By Carrie Johnson, Carol D. Leonnig and Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 2, 2008
Authorities investigating the deadly 2001 anthrax mailings used previously unavailable techniques to trace the lethal powder to the office where scientist Bruce E. Ivins worked at the sprawling Army biodefense laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md., according to sources briefed on the investigation.
Investigators were so certain about the connection that they had scheduled a meeting for last Tuesday with Ivins's attorneys to discuss a plea bargain that would have sent the scientist to prison for life but spared him a death sentence, according to sources briefed on the government's case. But barely two hours before the meeting was to occur, Ivins died of an overdose of Tylenol that he had ingested over the weekend, the sources added. The death was ruled a suicide.
Ivins, 62, a prominent researcher of inhaled anthrax bacteria who had personally tested the lethal powder as part of the anthrax investigation, emerged in a news report yesterday as the latest focus of the seven-year search for a culprit. Five people were killed in the attacks and 17 others became ill.
But no sooner had the news broken than Paul F. Kemp, a Bethesda attorney who has represented Ivins for more than a year, declared that the FBI had the wrong man -- again. The bureau had spent years attempting to prove that Steven J. Hatfill, a researcher at the same laboratory, had committed the anthrax attacks before agreeing last month to a $5.8 million out-of-court settlement of his privacy lawsuit.
"We assert his innocence in these killings, and would have established that at trial," Kemp said in a statement yesterday.
The Justice Department, the FBI and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service issued a joint statement yesterday afternoon describing "substantial progress" in the investigation of the mailings to congressional and news media figures in September and October 2001.
They cited the use of "new and sophisticated scientific tools," but they did not name Ivins and they offered few details to support their claims. Search warrants and other materials that would shed light on Ivins's connection to the case remained under court seal.
What did become clear yesterday, however, was that in recent months, Ivins had come under scrutiny of FBI agents who watched his house, searched his office and interviewed co-workers about his access to anthrax powder and his increasingly odd behavior.
Federal officials say they are considering whether to close the investigation, a step that would allow them to fulfill their promise yesterday to "provide additional details in the near future" and a signal that they think that no one else is guilty in the attacks.
According to one source who received a limited briefing on the investigation, the FBI did not have solid evidence that would have directly linked Ivins to the attacks. Agents believed, however, that they could show that Ivins had ample access to the specific strain used.
But two sources familiar with the investigation contended that the case relied heavily on circumstantial evidence. While it narrowed the number of people with access to the anthrax bacteria, it could not eliminate even the researchers who shared his office.
Investigators obtained lab access records to determine Ivins's whereabouts when the spores were mailed, one source said, part of the effort by the "Amerithrax" task force that has included 75 searches and more than 9,000 interviews.
Federal agents had been looking at Ivins for perhaps the past two years, a government official said, interviewing people in the New York area and the District. They focused more intensely on Ivins after using genetic and forensic techniques to compare the properties of the anthrax bacteria in the letters with the bacteria used for research in labs nationwide, according to two sources briefed on the investigation.
Scientists working for the government matched the properties of anthrax powder in the letters to those of bacteria in a flask Ivins used in his laboratory, according to the government official and another source.
A complete picture of Ivins's thinking and what may have motivated his alleged involvement in the anthrax mailings remained unclear yesterday.
In March 2000, Ivins and other Army specialists filed to patent a method of making a genetically engineered anthrax vaccine. The patent was awarded in May 2002.
In the wake of the anthrax attacks, the U.S. government contracted with the California company VaxGen to manufacture 75 million doses of the vaccine at a total cost of $877 million. VaxGen's chief executive said his company was licensed to use the manufacturing method created by Ivins and the other Army specialists.
But the chief executive, James P. Panek, said in an interview last night that it would have been "very unusual" if Ivins and the other scientists had received a financial stake in the licensing deal.
Although it is common for scientists working for government laboratories and private corporations to apply for patents to protect inventions developed while on the job, it is relatively uncommon for those individuals to benefit personally from products developed and sold as a result of those patents.
Panek said that Ivins had no commercial arrangement with the firm.
VaxGen recently sold the vaccine to Emergent BioSolutions of Rockville for $2 million. The Los Angeles Times first reported on Ivins's patent in today's editions.
David R. Fowler, Maryland's chief medical examiner, said Ivins was admitted to Frederick Memorial Hospital early Sunday morning. He was pronounced dead at 10:47 a.m. Tuesday. The cause of death was listed as an overdose of acetaminophen, the active drug in Tylenol, which causes liver failure over several days. Fowler said that Ivins's death was ruled a suicide, based on doctors' reports, the condition of the body and recent events in his life.
"The relentless pressure of accusation and innuendo takes its toll in different ways on different people, as has already been seen in this investigation," Kemp said. "In Dr. Ivins's case, it led to his untimely death. We ask that the media respect the privacy of his family, and allow them to grieve."
Federal officials said they needed to share information with the survivors of the anthrax attacks and with the families of those who were killed. They also must navigate sensitive grand jury and legal considerations before they can speak freely about the case, a step that could take several days.
But just as fresh in investigators' minds was the need for precaution following the government's huge settlement with Hatfill.
Federal prosecutors even approached Hatfill as they advanced on his former Fort Detrick colleague, seeking assurances that he would cooperate with the government despite years of hard feelings, according to a source familiar with those discussions. Thomas Connolly, an attorney for Hatfill, declined to comment yesterday until the FBI could brief the victims' families.
Fort Detrick, located 50 miles north of Washington, has been a focus of Justice Department and FBI investigators since the anthrax bacteria killed two postal workers at the District's Brentwood Road facility, a Florida photographer, an elderly woman in Connecticut and a New York hospital worker.
For the past several months, a grand jury had been hearing testimony from scientists who worked alongside Ivins at Fort Detrick, researching inhaled anthrax spores, according to a report in yesterday's editions of the Los Angeles Times, which first linked Ivins to the investigation.
Kemp said Ivins had cooperated with investigators for the past six years and was a "world-renowned and highly decorated scientist who served his country for over 33 years with the Department of the Army."
The mailings to then-Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), network television offices in New York and the company that owns the National Enquirer terrorized the nation and disrupted correspondence.
A spokesman for Leahy said the senator would have no comment on the developments.
Daschle said in an e-mail that "the FBI owes it to the country to provide some accounting of their investigation and their expectations for a successful conclusion."
President Bush "was aware there had been developments" in the anthrax investigation, according to White House press secretary Dana Perino. But she declined to comment about the reports of Ivins's suicide, and whether there was any connection to the anthrax probe.
National security experts said they have long suspected the anthrax outbreak could be traced to the country's own biodefense program because of the nature of the spores and the way the letters had been prepared.
Elisa D. Harris, a member of the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, said Ivins's death leaves many important questions that now may never be answered. She said it is critical to identify where the material was acquired, whether security measures at U.S. facilities lapsed, where the anthrax was processed, and whether more than one person was involved.
"I certainly hope the FBI doesn't say 'case solved' and put this on a shelf," said Harris, who is now the pathogens project coordinator at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland. "The answers to these questions fundamentally affect how we proceed in the future to prevent an insider from using material from a program like this for hostile purposes."
Staff writers Josh White, Nelson Hernandez, Aaron Davis, Dan Eggen, Mary Beth Sheridan, Spencer S. Hsu, Paul Kane, Michael S. Rosenwald and Marilyn W. Thompson and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.