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Inside the tent, the best bioterrorist money could buy?

Bruce Ivins, US government scientist, and anthrax terrorist?

By George Smith, Dick Destiny, 4 Aug 2008

When Bruce Ivins, presumed psycho amateur juggler/church keyboardist/government scientist/bioterrorist, committed suicide by drug overdose, taking two days to die, everyone was taken by surprise by an FBI effort notable for almost complete information secrecy until the shoe was about to drop. In early July, many had commented, including this writer, on the huge payout to Steven Hatfill, a former "person of interest" in the anthrax investigation, assuming it meant that the case was all screwed up. Apparently, just the opposite!

Since 2006, the agency had refocused its investigation on Ivins. The story, broken by the Los Angeles Times, was a major scoop. It outlined how the feds had placed the 62-year-old Ivins in an investigative vice, one which led to him being kicked out of the US Army's biodefense research facility at Fort Detrick for threatening to kill co-workers and himself. Ivins was then briefly admitted to a local psychiatric unit, where he continued to menace people. With a grand jury hearing witnesses and scientists sworn to secrecy, the government had notified Ivins' lawyer, Paul Kemp, that charges were coming down.

Stranger still, a peace order lodged against Ivins in the quiet town of Frederick, MD, the home to many of Fort Detrick's scientists, had put the information into the open on July 24.

Jean Duley, a therapist, had filed a petition requesting Ivins be compelled to stay clear of her. Ivins, Duley wrote, had been undergoing counseling and had been judged homicidal by his psychiatrist and "sociopathic with clear intentions." Duley continued that she had testified in a case involving Ivins and that he would "be charged with five capital murders." Anyone looking over the document at the courthouse on July 24 and noting that Ivins' place of employment was "Ft. Dietrick" [sic] would have immediately concluded that the Amerithraxer, whose mailings had killed five in October 2001, was about to be arrested. (A weekend report added that Duley testified that Ivins had attempted to poison people as early as 2000. How she knew this was not disclosed.)

At this point, we'll note that Ivins' lawyer, alongside some scientists at Fort Detrick, maintains Ivins' innocence, pointing out that it was pressure from the FBI and humiliation at being kicked out of the biodefense lab that led to his suicide.

Anthrax vaccine boffin

Ivins had worked at the facility for 18 years. Vexingly, the boffin's research was on an improved anthrax vaccine. The Los Angeles Times informed that Ivins' held patents on it. Farmed out to the the private sector, inefficiency and struggle wrapped production of it in failure, most notably at a San Francisco company named VaxGen, which never delivered on orders. Ivins, although entered into a royalty sharing agreement on future sales, had subsequently not made money off it. Various parties pointed out that even if the vaccine had gone into rapid production, the scientist, while possibly gaining some tens of thousands of dollars, would not have become fabulously wealthy through it. In 2003, Ivins had also received the Decoration for Exceptional Civilian Service, the highest award the military can award to a civilian employee, for helping to solve problems in the manufacture of the vaccine.

After the anthrax mailings, Ivins was also part of a team of scientists at Fort Detrick who consulted to the FBI while the facility was analyzing contaminated mail and the original powders. Readers are left to imagine the dilemma faced by the bureau, its agents working to map a scientific maze in which a sophisticated psychopath is tapped into the analysis of his own work.

Ivins also represents a major practical dilemma.

What do you do when the best bioterrorist money can buy is the one at the heart of the most trusted and sensitive biodefense facility in the country? Despite the constant received wisdom of bioterror, that jihadists from the dirt piles of Afghanistan or Pakistan would wield it against American cities, the enemy was someone in a state-of-the-art government lab in idyllic suburban Maryland. Not someone who wanted to do away with the American way of life, but a person who enjoyed its benefits; but who was still a fiend who'd send lethal germs in the mail right after 9/11, designing the attack to make it look like the handiwork of someone from the Muslim world.

In 2001, the panic over the anthrax mailings also inspired a desire to hang the attacks on Iraq.

The US military was engaged in bombing the Taliban out of power in Afghanistan when the newsmedia began reporting that an ingredient allegedly found in the anthrax, bentonite, pointed it toward the bioweapons program of Saddam Hussein.

Between the attacks in September/October 2001 until the end of the year, mainstream news organizations ran about 150 stories mentioning bentonite, the anthrax and Iraq.

'Obviously Saddam to blame!'

"One expert familiar with the investigation of the Senate anthrax said that a microscopic examination of the spores showed that they were surrounded by a tiny brown ring," wrote William Broad and Judith Miller for the New York Times. "This, he said, would be consistent with the use of bentonite."

And bentonite was a unique ingredient in Iraq's bioweapons program, the article informed. Of course, this was long before Judith Miller was tossed for bad reporting on WMDs in Iraq.

On the ABC evening news, Brian Ross furiously peddled Iraq and bentonite. "It's possible other countries may be using it, too, but it is a trademark of Saddam Hussein's biological weapons program," Ross told viewers of the evening broadcast on October 26.

"This news about bentonite as the additive is being a trademark of the Iraqi biological weapons program is very significant," added anchor Peter Jennings. "And some are going to be quick to pick up on this as a smoking gun."

Eventually bentonite faded from view. Who had pushed it? It's virtually impossible to tell with certainty. Almost all the stories attribute nebulous "experts" furnishing the information. Those scientists named were only those called upon to explain what bentonite meant in the context of biological weaponry.

In December 2001, Fort Detrick was busily engaged in analyzing contaminated mail. And it was during this period that a number of anthrax contaminations occurred at the facility, surprisingly reported by Ivins. At the time, the contaminations were attributed to minor negligence and complacency.

However, only in hindsight do they apparently point to something greater and one can speculate that this is what contributed to the FBI suspecting Ivins.

An Army report on the contaminations said that Ivins had indeed discovered anthrax contaminations but had not reported them. And he had started doing the unauthorized samplings in December 2001. The scientist said he had become concerned that anthrax from the investigation - the lab was processing tens of thousands of pieces of mail - was not adequately contained.

"I didn't keep records or verify the cultures because I was concerned that records might be obtained under the Freedom of Information Act," Ivins told the Army. "I was also afraid that reporting would have raised great alarm within the institute, which at the time was very busy..."

Ivins undertook the disinfection of contaminated surfaces with bleach. And he set about another round of unauthorized samplings, including his office, as late as April 15, 2002.

Col. David L. Hoover, the Army scientist who had prepared the report on contamination at Fort Detrick, could not determine where the anthrax came from. Many contaminations might have occurred from different sources, like various shipping containers used for anthrax samples.

Covering tracks?

The Army apparently asked Ivins to explain further unauthorized samplings in April of 2002. "[Ivins] said he again became suspicious of contamination April 8, 2002, when two researchers reported potential exposures after noticing that flasks they were working with had leaked anthrax, causing crusting on the outside of the glass," reported USA today two years ago.

News reports on the Ivins suicide have featured some sources who insisted Ivins had no access to dry anthrax. In retrospect and knowing that crusts are dry, this would seem to be a moot point.

Since the scientists of Fort Detrick are vaccinated against anthrax, the contaminations never posed a health hazard for them.

However, official samplings for anthrax contaminations at Fort Detrick determined spore counts, according to the Army report. In this way, the severity of contamination could be determined. Ivins' unauthorized sampling and disinfections may have circumvented this process.

Of course, perhaps this is all circumstantial and the news from the Army's report is not germane. Or maybe it pointed to someone attempting to feverishly cover their tracks.

If Ivins is incontrovertibly the culprit, the government will probably close the case. A press release issued by the Department of Justice implied that substantial news was in the offing.

Questions remain unanswered. What was his motivation? Money as a reason seems weak tea. Did anyone know Bruce Ivins was Dr. Evil and if they did, when did they know it? What is said about reliability at Fort Detrick and the ability to ensure it?

The anthrax attacks galvanized the bioterror defense industry in the United States. They caused a boom in the employment of more and more scientists with access to disease-causing agents in state-of-the-art research settings. It sparked a mad scramble among universities for the establishment of high security biocontainment labs. All things which seem counterintuitive, even radically unwise, upon considering the nature of a Bruce Ivins.

Anthrax was not the work of wishful but duff al Qaeda men or any other alleged mortal enemies of the American way. It was, as many always suspected, our own murderous nut, even if only one in a million, his motivations as yet still unexplained.

Bootnote: God save the FBI if they're wrong again. ®

George Smith is a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense affairs think tank and public information group. At Dick Destiny, he blogs his way through chemical, biological, and nuclear terror hysteria, often by way of the contents of neighbourhood hardware stores.

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