Government Asserts Ivins Acted Alone
Officials Detail Evidence, but Questions Linger
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.