The Anthrax Case: Solved(?) But Unresolved

By Ted Gup
Thursday, August 7, 2008; 12:00 AM

With the presumed suicide last week of Bruce Ivins, the Ft. Detrick biodefense expert and target of the FBI's anthrax investigation, the Justice Department effectively pronounced the seven-year-old case solved and the national nightmare behind us. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. Ivins's death only makes it more difficult to resolve the lingering questions about the poison sent by mail in the fall of 2001 and, more broadly, about American justice.

His death deprives the Justice Department, the press and the public of the one thing that was most needed: a full-dress trial. That would have been the surest way to begin to remove the taint of suspicion and corruption that has attended the handling of the anthrax investigation and others like it. No matter how strong the evidence presented by the Justice Department -- and at first blush, it appears damning -- it is an ex parte presentation and will never be subject to the scrutiny and challenge of the other side.

Such evidence, even when seemingly overwhelming and conclusive, is the very sort of circumstantial argument that pegged Richard Jewell as the Atlanta bomber, that linked Oregon attorney Brandon Mayfield to the Madrid bombings, that fingered Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee as a spy, and that cast biodefense expert Steven Hatfill as the original anthrax suspect. In each of those investigations, the news media were largely complicit, conveying incriminating details of the government's case as if they were the gospel.

And yet, in each of those cases, the government was wrong -- shaking public confidence even as it eroded individual civil liberties, produced groundless prosecutions and diverted precious time and resources in pursuit of bogus cases.

The anthrax case was particularly toxic to the integrity of prosecutorial standards and judicial process, a process warped by post-Sept. 11 hysteria and a compulsion to cut corners and try individuals in the court of public opinion. It was this investigation that presented the spectacle of then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft declaring Hatfill a "person of interest" -- reflecting insufficient evidence to charge him with a crime, but enough suspicion to condemn him to the status of public pariah. (Among other evidence, dogs had sniffed him out.) In June, the government agreed to a settlement with Hatfill valued at $5.8 million. Neither it nor the press, which was only too eager to link arms with the Justice Department in carrying the stories that stripped Hatfill of everything he had, has offered an apology or conceded wrongdoing.

Against this background, who could be blamed for imagining that an innocent Ivins was hounded to his death? Can we discount the accounts that suggest the government repeatedly harassed Ivins's family, offering his son a reward and sports car if he would turn his father in?

The antidote to our skepticism is not a de facto conviction -- especially one that is posthumous and undefended. If Ivins was indeed responsible for those harrowing attacks, it is good that he no longer poses a threat. But how will we know?

In some sense, his guilt or innocence is beside the point. Today, the process itself is on trial. This week, it was cheated of yet another opportunity to assert itself, prove its merit and restore its standing. Trials are about more than just individual accountability -- they are a public demonstration and reaffirmation of a commitment to principles, more than a few of which have been sullied since Sept. 11. The anthrax case was emblematic of so many, with its rush to judgment, its caving in to political pressures, its aversion to transparency.

To their credit, in reporting the Ivins case, the media now appear somewhat chastened and more inquisitive than inquisitorial. It may well be that, absent a trial, it will fall to reporters to aggressively test the solidity of the case against Ivins. Perhaps they can restore a measure of credibility to their profession and to the government.

Ted Gup is a journalism professor at Case Western Reserve University and author of "Nation of Secrets." His e-mail address is

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