The anthrax scare: Case and flask closed
But conspiracy theories still very much open
When the US government closed the anthrax case recently, the committee to clear Bruce Ivins and all the conspiracy theorists again emerged from the closet. Because the case took so long and the bioterrorist was at the center of the US biodefense research community, careers and reputations were made and lost on it.
The Department of Justice and FBI released a 96-page executive summary of the case. It contains a good picture of the flask of anthrax death, the gold standard for bioterrorism. In recapping, the scientific work teased out the unique mixture of genetic fingerprint - morphological variance, it's called - in the mailed anthrax, and matched it with the flask of spores in Ivins's control.
Ivins was not the only person with access to the glass of horror. However, the bureau eventually cleared Steven Hatfill because he never had access to the area of Ft. Detrick where it was stored when he worked at the institution two years prior to the attacks.
As the FBI continued its investigation, closing in on Ivins's lab, the scientist made a number of attempts to throw them off the case. At one time Ivins indicated in analysis that a freshly made culture plate of the mailed anthrax looked like that of a colleague's when it actually looked like his own. In another, he furnished a purposely a misleading sample to the FBI.
At other times he downplayed his lab skills with anthrax, saying he could not have made a spore preparation consistent with the purity ("99 percent refractile," in his words) in the mailings when notation in his own work described the master flask of anthrax having the same purity, a quality he worked to maintain. Most unusual was Ivins opening of a sock puppet email account similar to that of a female colleague with whom he had an obsession, also someone whose email account he invaded.
Then he sent messages from another sock puppet account under his control to the first, claiming that he'd solved the anthrax case, piecing together who'd done it. The information was promised in a further email which never arrived but points to not only increasingly erratic behavior, but a belief that he was being monitored.
The government argues Ivins weakly tried to implicate two colleagues he felt had turned on him. Ivins further made use of an email snooper which employed monitoring attachments to mail he sent to colleagues.
"The discovery of Dr. Ivins' use of this tool was the first glimpse into the level of counter-surveillance in which he engaged," the FBI summary notes dryly. Further description paints a picture of increasing levels of paranoia about what the FBI might be planting in its visits to Ft. Detrick.
These personal details paint a picture of a man whose mind was racing, his mental state crumbling as the years of investigation rolled by. Also never well-publicized until now is the FBI's assertion that there was a hidden message in the anthrax letters.
The printed warnings contained a series of bolded letters, which when assembled corresponded to a type of codons. The FBI explained this was derived from Ivins' fascination with puzzles and codes, in particular a scientific article entitled The Linguistics of DNA and Doug Hofstader's 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach.
"It is difficult to summarize what the book is about," the FBI writes with some understatement. "However, the basic premise is that there are surface meanings... and then there are meanings within mathematics, art and music that are hidden."
Ivins tried to dispose of this book, and the article on DNA linguistics, in his garbage.
The bureau had seized both items. The executive summary argues that while the discussion is tough sledding, it was germane to Ivins's guilt, yielding the idea that not only was there a hidden message in the anthrax letters, but that the methods were derived from Ivins's personal readings, a book and a paper he tried to dispose of when he believed the FBI was on to him.
The messages - and we leave it to you to read the detailed method of it in the FBI's summary - delivered in part of a 'genetic code' were an abbreviation of 'F--- New York' (one of the anthrax mailings went to the New York Post, another to Tom Brokaw at NBC) and 'PAT,' the name of a colleague Ivins was obsessed with. Whether a jury could follow this argument will never be answered.
But certainly many people who read the government summary will find it fascinating and lucid. Obviously, much of the evidence against Ivins is circumstantial. The FBI admits as much. Unsurprisingly, with any case as famous, drawn out, terrifying and fraught with initial blind alleys as Amerithrax, there are a large number of people - in separate groups - who will never be able to accept that Ivins was the anthraxer. There are those with a professional interest in exonerating him in argument - colleagues at Ft. Detrick.
Ivins's anthrax mailings from the heart of the country's biodefense research establishment impeaches it on many levels, and it is human nature that such a verdict is unacceptable. Ivins throws into question the very need for its work, exploding the trust, reliability and impeccable reputation that such an institution must have.
In the days that followed the release of the Ivins case summary, the 'Clear Bruce' lobby immediately showed in the press. Ivins could not have done it, his colleagues knew him too well. However, to read the news is to know America has no shortage of those who do horrifying things, with their family and colleagues attesting complete ignorance of it. Ivins could not have done it because he did not either have the time or the professional skills needed to make the 'weaponized' dry spore preparation, particularly those found in the second set of anthrax mailings.
The FBI persuasively argues that he did have the time, that he in fact took the time and expended extra effort in his preparations just before sending off the second mailing; and that other microbiologists indicated to the investigation that the anthraxer certainly would have been able to dry a spore preparation to the mailed standard using a lyophilizer, something Ivins really did know how to do.
The FBI's argument is technical but not unreasonable at all. It is consistent, for example, with this author's scientific experience with bacterial preparations. Arguments to the contrary rely on equally technical details.
The press, of course, cannot evaluate independently, being only able to deliver arguments from authority - all depending on who it believes to be authority. It is also said the National Academy of Science will get around to exonerating Ivins by blowing the FBI's methods out of the water. The case is closed but the conspiracy industry surrounding it will only increase.
Paradoxically, Bruce Ivins - this very strange and unstable boffin who was one of the foremost experts on anthrax and the anthrax vaccine in the country, and whose motive in the mailings was apparently to rescue a vaccine research effort which was his life's work but which was headed for failure prior to the attacks - initially accomplished his aim.
The "program was suddenly rejuvenated", writes the FBI. But Ivins' vaccine research has now been used as an argument by a small number within the US military who believe the vaccine in the national stockpile is not safe or approved, and that the scientist's work in connection with it constitutes fruit of the poison tree.
And while the anthrax mailings caused explosive growth in the biodefense research industry in this country, it severely taints Ft. Detrick - the research institution that is seen as the beating heart of it.
This leads to the rejoinder, arrived at by tarring through the company you kept, whenever an expert from somewhere within it emerges to recommend ever more spending against the danger of bioterrorism: "You would say that."