Scientists slam Anthrax probe

Scientists Slam FBI Anthrax Probe
November 03, 2008
New York Post

It was an open-and-shut case, the FBI said.

But three months after agents pinned the post-9/11 anthrax mailings on Army scientist Bruce Ivins - who committed suicide as the FBI closed in on him - his former colleagues have approached a lawyer to sue the feds for fingering the wrong man, The Post has learned.

They argue that the FBI abused its power and violated its own policies as they probed an innocent man for six months.

One of Ivins' former colleagues was being aggressively pressured to confess to the crimes just two months before Ivins killed himself on July 29, he told The Post. And he identified at least one other employee who was under the same pressure.

The move by the Army scientists comes on the heels of a Senate Judiciary Committee demand for an independent review of the case following a hearing with FBI Director Robert Mueller in which committee members called the bureau's case an "open matter." The bureau has named a panel of independent scientists to review the evidence against Ivins - a probe that will take six to 18 months.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, a target of the 2001 anthrax attacks, said at the Judiciary Committee hearings that he doubted Ivins, who worked at Fort Detrick, Md., could have acted alone and that he believes "there are others who could be charged with murder."

Anthrax-laced letters were also mailed to then-Sen. Tom Daschle and news media outlets, including The Post.

"The people at Fort Detrick would love to see some suit brought, some way of reckoning, adjudicating this," said Ivins' Maryland-based lawyer, Paul Kemp. The Pentagon had refused a request to allow Ivins' colleagues to speak to Kemp.

The case the feds presented rested mainly on these FBI claims:

* The dry anthrax used in the mailings shared key genetic variables unique to a wet anthrax strain created by Ivins in his lab at Fort Detrick.

* Ivins logged an increasingly large amount of after-hours overtime in his lab in the weeks leading up to the anthrax mailings.

* Ivins submitted false samples of anthrax from his lab to the FBI for forensic analysis in order to mislead investigators.

* Ivins was psychologically troubled and told co-workers that he had "incredible paranoid, delusional thoughts at times" and that he feared he might not be able to control his behavior. They cited his preoccupation with the sorority Kappa Kappa Gamma - which included altering its Wikipedia page, e-mailing former members and spreading Internet chatter about the sorority - as indications of an unstable and obsessive mind.

In interviews with a dozen of Ivins' colleagues at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, his friends and independent scientists, The Post found many of them would speak only on the condition of anonymity because they believed they were still under FBI surveillance and their phones were being tapped.

Together, those closest to Ivins cited a laundry list of holes in the feds' conclusions. They include:

1) Ivins could not have made dry anthrax spores in his lab without sickening people.

To convert the wet anthrax strain he had developed at Fort Detrick - the only strain he worked with - into dry anthrax, which can be inhaled and is much more lethal, Ivins would have had to use a lyophilizer, a freeze-drying machine that is able to dry large quantities of liquid.

Ivins' colleagues say they never saw the scientist working with dry spores - in fact, dry anthrax was not made at USAMRIID - until he was asked to examine the anthrax-laced letter sent to Daschle.

The lyophilizer, located in a hallway surrounded by four labs, did not have a protective hood. A hood is necessary to circulate and filter air and make it possible to use the lyophilizer to work with harmful bacteria without the bacteria becoming airborne. Co-workers say the hoodless lyophilizer would have spewed poisonous aerosols, infecting co-workers. But no colleagues of Ivins experienced any symptoms.

Co-workers also point out that the machine would have to be fully decontaminated after use - a 24-hour process called paraformaldehyde decontamination that involves locking down the lab.

Without a full decontamination, the machine would have contaminated other bacteria or liquids used on the machine at a later date. And if it had not been decontaminated, the FBI should have been able to find traces of the dry anthrax on the machine. Yet they swabbed Ivins' machinery numerous times and were unable to find traces of dry anthrax spores in his lab, Kemp said.

2) Records show that Ivins logged an average of only two hours of overtime in the weeks leading up to the attacks - and even at those times, he could not have gone undetected.

Even if Ivins did have access to a freeze-drying machine and a protective hood, sources who worked closely with Ivins estimate it would take a minimum of 40 days of continuous work without detection to create the volume of spores used in the attacks.

"If he was working eight hours a day on spore prep every day, it would be noticed," said Gerry Andrews, Ivins' supervisor between 2000 and 2003. "It's ridiculous."

Ivins' lab - just 200 square feet - was in "highly trafficked areas, and Bruce had colleagues that worked with him every day," Andrews said.

Meanwhile, in September and October of 2001, Ivins was involved in 19 research projects, including working on the Department of Defense-funded anthrax vaccine that is now in clinical trials, anthrax vaccine testing on rabbits and monkeys, and an outside project with a government-contracted lab, the Battelle Memorial Institute in Ohio.

3) The FBI called Ivins the "sole custodian" of the strain of anthrax used in the mailings. But at least 200 people had access to the strain created by Ivins at Fort Detrick.

More than 100 people had access to Ivins' lab at USAMRIID. Ivins' anthrax strain, RMR-1029, was kept there as well as stored at a nearby building between 1997 and 1999, a building to which others had access. In addition, multiple facilities outside of Fort Detrick were sent RMR-1029 for their own research, including government laboratories, the Battelle lab and academic institutions like the University of New Mexico.

In September, FBI Director Mueller conceded other labs and scientists had access to Ivins' anthrax, but would not disclose how the bureau had ruled out other suspects.

4) The FBI has not released any physical evidence linking Ivins to the attacks or defined a motive.

After obtaining three warrants to search the Ivins home starting in October 2007, the FBI never found a single anthrax spore there - though scientists say the kind of airborne anthrax used in the mailings would have clung to any objects it came in contact with.

Nor were they able to place Ivins near the Princeton, NJ, mailbox from which all the lethal anthrax letters were mailed - though they noted that a Kappa Kappa Gamma chapter kept its rush materials, initiation robes and other property 100 yards from where the anthrax letters were sent.

Ivins passed two polygraph tests - one administered after the attacks and another when he became a suspect, according to his lawyer. He also submitted a writing sample that, Kemp said, did not implicate him.

Co-workers said Ivins stood to gain only $2,000 for a patent and minimal royalties from drug companies for the vaccine he helped produce.

"There is not one substantial motive," Andrews said.

In 2003, USAMRIID implemented a Personnel Reliability Program, with employees undergoing psychiatric evaluations, financial background checks and full medical exams. If Ivins had psychological issues, the Army never flagged them - and instead deemed him capable of working with biological weapons.

5) The FBI investigation was filled with inconsistencies and bordered on harassment.

The FBI claims Ivins was a suspect since early 2007, but they waited until July 23, 2008, to gather DNA evidence from him, delayed examining records showing Ivins' late nights spent in the lab, and waited years to swab the mailbox in Princeton.

They also allowed Ivins to have full access to the anthrax labs until November 2007.

Scientists at USAMRIID said the FBI was aggressively pursuing other suspects two months before Ivins killed himself.

In April 2007, the FBI sent Ivins a letter saying he was "not a target of the investigation" and said it was investigating 42 people who had access to RMR-1029 at the Battelle labs in Ohio, Kemp said.

Once they identified him as a suspect, the FBI investigators conspicuously tailed Ivins for six months before he killed himself, two neighbors of Ivins told The Post. They sat outside his house in their cars and rented the house next door for stakeouts.

After three months under surveillance, Ivins hired a lawyer, Kemp, to whom he complained that agents had approached his adopted twins, Amanda and Andy, both 24. Ivins said they offered Andy $2.5 million and a sports car for information on his father, friends confirm.

To Amanda, they showed pictures of anthrax victims and said, "Look at what your father did," according to Kemp. The FBI denied this.

Friends said agents took Ivins' wife, Diane, and the children to hotels where they grilled them for hours.

"Most people in Fort Detrick believe that [the FBI was] just going after the weakest link," said Dr. W. Russell Byrne, Ivins' supervisor between 1998 and 2000. "It looked like an organized effort in intimidation."

Co-workers of Ivins' were warned by USAMRIID officials not to speak with Ivins in his office, and he was told that he couldn't participate in work activities or parties. His friends say it was the last straw for a man who relied on work for his social life.

Since the investigation against Ivins began, workers at USAMRIID have been forced to sign confidentiality agreements.

FBI spokeswoman Debbie Weierman said: "The FBI is still handling administrative business and closing the loop on outstanding issues. Therefore, the investigation is still pending. However, the case has been solved; as the FBI and the Department of Justice have stated publicly.

"The FBI is absolutely positive that Dr. Bruce Ivins and only Dr. Bruce Ivins was responsible for the anthrax mailings."

"case is solved, but the investigation is pending."

In other words, we want it both ways. We will not explore any other leads or consider other alternatives, because the case is solved. However we will also not answer any questions or release people from confidentiality agreements, because the investigation is still pending!!!

This rivals the famous line in Animal Farm for absurdity: "All pigs are equal, but some pigs are more equal than others."