Government closes 'Amerithrax' case

Bruce Ivins in a 2003 photo. The Justice Department on Friday released the findings of its anthrax investigation dating back to 2001.

Federal investigators closed the case Friday on this country's first major act of bioterrorism and sealed their findings that Bruce Ivins, a former Frederick resident and Fort Detrick scientist, acted alone in the 2001 anthrax letter attacks that killed five people and sickened 17 others in the weeks after Sept. 11.

The FBI issued a 92-page report summarizing a seven-year investigation, which concluded that Ivins, a senior researcher at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, mailed the deadly letters to the offices of U.S. senators and news organizations.

Ivins died in an apparent suicide in July 2008, one week before the FBI announced its initial findings. He had swallowed enough Tylenol to poison himself before any charges were filed.

"This document sets forth a summary of the evidence developed in the 'Amerithrax' investigation, the largest investigation into a bio-weapons attack in U.S. history," a Department of Justice news release stated.

Information from the report also revealed evidence that Ivins suffered from a possible guilty conscience and severe mental instability highlighted by threatening, obsessive and odd behavior.

"Our pasts shape our futures, and mine was built on lies and craziness, and depression, and thievery, and things that make an honest man and woman cry," Ivins wrote in a 2008 e-mail to a colleague. "Alone. The farther I got, it's alone. The state smells its (carnivorous) death-blood sacrifice. I look into the mirror and cry out who it is."

Anthrax from the tainted letters killed two Washington-area postal workers, a photo editor at a Florida-based tabloid magazine, a New York City hospital worker and a 94-year-old Connecticut woman.

Two letters were addressed to the offices of Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and then-Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., in Washington. One letter was addressed to Tom Brokaw at NBC. One letter was addressed to the New York Post. The last letter was apparently sent to American Media Inc., a magazine and tabloid publisher in Boca Raton, Fla.

A representative from Leahy's office said the senator had a long discussion with FBI Director Robert Mueller but has no plans to comment about the case.

However, the FBI's report left many unconvinced. Rep. Rush Holt, a Democrat who represents the central New Jersey district where the anthrax letters were mailed, said Americans deserve a better investigation with thorough answers they can trust. He pushed for legislation that would have established a national commission, similar to the one formed to investigate the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"This has been a closed-minded, closed process from the beginning. Arbitrarily closing the case on a Friday afternoon should not mean the end of this investigation," Holt said in a news release Friday. "The evidence the FBI produced would not, I think, stand up in court. But because their prime suspect is dead and they're not going to court, they seem satisfied with barely a circumstantial case."

The report released Friday provides a more detailed account of the FBI investigation and how the inquiry was narrowed to Ivins, who was plunging deeper into depression just before the attacks due to professional and personal pressures.

"In late June 2001, shortly before the anthrax mailings, Dr. Ivins's prescription for anti-depressant medication doubled," the report states. "This evidence shows that Dr. Ivins's mental state was precarious in the months leading up to the mailings."

The report also outlines a motive. Shortly before the attacks, Ivins' life work of developing an effective anthrax vaccine was on the brink of failure, it said.

Ivins had spent much of his career working on an anthrax vaccine program, which was facing elimination after failing tests. He also reacted negatively to the criticism that the vaccine was a cause of Gulf War syndrome.

In his workplace at USAMRIID, the report states that Ivins felt abandoned by two colleagues on which he had become emotionally reliant. He became increasingly obsessed with one of those colleagues after that person left the lab for another job.

The FBI has touted its scientific methods for isolating the anthrax used in the mailings. Last summer, the National Academy of Sciences convened a group of experts to study the science behind the investigation. The $880,000 FBI-funded study is scheduled to be completed later this year.

Using a complex genetic analysis, the strain of anthrax used in the letters was isolated and traced to a flask Ivins had under his control at his Fort Detrick lab.

The report explains how investigators methodically ruled out hundreds of possible suspects, including people who had direct access to the flask. Inquiries were also expanded to people with knowledge of anthrax production, lab experience, allegations of wrongdoing and motive to carry out an attack. A task force of 25 to 30 full-time investigators spent hundreds of thousands of hours on the case, according to Friday's news release.

Ivins, regarded by many of those interviewed as one of the most expert anthrax researchers in the country, continued to deny his abilities to produce spores that matched the quality of those found in the envelopes, according to the report.

"Dr. Ivins seemed to try to downplay his skill-set in ways that were wholly inconsistent with reality," the report states.

Paul Kemp, a Rockville lawyer who has represented Ivins and his family, said Friday he would likely discuss the newly released information with Ivins' family.

"It doesn't mean anything for me, because my client is obviously deceased," Kemp said.

The FBI has also released 2,700 pages of material related to the case made accessible from the agency's website.

Richard Schuler, an attorney for the family of victim Robert Stevens, said the case looked convincing. He said it does not change the status of a lawsuit the Stevens family has filed in federal district court.

Stevens was a photo editor at a Florida tabloid owned by American Media. His widow is suing the federal government for damages.

Schuler said the family has had the report since October. He said the document bolsters their case showing a lack of security at Fort Detrick and the inability to identify an employee with severe mental health issues.

"Somebody should not have allowed him to be in a position to handle these ultra-dangerous organisms," Schuler said.

Staff writer Megan Eckstein contributed to this report.

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