In the deep midwinter of 2002, FBI divers cut holes in the ice and then searched several ponds near a Fort Detrick, Md., biodefense lab for evidence in the anthrax investigation. It was an expensive, cinematic strategy that would ultimately lead nowhere, but no one knew that then. Except perhaps for the older man who stood off to the side handing out coffee and sandwiches. In addition to being a respected scientist, Bruce Ivins was a Red Cross volunteer, manning the canteen. He was known as reliable and cheerful, and he had been asked by the Frederick County, Md., chapter to take time off from his job to help keep the agents fed and warm. Hours later, one of the agents realized Ivins worked at the lab, and he was asked to leave. He did so without protest. He would not be considered a suspect until five years later.
On Aug. 6, nearly seven years after anonymous letters containing anthrax spores killed five people and sickened 17 others, the FBI and Department of Justice presented their case against Ivins. It was as much a trial of the FBI as it was of Ivins himself. The anthrax murder case has become an epic embarrassment for the bureau, and the suicide of Ivins on July 29 forced the government to go public with its case against him before it was ready. The evidence the government released was compelling. But the science behind much of the narrative remains a mystery. If the goal is to prove that Ivins was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, the conversation has only just begun.
Most of all, the affidavits and other documents revealed a mentally unstable man who struggled mightily to keep his pain under control. A year before the anthrax attacks, Ivins confided to a friend: "I wish I could control the thoughts in my mind," he wrote in an e-mail. "When I'm being eaten alive inside, I always try to put on a good front here at work and at home, so I don't spread the pestilence." Ivins apparently managed to conceal his torment from his colleagues. "He was a rock," says Dr. W. Russell Byrne, who ran Ivins' division for 18 months, from 1998 to 2000. Ivins worked on finding vaccines for anthrax, which was a dangerous, dirty job. "He was a good scientist, working in an area that not a whole lot of people wanted to fool with back then. Nobody ever doubted his work."
Born in Ohio and schooled at the University of Cincinnati, Ivins worked at Fort Detrick for 28 years. He lived in a small white house with his wife and two adopted children, directly across the street from the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, and Ivins walked to work. He played the keyboard at St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church, and he liked to write letters to the editors of local papers.
In 2000, as his mental health began to deteriorate, he also faced a spike in pressure at work. The Army's anthrax vaccine was plagued by production problems, and Ivins and his colleagues were charged with figuring out why. In an e-mail to a friend, Ivins wrote that he sometimes felt as if he were watching himself work at his desk from a few feet away, a classic symptom of what psychologists call dissociative behavior. After 9/11, Ivins wrote his friend that he was saddened and extremely angry about the terrorist attacks. He was in group counseling at the time, and one of his co-workers e-mailed a colleague that "Bruce has been an absolute manic basket case the last few days."
In what may be the most powerful piece of evidence to be released, lab records show that in September and October 2001 Ivins worked late — much later than usual — on the nights leading up to the days on which the anthrax letters were sent. In December 2001, he wrote the most disturbing e-mail of all the messages released by the Justice Department: "I made up some poems about having two people in one (me the person in my dreams): ... I'm a little dream-self, short and stout./ I'm the other half of Bruce — when he lets me out./ When I get all steamed up, I don't pout./ I push Bruce aside, them [sic] I'm Free to run about!"
The hundreds of pages of legal documents suggest that Ivins stood to gain from causing an anthrax scare. Before the anthrax letters, his life's work was in jeopardy because of questions about the effectiveness of anthrax vaccines in general. After the attacks, the Army's vaccine got back on track with Ivins' help. The lab also received a surge of resources and prestige as the deaths from the letters made anthrax a matter of national security. Ivins also gained financially as a co-inventor on two patents connected to his work, though it remains unclear how much money Ivins personally made from them. At the time of his death, according to the Army, he and his fellow inventors were collecting $2,000 a year each in royalties. In 2003, Ivins and his fellow scientists received the Decoration of Exceptional Civilian Service, the highest honor given to nonmilitary Defense Department employees.
Meanwhile, the FBI continued to focus its research on Dr. Steven Hatfill, another scientist at Fort Detrick. It proved a consuming distraction. Earlier this year, a federal judge found "not one scintilla of evidence" linking Hatfill to the anthrax mailings, and the government settled with Hatfill in June, agreeing to pay him $2.83 million and an annuity of $150,000. It was not until 2004 that FBI agents realized that Ivins had not given them the exact sample of anthrax they had requested, so an agent went to the lab and confiscated a flask.
Much of the government's case hinges on connecting this sample, which Ivins supervised, to the anthrax used in the attacks. The government has repeatedly asserted that new technology helped the feds identify four genetic mutations in both samples and link the spores in the envelopes to the spores under Ivins' control. But scientists who study anthrax remain mystified by what this new science actually is. "The nature of biological weapons is such that it is very difficult to figure out where something came from," says Randall Larsen, author of a 2007 book on homeland security, Our Own Worst Enemy. After watching the press conference on Aug. 6 and reading the documents, Tara O'Toole, director of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, found no answers to her questions. "We don't know what techniques were used to link the samples," she says. "There are a lot of weird little details that are tantalizing but unexplained."
Since Ivins' death, his attorney, Paul Kemp, has repeatedly said he was innocent. He says Ivins cooperated fully with the FBI during two dozen interviews and passed at least two lie-detector tests. Kemp claims the FBI harassed his client for months, driving him into a spiral of alcohol and depression. Certainly, Ivins' last months were tortured. He was twice hospitalized for depression, once after one of his counselors said he had threatened to kill his co-workers. By then law-enforcement officials had searched his home, his computers, his cars, his safe-deposit box, his office, his lab and all his e-mails. Agents had interviewed his children, showing his daughter pictures of the anthrax victims, according to Ivins' friends.
On July 6, three days before he allegedly threatened to murder his colleagues, he played the keyboard at Mass. "He looked bummed out," Byrne recalls, "but that was the norm for him these days." Byrne remembers Ivins doing one small thing that seemed out of character as he began to unplug his piano. "There was a folding table in his way. And he shoved that table about one foot away. It shocked me because he always does things right. That was the most violent act I ever saw him do."
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