Trail of Odd Anthrax Cells Led FBI to Army Scientist

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By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 27, 2008

In late October 2001, lab technician Terry Abshire placed a tray of anthrax cells under a microscope and spotted something so peculiar she had to look twice. It was two weeks after the country's worst bioterrorism attack, and Abshire, like others at the Army's Fort Detrick biodefense lab, was caught up in a frenzied search for clues that could help lead to the culprit. Down the hall, Bruce E. Ivins, the respected vaccine specialist, was looking, too.

Abshire focused her lens on a moldlike clump. Anthrax bacteria were growing here, but some of the cells were odd: strange shapes, strange textures, strange colors. These were mutants, or "morphs," genetic deviants scattered among the ordinary anthrax cells like chocolate chips in a cookie batter.

Unknowingly, Abshire had discovered a key to solving the anthrax case. But it would take nearly six years to develop the technology to allow FBI investigators to use it.

Ultimately the evolving science led investigators to Ivins and a strikingly original collection of anthrax spores that became the focus of the FBI's probe. In a series of interviews over the past month, FBI agents and scientists described, in ways that the bureau has not previously revealed, how the pieces of the forensic puzzle came together -- often in Ivins's very shadow -- and how they eventually concluded that the eccentric vaccine specialist was the culprit.

Ivins, the FBI discovered, had spent more than a year perfecting what agents called his "ultimate creation" -- his signature blend of highly lethal anthrax spores -- and guarded it so carefully that his lab assistants did not know where he kept it. When the FBI later asked Ivins for anthrax spores from his lab, he deliberately bypassed his prize spore collection, agents said, and gave them a false sample.

Ivins's talents also helped give him away, they said. Exceptionally pure concentrations of anthrax spores were Ivins's trademark and placed him in an exclusive class. In the end, the FBI concluded, he was the only one with access to the deadly spores who also possessed the skills and equipment needed to create the extraordinarily powerful bioweapon that was mailed to U.S. Senate offices and news organizations in the fall of 2001.

"He wasn't an expert. He was the expert," said a senior FBI investigator, who answered questions about the still-open case on the condition of anonymity.

Yet the forensic search that started in the glare of Abshire's microscope turned out to be far more arduous and costly than anyone could have predicted. Conducted almost entirely out of the public eye, it was a journey that required use of techniques that had never been tried in a criminal investigation. Some of the technology needed to solve the case had not been invented. And the FBI's top science advisers were warning that the effort would fail.

"We were looking for a needle in a haystack," said Scott Decker, a geneticist who became the FBI's science team leader, "and no one knew if there was even a needle there."

Many outside experts and some lawmakers dismiss the government's case against Ivins as circumstantial, while Ivins's former colleagues and friends argue that he was incapable, technically and constitutionally, of committing an act of mass murder. "Bruce Ivins was a victim of a vicious plot," said Ayaad Assaad, a toxicologist who once worked with Ivins at Fort Detrick, in Maryland.

The questions have prompted an independent review of the FBI's forensic case by a panel of the National Academy of Sciences. In an Oct. 16 letter to the academy, Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.), a member of the House intelligence committee, asked the panel to investigate whether the bureau's scientific discoveries were "inconsistent with the FBI's conclusions."

The FBI defends its case against Ivins as well as the seven years it took to solve the crime -- an unavoidable delay, officials say, given that the bureau had to invent an entirely new investigative field, microbial forensics, to accomplish it. Investigators say more evidence will be revealed in the coming weeks, some of it in peer-reviewed scientific journals and the rest in documents that will shed new light on Ivins himself. "A lot of [the investigators] probably know Dr. Bruce Ivins better than his own family," the senior investigator said.


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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