Researcher Kept Security Clearance as FBI Closed In
Monday, August 4, 2008
As an FBI investigation increasingly focused on him as a suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks, Fort Detrick scientist Bruce E. Ivins enjoyed a security clearance that allowed him to work in the facility's most dangerous laboratories, to handle deadly biological agents, and to take part in broad discussions about the Pentagon's defenses against germ warfare.
On July 10, the day he was taken to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation, for example, Ivins spent part of the afternoon at a sensitive briefing on a new bubonic plague vaccine under development at the Army's elite biological weapons testing center, according to a former colleague who talked with him there.
Records that have surfaced since Ivins committed suicide last week show that Fort Detrick officials abruptly barred him from the base July 10, based on what a counselor called his deteriorating emotional condition. Until then, his security clearance gave him access to some of the most secure areas at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID. Months earlier, Ivins had become one of a handful of scientists regarded by federal investigators as the lead suspects in the unsolved killing of five people by mailed letters containing anthrax.
The FBI made a genetic match between anthrax spores from Ivins's lab and those used in the attack, including those taken from victims' bodies, according to sources familiar with the evidence. Sources familiar with the investigation say government scientists, through forensic genetics, traced the strain used in the attacks to a beaker that Ivins used at Fort Detrick.
Ivins's attorney, Paul F. Kemp, repeatedly has professed his client's innocence and instead has characterized Ivins as a man hounded by the investigation into taking his own life. Co-workers and neighbors say they cannot conceive that Ivins would be responsible for anthrax attacks, but court records and testimony from his onetime therapist, Jean Duley, paint a more disturbing view of Ivins and his psychiatric state.
His freedom to move about Fort Detrick, even as the FBI closed in on him and threatened an indictment, adds another layer of mystery to the massive case, which law enforcement authorities now hope to close as early as today. As a world-renowned specialist in the study of anthrax bacteria, Ivins worked closely with the FBI in its "Amerithrax" probe while gradually becoming the principal suspect in the case. His scientific expertise was so recognized that he took part in broader discussions about a major government buildup of biological protections to guard against future attacks.
The July 10 plague briefing brought together experts to discuss the next stages in developing a vaccine to protect U.S. troops. Jeffrey J. Adamovicz, who formerly supervised Ivins as head of Fort Detrick's bacteriology division, saw him at the briefing and talked to him for about 10 minutes. "He seemed stressed but fairly normal," said Adamovicz, who helped develop the plague vaccine while at USAMRIID.
Colleagues question how Ivins could have maintained his security credentials if the FBI suspected him in the anthrax case. "Even back in the old days, there was a screening process for people who work in those laboratories," Adamovicz said.
Caree Vander Linden, a spokeswoman for USAMRIID, said government rules bar her from discussing the security clearance of a specific employee.
"There are time-honored procedures to examine security clearances on a regular basis, to verify information provided by the security-clearance holder, and traditional steps to ensure that only the appropriate level of security access is granted, largely based on the nature of the person's government job," she said in an e-mail. It would not have been "unusual" for a scientist of Ivins's standing to attend a briefing on the unclassified plague-vaccine research program, she added.
Ivins himself had questioned the effectiveness of the fort's security procedures in interviews with reporters as long as six years ago. At the time of the anthrax attacks, only senior managers at USAMRIID were routinely required to obtain top-secret-level security clearances. Most scientists of Ivins's rank would be required to undergo a background check and would be cleared to see classified documents on a need-to-know basis, according to a former senior official at the lab.
The rules were tightened after 2001, with the addition of "biosurety" regulations that governed the handling of pathogens and required more extensive background checks for lab workers.