Thursday, August 7, 2008
THE CIRCUMSTANTIAL evidence against Bruce E. Ivins appears overwhelming. Yesterday, the government identified the microbiologist, who took his own life last week, as the government's lone suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five people and seriously sickened 17 others. In previously sealed affidavits and in public statements, law enforcement officials paint Mr. Ivins as a deeply disturbed man with bizarre habits, including a proclivity for false identities and inexplicably long drives to nowhere.
The government suggests that he had a motive for the crime: The anthrax vaccine program he was working on was going badly, and an anthrax attack could re-energize efforts to plow ahead, according to U.S. Attorney Jeffrey A. Taylor. It says he had opportunity: Mr. Ivins apparently spent many late nights and weekend hours alone at his Fort Detrick Army lab just before the deadly anthrax letters were mailed in 2001; he had not kept such hours before and did not do so again, according to affidavits.
Government forensics experts say they identified the single vial that contained the anthrax used in the attacks -- a vial controlled by Mr. Ivins. Officials also say they ruled out as suspects others who may have had access to it, though the officials do not say how they did so.
It is easy to understand why the government believes it had a prime suspect in Bruce Ivins. But as compelling as the allegations contained in the affidavits are, they have not been subjected to the rigors of a criminal trial, where Mr. Ivins might have called witnesses, explained seemingly bizarre behavior, questioned scientific methods used to identify the anthrax strain and attempted to impeach government witnesses. Perhaps Mr. Ivins would have tried to alert jurors to the case of Steven J. Hatfill, who, before the investigation into Mr. Ivins unfolded, was considered the likely culprit -- until he wasn't; last month, the government agreed to pay $5.8 million to settle a lawsuit brought by Mr. Hatfill.
The Justice Department and the FBI were right to release some of the records and explain their case to the public, thus allowing victims and their family members, the media and the public a closer look. No doubt this access to the information will lead to healthy probing of the government's case. But that is not enough. Although it would be no substitute for the testing of a judicial trial, an independent third party should be tapped to perform that task, weighing the validity of government allegations and analyzing the legitimacy of government conclusions. Such a third party could also examine allegations that the FBI hounded Mr. Ivins; if the allegations are unfounded, an independent assessment would benefit the agency. There is also an urgent need to explain how a man presumably as disturbed as Mr. Ivins was could have maintained a security clearance that allowed him to work with such deadly substances.
The government may have gotten its man. A thorough review of the evidence will help the victims, the public and Bruce Ivins's family know whether, in fact, it did.