FBI report fails to end questions about Ivins' guilt

Bruce E. Ivins is shown in September 2003.

The FBI may have concluded Fort Detrick scientist Bruce Ivins was responsible for the 2001 anthrax attacks, but many others aren't convinced.

Scientists, Ivins' friends and others maintain the report is too flawed to have held up in court had Ivins been alive for a trial by jury.

Jeffrey Adamovicz, former chief of bacteriology who supervised Ivins' work at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, said he found little new information in the FBI's final report.

"The evidence is still very circumstantial and unconvincing as a whole," Adamovicz wrote in an e-mail. "I'm curious as to why they closed the case while the (National Academy of Science) review is still ongoing. Is it because the review is going unfavorable for the FBI?"

The Academy of Science began reviewing the FBI's Amerithrax investigation last summer. The Academy will not seek to prove Ivins guilty or innocent; rather, it will only evaluate the validity of the FBI's scientific methods.

Questioning the FBI's science

A key issue for the Academy relates to how the attack anthrax was prepared and how much time it would take to produce such highly refined spores.

"There is an assumption by the FBI that the spores could have only been prepared in the week before each mailing. This is a fatal error in logic," Adamovicz wrote in an e-mail. "The only reason that I can derive why the FBI has proposed this is that it is the only period that helps provide circumstantial evidence against Bruce."

One such piece of evidence is a chart of Ivins' night hours in the lab, which spikes in September 2001. Gerry Andrews, another former chief of bacteriology at USAMRIID, said he "didn't think it was peculiar" to have a sudden increase in night hours and tried to stress to the FBI that the spike was irrelevant.

Ivins was in the middle of several projects in September 2001, some of which involved animals, so it made sense that he would forsake a conventional schedule and instead work when he could be most productive with those particular projects.

"The FBI, I think, is trying to give folks the wrong impression of the timeline" to make their case against Ivins more convincing, Andrews said.

Adamovicz agreed that focusing on Ivins' September 2001 hours was irrelevant, since the anthrax spores that were mailed out could have been made as early as 1997.

"The person would need to grow new spores from vegetative cells, concentrate them, purify them and dry them -- it's not physically possible" to do in the FBI's one-week timeline, Adamovicz said.

Andrews said it would take 25 to 50 weeks to create the attack anthrax spores if a scientist started with the samples in Ivins' lab.

"Bruce didn't have the skill to make spore preps of that concentration," which were two orders of magnitude more concentrated than the anthrax in Ivins' lab, Andrews said. "He never ever could make a spore prep like the ones found in the letters."

Another factor for the academy to look into is the genetic analysis that traced the attack anthrax to Ivins' anthrax. Andrews agreed with the FBI that the attack anthrax originated from Ivins' flask. But the FBI report states as many as 377 people had access to Ivins' lab, and samples of his RMR-1029 anthrax had been sent to 15 domestic and three international labs.

The report states all other scientists with access to RMR-1029 anthrax were investigated and found to not have means or motive. Many scientists have expressed doubts about that part of the investigation.

Wrong and misleading evidence

Adamovicz said no forensic evidence -- such as fingerprints or strands of hair -- was ever found that links Ivins to the letters. The evidence in the report is less convincing, such as a section about a hidden message in the anthrax letters. Some of the As and Ts appear to be bolded; the letters spell out the genetic code for three proteins, whose names could be abbreviated to PAT or, using the proteins' single letter designators, spell FNY. Investigators said Ivins was obsessed with a coworker named Pat and had a well-known hatred of New York.

"While I admit this is an interesting theory, that is all it is," Adamovicz said.

Andrews said many of Ivins' motives, as outlined in the report, are based on false information. The final report states Ivins' project "had run its course at USAMRIID, leaving him potentially without anthrax research to do."

But Ivins was assured funding through 2005, Andrews said. The report also said that, because the anthrax research "was viewed as menial in nature and a waste of Dr. Ivins's considerable talents, there was a suggestion that he should begin work on Glanders research." Andrews said that was true, but those discussions didn't take place until late 2002, well after the anthrax attacks.

Portrayal of Ivins' suicide

Anne Leffler volunteered with Ivins at the American Red Cross' Disaster Services for five years. After reading the FBI's report, she said she is most upset by its portrayal of his suicide as proof of his guilt.

Leffler said Ivins was loving and caring, but like many brilliant people, was also "emotionally fragile in many ways."

"You pick on them enough, you bully them enough, you scare them enough -- and let's face it, the FBI can do that -- and they feel like they have nowhere to go," she said. That was why Ivins killed himself in 2008, not because he was guilty and wanted to escape punishment.

"At this point, the government is just needing to see the case closed, and it's easier to accuse a dead man," Leffler said.

In theory, she said she'd like to see the case reopened and Ivins' name cleared. But she fears who else might get railroaded and driven to suicide in another investigation.

"Maybe it's better, other than to vindicate Bruce, to just let it go," Leffler said.

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