Amerithrax experts debate FBI findings, insist Ivins was innocent

Bruce Ivins

WASHINGTON -- The FBI may have closed its Amerithax case against Fort Detrick scientist Bruce Ivins nine months ago, but some experts are not willing to let the issue die quite so easily.

A group of about 25 scientists, professors, writers, terrorism experts and more convened Monday afternoon to discuss the particulars of the investigation and to debate who the real perpetrator may have been.

Lewis Weinstein, who has written extensively about the anthrax attacks in 2001 that killed five and sickened 17 others, introduced the first panel of speakers by saying "none of us on this panel believe the FBI proved its case against Dr. Bruce Ivins."

Though each speaker came from a different perspective and had different opinions on the real killer, Weinstein said they wanted to address the group Monday "to continue to keep this case alive so someday Americans can know who committed this bioterrorism attack."

The first panelist to speak was Paul Kemp, Ivins' attorney since 2007, whose nearly 25 minute presentation could have been the opening argument to the trial that never took place -- Kemp's client committed suicide in July 2008 as the FBI investigation was closing in on Ivins.

"There is no evidence that Dr. Ivins ever made the dried anthrax" used in the attacks, Kemp said. "There were no spores found in his house, in his car, at his desk, any place that it shouldn't have been."

Because the attack anthrax was never found on Ivins' property and because his DNA was never found on the attack letters, critics of the FBI investigation said the final report released in February is nothing more than a laundry list of circumstantial evidence strung together to make Ivins appear mentally unstable and, therefore, guilty.

Kemp argued back with his own list of reasons why Ivins did not appear guilty. Ivins talked openly in front of a grand jury twice in 2007 without legal representation, implying he did not think he had anything to hide. Ivins always insisted Steven Hatfill, who was originally considered a "person of interest" and later cleared of any involvement in the attacks, was innocent, whereas a guilty person would have taken advantage of having a scapegoat. And the FBI found nothing suggesting Ivins' guilt on his home computer, which investigators admitted had not been tampered with in any way.

Meryl Nass, a doctor who has also written extensively about the Amerithrax investigation, followed by listing and discounting each of the FBI's means, motive and opportunity for Ivins to have committed the crime.

"We don't know if he had access to the equipment and the knowledge because we don't know what knowledge and equipment were required," she said of the FBI's inability to pinpoint how the anthrax was prepared. ""Did he have a motive? The FBI comes up with several purported motives, but none of them make sense. Did Bruce have the opportunity to commit the crime? The scenario the FBI initially floated about how he might have driven to New Jersey to mail the letters was shot down and they never came up with a better story."

James Van de Velde, a consultant on terrorism issues, added that Ivins, as a prominent anthrax researcher, would not have been dumb enough to use anthrax from his own beaker in an attack. And Ross Getman, a lawyer and author on the subject, said the FBI changed its timeline of when the letters would have had to be mailed to fit Ivins' calendar, which has not been released. Getman asserted that Ivins had group therapy sessions scheduled for the two days the FBI originally thought the letters were mailed.

In an interesting turn of events, John Ezzell, who was mentioned several times during the first panel discussion, was sitting in the audience. Ezzell was an anthrax researcher at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases with Ivins. He personally handled the anthrax letters in 2001 when the FBI asked USAMRIID to help identify the powder inside.

Because of his involvement in the investigation, Ezzell had been under a gag order until he recently retired from USAMRIID. In what he said was his first time speaking out about the issue, Ezzell stood up toward the end of the panel's presentation to address a question. When those in the room realized a true expert was among them, audience members and panelists tossed question after question his way.

"I think it is very valuable for you to have come forward," said Kemp, Ivins' lawyer. "This kind of open, forthcoming information this is the kind of thing that should have been going on since August of 2008 at the very least."

"Dr. Ezzell, obviously you've retired now, so now you can speak out, and now you can provide this kind of information, and that's all I've ever wanted on behalf of Dr. Ivins," Kemp said.

Despite some strong opinions from the panelists and audience members, the seminar itself never drew any conclusions as to Ivins' guilt or who the real attacker could have been. When Van de Velde asked Ezzell if he thought Ivins could have done it, Ezzell responded with a hesitant "possibly yes."

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