Ivins exhibited an unusual pattern of night work in the weeks surrounding both the first and second rounds of anthrax mailings.
3) The “federal eagle” envelopes used in the mailings were from a batch sold only in post offices located in Maryland and Virginia; of the sixteen domestic labs in possession of RMR-1029, only Ivins’ lab at Fort Detrick was located in either of those two states.
4) The letters were mailed from a Princeton, New Jersey mailbox located near a storage facility for Kappa Kappa Gamma, a sorority with which Ivins was allegedly obsessed.
But, taking each point in turn, it becomes apparent that the trail does not lead as directly to Ivins’ door (or lab desk) as it might first appear:
1) Though Ivins was the custodian of the flask of RMR-1029, it has been reported that anywhere from 100 to 300 other researchers had access to it. RMR-1029 had been at Fort Detrick since 1997 and had previously been stored in a lab adjacent to Dr. Ivins’. Further, RMR-1029—like all anthrax at Fort Detrick—is liquid anthrax. The FBI has released no information whatsoever explaining how Dr. Ivins would have been able to dry and process the anthrax for mailing—a crucial omission considering that many members of the research community have expressed doubt that Ivins had either the knowledge or the capability to produce anthrax in the form and quantity used in the letters, especially without attracting the attention of his colleagues.
2) The odd pattern of extended night and weekend work in the lab’s “hot suite” in the days preceding the mailings is perhaps the most incriminating piece of circumstantial evidence asserted by the FBI. Several affidavits note that, at the time, Dr. Ivins’ work habits were “significantly different than those of the other researchers, in that he was frequently in Suite B3, where RMR-1029 was kept, late at night and on weekends when no other researchers were present,” and that, when questioned about those hours in March of 2005, he “could provide no legitimate reason” for them. Although this does look suspicious, without additional corroboration, it is simply not enough to sustain a conviction. (In an interview with NPR, Ivins’ attorney, Paul Kemp, contended that the night work “was characteristic of [Ivins’] long-time work patterns.”)
3) No “federal eagle” envelopes (or purchase receipts) were found in Ivins’ home or workspace. Neither saliva nor fingerprints were found on the envelopes used in the mailings, and Ivins’ handwriting was not cited as a match for the envelopes or the letters they contained. Without some additional forensic link to the envelopes in question, the fact that they were sold by post offices located in Maryland and Virginia (where, presumably, most of the other hundred or more researchers who had access to RMR-1029 also lived) is so tenuous a link as to be irrelevant.
4) There are no witnesses who can place Ivins in Princeton on the dates the mailings occurred, and there were no reported matches between Ivins and any of the human hairs recovered from the mailbox. Even more curiously, Ivins’ known schedule on September 17, 2001 seems to preclude the possibility that he could have made the trip to Princeton at a time that would correlate with the batch of letters that were postmarked September 18th. In the absence of authentic corroboration, investigators have instead relied on the strange fact that the Princeton chapter of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority maintained a storage facility in close proximity to the mailbox in question. In multiple affidavits, the FBI elaborately documents Ivins’ long-standing “fascination” with Kappa Kappa Gamma and asserts this “obsession” as a link to the location of the mailings. But the KKG storage facility in Princeton is just that: an office space used to store rush materials and other supplies: Kappa Kappa Gamma has no sorority house on campus. Putting aside reports that Ivins had never been in contact with the Princeton KKG chapter or any of its members—and that, according to Kemp, Ivins’ last known contact with any KKG chapter was in 1981—the citing of a storage space as a “link” is still quite a stretch, as far as indictments go.
The FBI’s confidence that the mountain of conjecture they’ve assembled signals the end of an investigation that slogged along fruitlessly for seven years—and was plagued by charges of bungling from the start—has provoked reactions ranging from skeptical reserve to outright conspiracy-mongering. At least some of that suspicion can be attributed to residual doubts about FBI competence in the wake of its spectacular failure to make a case against the first suspect in the investigation, Dr. Steven J. Hatfill1. The rest is due to the ramshackle nature of the case as it stands: despite the wealth of salacious details, the burden of proof has simply not been met.
The FBI’s disclosures also invite meta-questions about the way the investigation was conducted, including why, if Ivins’ guilt was all but assured, he maintained his high-level security clearance through July 10 of this year, and exactly how investigators came to be certain that Ivins was the sole perpetrator of the mailings. If the case against Ivins is built entirely on the anthrax spores themselves, the FBI must allow outside experts to independently verify the scientific data undergirding their conclusions before the case can be laid to rest.
And laid to rest it must be: the anthrax attacks, perpetrated on the heels of 9/11, were intimately associated with the destruction of the twin towers in the national psyche. Over the course of two months, twenty-two people were sickened, five of whom died. Americans were afraid to open their mailboxes. Ordinary citizens were stockpiling Cipro and discussing the merits of smallpox vaccination. There was a sense that the U.S. was under attack on all fronts. Before the anthrax investigation turned to our own biochemical establishment, media reports had linked the mailings to Iraq, which ratcheted up the nation’s panic level and galvanized public opinion in favor of a proactive military response (in fact, long after any ties between Iraq, Al-Qaida, anthrax, and the hijackings had been discounted, a relationship between them would remain firmly established in the minds of Americans). The identification of the culprit in the anthrax mailings is imperative to any decisive public reckoning with our recent history; more importantly, an understanding of all of the facts of the case would help to inform our response if America were unfortunate enough to encounter another such attack in the future. The FBI’s unequivocal declaration of Ivins’ guilt demonstrates an obvious awareness of the need for closure in this investigation—it’s just too bad we can’t be as sure as they are that the Ivins case is a slam dunk.
-Maria Robinson is a writer living in Northampton, MA. Her website can be found at maria-robinson.com.
The FBI pursued Hatfill relentlessly for six years, destroying his personal life and ruining his professional reputation. In June 2008, he received a settlement worth approximately five million dollars for violation of his privacy rights. At the time of the settlement, the Justice Department refused to exonerate him, stating that the DoJ “does not admit to any violation of the Privacy Act and continues to deny all liability in connection with Dr. Hatfill’s claims.” Hatfill was formally cleared of any wrongdoing on August 8, 2008, exactly one week after it was revealed that the FBI was preparing to file charges against Ivins.