By Carrie Johnson and Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 8, 2008
Anthrax attack suspect Bruce E. Ivins took several hours of administrative leave from his Fort Detrick, Md., laboratory on a critical day in September 2001 when the first batch of deadly letters was dropped in a New Jersey mailbox, government sources briefed on the case said yesterday.
The gap recorded on his time sheet offered investigators a key clue into how he could have pulled off an elaborate crime that involved carrying letters packed with lethal powder to a distant location for mailing, the sources said.
But the information was not included in documents released Wednesday by the Justice Department to support FBI suspicions that Ivins, acting on his own, pulled off the worst bioterrorism attack in U.S. history.
Yesterday, as experts began picking apart the government's largely circumstantial case, new facts emerged about omissions in the investigation and evidence that could not be pinned to Ivins in about 18 months of intense focus. Critics cited unresolved questions, such as why Ivins was never spotted in Princeton and how the bureau could say with such certainty that he had sole custody of the anthrax bacteria believed to be used in the attacks.
Meanwhile, bits of fresh information continued to come out. A partial log of Ivins's work hours shows that he worked late in the lab on the evening of Sunday, Sept. 16, signing out at 9:52 p.m. after two hours and 15 minutes. The next morning, the sources said, he showed up as usual but stayed only briefly before taking leave hours. Authorities assume that he drove to Princeton immediately after that, dropping the letters in a mailbox on a well-traveled street across from the university campus. Ivins would have had to have left quickly to return for an appointment in the early evening, about 4 or 5 p.m.
Ivins also had ample time to return to the same Nassau Street mailbox the following month, over the Columbus Day weekend, when a second group of letters was sent to Senate offices and media organizations, the sources said, offering new information that they said underscored Ivins's opportunity to commit the crime.
Federal agents did not interview owners of shops on the street where the mailbox is located to place Ivins at the scene, judging that any witness identification would have been inherently unreliable after nearly seven years. Nor did they uncover tollbooth footage or credit card or phone records that would directly link Ivins to the day's events.
Ivins will never see the inside of a federal courtroom. He died July 29 of a Tylenol overdose shortly after investigators signaled that they would pursue his indictment on murder charges for the deaths of five people and the sickening of 17 more in the 2001 attacks.
Defense attorney Paul F. Kemp continued to profess Ivins's innocence and said his client would have been vindicated by a jury. "It's just a bunch of speculation and no evidence," Kemp said yesterday. "What's the evidence that he did anything, other than know how to make anthrax and have all kinds of it at his disposal?"
In response, FBI Assistant Director John Miller warned against drawing conclusions without understanding the science and circumstantial evidence. "There are a lot of armchair detectives and instant experts out there formulating opinions not based on a full set of the facts. . . . The only airtight cases in life are on 'CSI' in prime time."
Outside defense lawyers and former prosecutors said authorities would have faced a challenge convicting Ivins based on the official documents released Wednesday. Some of the most persistent questions involved the science used by the FBI to make its case. Bioweapons experts said they were unimpressed by the government's description of the DNA link between the anthrax in the letters and spores in a flask in Ivins's lab.
"There is not enough scientific information to make an evaluation of the science the FBI used in this investigation," said Tara O'Toole, who heads the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh.
FBI officials said the powdered bacteria mailed to news outlets and Senate offices had a distinct genetic heritage that precisely matched anthrax spores Ivins kept in a flask in his laboratory. But the officials also acknowledged that 15 other labs had the same strain, known as RMR-1029. How, O'Toole asked, were investigators able to rule out other labs, as well as other workers with access to the bacteria?
Others noted the lack of evidence directly linking Ivins to the attack strain. Meryl Nass, a physician and prominent opponent of the Army's mandatory anthrax vaccination program, said the FBI ultimately proved only that Ivins had access to the right kinds of bacteria and equipment. "They found not a spore in his home or car," Nass said.
Court filings released this week sometimes ran counter to findings that authorities announced years earlier. In June 2002, the FBI revealed that radiocarbon dating analyses conducted by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory had found that the strain used in the letters had been cultured no more than two years before the mailings. The findings were considered important because they told investigators that the material was newly made and not from a laboratory's aging stocks.
But the documents released Wednesday said without explanation that Ivins had been "the sole custodian of RMR-1029 since it was first grown in 1997" -- dating the material back as far as four years before the letters were mailed.
Justice spokesman Dean Boyd said prosecutors were "confident" in their ability to defend the science in court.
Another missing link was the bureau's inability to match Ivins's handwriting with the primitive block print of the letters used in the anthrax mailings. In dealing with at least one earlier "person of interest" in the case, the FBI's handwriting experts in Quantico worked with outside consultants to try to match handwriting samples taken in property searches.
But authorities, who acknowledged seizing 68 handwritten letters to members of Congress and the news media from Ivins's property, said they could not make a specific identification. U.S. Attorney Jeffrey A. Taylor told reporters Wednesday that investigators concluded that Ivins had disguised his handwriting, leaving agents "unable to make a comparison."
Defense lawyer Kemp said he was told by the government that an analysis had come back negative, but that report has not been made public. Kemp had not won access to the government's scientific findings, and he asserted yesterday that authorities had misplaced or mistakenly destroyed an early anthrax sample that Ivins had provided from his lab in 2002, facts he said he would have exploited at trial.
Fresh accounts of Ivins's deterioration in his final weeks also came to light in court papers that federal agents filed in order to search two computers they seized from a Frederick library. Investigators watched Ivins enter the C. Burr Artz Library between 7 and 8:30 p.m. July 24, wrote FBI agent Marlo Arredondo. Earlier that day, he had been released from a Sheppard Pratt facility in Baltimore, where he had been sent after a counselor reported he had made "homicidal" threats.
FBI agents watched Ivins "reviewing websites dedicated to the Anthrax investigation and examining email accounts," Arrendondo wrote. "A search of the computers may reveal documentary evidence that will assist the investigation into these threats to witnesses related to the anthrax investigation, and obstruction of that investigation," the agent wrote.
Staff writers Marilyn W. Thompson and Paul Kane and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.