By Carrie Johnson, Del Quentin Wilber and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 7, 2008
Government officials asserted yesterday that a troubled bioweapons scientist acted alone to perpetrate a terrorism scheme that killed five people, a case that centered on a near-perfect match of anthrax spores in his custody and a record of his late-night laboratory work just before the toxic letters were mailed.
Federal investigators uncovered e-mail messages written by bacteriologist Bruce E. Ivins describing an al-Qaeda threat that echoed language in the handwritten letters mailed to Senate offices and media organizations in September and October 2001. Ivins, who worked in high-security labs at Fort Detrick, Md., had a motive because of his work validating a controversial anthrax vaccine that had been suspended from production, authorities said.
Even as Justice Department officials declared the worst act of bioterrorism in U.S. history all but solved, scientists and legal experts noted that the evidence is far from foolproof. Investigators were unable to place Ivins in Princeton, N.J., on the days when the letters were dropped into a Nassau Street mailbox. They did not try to match his crabbed handwriting with the distinctive block print on the 2001 letters. And they did not silence congressional critics who wondered yesterday whether one man could have carried out the elaborate attacks.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) called for a "full-blown accounting" of the $15 million investigation, which took nearly seven years and included multiple wrong turns. Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.), from whose district the letters were mailed, called for hearings to address questions such as "why investigators are so certain that Ivins acted alone."
Other congressional sources said that the FBI case was compelling but that doubts lingered in part because of the bureau's lengthy and ultimately fruitless pursuit of former Fort Detrick researcher Steven J. Hatfill. In June, the Justice Department agreed to pay Hatfill a $5.8 million settlement to resolve his privacy lawsuit. The only veiled reference to the government's wrong focus came in a footnote in the documents, which said that tests to make a clear genetic link to a specific scientist did not exist in the early years of the investigation.
The task force first obtained court permission last winter to search Ivins's modest Frederick house, his cars and family van, his work locker, and his personal e-mail accounts.
Paul F. Kemp, an attorney for Ivins, said that prosecutors had carried out "an orchestrated dance of carefully worded statements, heaps of innuendo and a staggering lack of real evidence -- all contorted to create the illusion of guilt."
Authorities replied that they were compelled to present their case against Ivins, who had been warned that he could face murder accusations but had not been charged, because of the "extraordinary public interest" after his death July 29 by suicide.
U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Taylor of the District called Ivins "the sole suspect," telling reporters that "we are confident that Dr. Ivins was the only person responsible for these attacks."
The airing of evidence, which followed briefings for lawmakers and relatives of victims, closed a painful chapter for many families.
Using sophisticated DNA techniques and gumshoe detective work, FBI agents and U.S. postal inspectors picked apart discrepancies in Ivins's accounts about the lethal bacteria he had cultured. Prosecutors say Ivins offered different stories about when and how he learned that the anthrax cultures in his lab genetically matched the powder in the letters. The FBI accused him of submitting "questionable" anthrax samples five years ago to keep investigators off his trail.
Investigators homed in on Ivins for several reasons, according to an Oct. 31, 2007, sworn statement from postal inspector Thomas F. Dellafera. That document appeared to serve as a blueprint for the government, laying out critical arguments against the scientist.
Dellafera said that Ivins could not justify his "late-night laboratory work," which peaked around the time of the mailings on Sept. 18 and Oct. 9, 2001. A chart submitted with the search warrant request showed that Ivins logged long evening shifts from Sept. 14 through Sept. 16, with another spike in late nights in early October. During other periods, he typically left his lab before 5 p.m., Dellafera contended.
Ivins told investigators that he retreated to the lab "to escape" problems at home, the postal inspector said. Authorities also referenced e-mails the scientist sent to a friend describing his rising stress, depression and feelings of "isolation -- and desolation" in 2000 and through the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The filing also cited an e-mail Ivins allegedly sent a few days before 9/11 warning that "Bin Laden terrorists for sure have anthrax and sarin gas" and have "just decreed death to all Jews and all Americans."
Documents released yesterday also offer some insight into possible motives for the anthrax attacks. The filing referenced e-mails from Ivins in June and July 2000 that describe his stress in an effort to resolve problems with an anthrax vaccine made by BioPort, a Michigan company, that had stopped production under federal order. The vaccine had been used to inoculate U.S. troops, as well as laboratory workers.
A spokeswoman for Emergent BioSolutions, the company formerly known as BioPort, said: "We have no idea what his motives may have been and are not going to speculate."
In June 2000 correspondence, Ivins worried that if the BioPort vaccine failed its potency tests, "the program will come to a halt. That's bad for everyone concerned, including us."
The next month, Ivins agreed to take part in a case study if it were anonymous. "Dr. Ivins indicated that he did not want to see a headline in the National Enquirer that read, 'Paranoid man works with deadly anthrax.' "
Another driving force in targeting victims, the documents said, may have been the political views of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and former Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.). The documents note that Ivins's wife was active in the antiabortion movement, and both senators had been publicized as abortion rights advocates.
After 9/11, Ivins wrote to a friend that he was reacting differently to the crisis than other members of his counseling group were. "Of course I don't talk about how I really feel with them -- it would just make them worse. Seeing how differently I reacted than they did to the recent events makes me really think about myself a lot. I just heard tonight that Bin Laden terrorists for sure have anthrax and sarin gas . . . [redacted]." He continued: "Osama Bin Laden has just decreed death to all Jews and all Americans." The postal inspector said the wording was "similar to the test of the anthrax letters postmarked two weeks later warning 'Death to America,' 'Death to Israel."
A forensic psychologist reviewed Ivins's insurance records for appointments and prescriptions and concluded that if Ivins had mailed the letters, "it is quite possible that Dr. Ivins retained some kind of souvenir or references to the mailing events."
At the news conference, U.S. Attorney Taylor said agents had seized 68 unsent letters addressed to media organizations and members of Congress in a search last year.
Investigators pointed to other odd behavior by Ivins in early June. He walked into his back yard in the rain at 10:30 p.m. and "was observed making a raking or digging motion" in "an untended area of grass and other vegetation."
The developments prompted a shift in direction by FBI and postal service investigators, who requested a new round of searches. In a July 12 search of Ivins's house, authorities seized four loaded bullet magazines and other ammunition of various calibers, gunpowder, a ballistic vest, one spent bullet and body armor described as "homemade" and "yellow with silver duct tape," the documents show. In total, more than 280 rounds of live ammunition were found in the house.
Authorities also found a carrying case for a Glock 27 pistol. But the records do not indicate that any guns were discovered in the July search. Two weeks later, Ivins was dead after taking an overdose of Tylenol, an event that brought him the public attention he had eluded for 62 years.
Staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.