By Joby Warrick, Marilyn W. Thompson and Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 3, 2008
For nearly seven years, scientist Bruce E. Ivins and a small circle of fellow anthrax specialists at Fort Detrick's Army medical lab lived in a curious limbo: They served as occasional consultants for the FBI in the investigation of the deadly 2001 anthrax attacks, yet they were all potential suspects.
Over lunch in the bacteriology division, nervous scientists would share stories about their latest unpleasant encounters with the FBI and ponder whether they should hire criminal defense lawyers, according to one of Ivins's former supervisors. In tactics that the researchers considered heavy-handed and often threatening, they were interviewed and polygraphed as early as 2002, and reinterviewed numerous times. Their labs were searched, and their computers and equipment carted away.
The FBI eventually focused on Ivins, whom federal prosecutors were planning to indict when he committed suicide last week. In interviews yesterday, knowledgeable officials asserted that Ivins had the skills and access to equipment needed to turn anthrax bacteria into an ultra-fine powder that could be used as a lethal weapon. Court documents and tapes also reveal a therapist's deep concern that Ivins, 62, was homicidal and obsessed with the notion of revenge.
Yet, colleagues and friends of the vaccine specialist remained convinced that Ivins was innocent: They contended that he had neither the motive nor the means to create the fine, lethal powder that was sent by mail to news outlets and congressional offices in the late summer and fall of 2001. Mindful of previous FBI mistakes in fingering others in the case, many are deeply skeptical that the bureau has gotten it right this time.
"I really don't think he's the guy. I say to the FBI, 'Show me your evidence,' " said Jeffrey J. Adamovicz, former director of the bacteriology division at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID, on the grounds of the sprawling Army fort in Frederick. "A lot of the tactics they used were designed to isolate him from his support. The FBI just continued to push his buttons."
Investigators are so confident of Ivins's involvement that they have been debating since Friday whether and how to close the seven-year-old anthrax investigation. That would involve disbanding a grand jury in the District and unsealing scores of documents that form the basis of the government's case against Ivins.
Negotiations over the legal issues continue, but a government source said that the probe could be shuttered as early as tomorrow. The move would amount to a strong signal that the FBI and Justice Department think they got their man -- and that he is dead, foreclosing the possibility of a prosecution. No charges are likely against others, that source added.
Once the case is closed, the FBI and Justice Department will face questions -- and possibly public hearings -- from congressional oversight committees, which have been largely shut out of the case the past five years. The investigators have cited the ongoing nature of the case, as well as accusations of leaks to the media, for the information blackout to Capitol Hill.
One bioweapons expert familiar with the FBI investigation said Ivins indeed possessed the skills needed to create the dust-fine powder used in the attacks. At the Army lab where he worked, Ivins specialized in making sophisticated preparations of anthrax bacteria spores for use in animal tests, said the expert, who requested anonymity because the investigation remains active.
Ivins's daily routine included the use of processes and equipment the anthrax terrorist likely used in making his weapons. He also is known to have had ready access to the specific strain of Bacillus anthracis used in the attack -- a strain found to match samples found in Ivins's lab, he said.
"You could make it in a week," the expert said. "And you could leave USAMRIID with nothing more than a couple of vials. Bear in mind, they weren't exactly doing body searches of scientists back then."
But others, including former colleagues and scientists with backgrounds in biological weapons defense, disagreed that Ivins could have created the anthrax powder, even if he were motivated to do so.
"USAMRIID doesn't deal with powdered anthrax," said Richard O. Spertzel, a former biodefense scientist who worked with Ivins at the Army lab. "I don't think there's anyone there who would have the foggiest idea how to do it. You would need to have the opportunity, the capability and the motivation, and he didn't possess any of those."
Another scientist who worked with Ivins acknowledged it would have been technically possible to manufacture powdered anthrax at Fort Detrick, but unlikely that anyone could have done so without being detected.
"As well as we knew each other, and the way the labs were run, someone would discover what was going on," said the scientist, "especially since dry spores were not something that we prepared or worked with."
Scientists, co-workers and people who for years have researched the anthrax investigation, only to encounter frustration, misinformation and false leads, say law enforcement authorities should lay out their case as soon as possible. They want authorities to explain how Ivins, who led a seemingly normal life as a family man, churchgoer and volunteer, could have been responsible for one of the nation's most notorious unsolved crimes.
Authorities cast doubt yesterday on reports that Ivins had acted for financial gain based on patents and scientific advances he had made. Experiments by Ivins, working with several other Fort Detrick colleagues, led to two patented inventions considered crucial in the development of a genetically modified anthrax vaccine made by VaxGen, a California company that secured large government contracts after the 2001 anthrax attacks.
But sources familiar with details of the Army's patent process said it was unlikely that Ivins or the other scientists would reap a big financial windfall from VaxGen's vaccine production. They say the government restricts income from inventions produced in its laboratories to no more than $150,000 per year, but the amount is often considerably less.
Jaye Holly, who lived next door to the Ivinses until she and her husband moved to New York a month ago, said she couldn't believe that her former neighbor, who was obsessed with grass recycling and who happily drove a 20-year-old faded red van, would endanger others for financial gain.
"I can't imagine him being involved in a scheme to make money or to make a profit, especially one that would put people at risk or even die," Holly said. "That's not the Bruce we knew. He was sweet, friendly. I mean, he was into grass recycling."
Court records obtained yesterday shed further light on the concerns of a mental health professional who met Ivins during his final months -- a period when, friends say, he fell into depression under the strain of constant FBI scrutiny. The records also suggest that a Frederick social worker, Jean Duley, passed on her concerns to the FBI after receiving death threats from Ivins.
Duley became so worried that she petitioned a local judge for a protective order against Ivins. According to an audio recording of the hearing, she said she had seen Ivins as a therapist for six months, and thought he had tried to kill people in the past.
"As far back as the year 2000, [Ivins] has actually attempted to murder several other people, [including] through poisoning," she said "He is a revenge killer, when he feels that he's been slighted . . . especially towards women. He plots and actually tries to carry out revenge killings," she told a judge.
She described a July 9 group therapy session in which Ivins allegedly talked of mass murder.
"He was extremely agitated, out of control," she said. Ivins told the group he had bought a gun, and proceeded to lay out a "long and detailed homicidal plan," she said.
"Because he was about to be indicted on capital murder charges, he was going to go out in a blaze of glory; that he was going to take everybody out with him," she said.
Staff writers Carrie Johnson and Paul Kane and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.