In September and October of 2001, an anonymous source dropped a white powder containing deadly anthrax into the mail. The attack killed five people; threatened the safety of Congress, the media, and the public at large; and rekindled the fears still raw from the September 11th attacks. The FBI ultimately focused on Bruce Ivins as a suspect, a biologist at the Army’s Fort Detrick biodefense lab, who had the access and knowledge necessary to carry out the plot. Over the past nine years, the FBI has conducted a far-reaching and costly investigation, looking into Ivins’s colleagues and tracing every scientist who had access to his supply of anthrax. In all, the investigation spanned six continents, included 9,100 interviews, and was tasked by 27 FBI and postal service agents. (See the article in the Washington Post.) However, prosecutors never had the opportunity to officially charge or try Ivins, who committed suicide in 2008 while in government custody.
Nonetheless, last week the FBI closed the case, clearing other scientists of culpability and deciding only Ivins could have committed the terrorist act. On February 19, 2010, the Department of Justice released its Amerithrax Investigative Summary, which begins,
In its early stages, despite the enormous amount of evidence gathered through traditional law enforcement techniques, limitations on scientific methods prevented law enforcement from determining who was responsible for the attacks. Eventually, traditional law enforcement techniques were combined with groundbreaking scientific analysis that was developed specifically for the case to trace the anthrax used in the attacks to a particular flask of material. By 2007, investigators conclusively determined that a single spore-batch created and maintained by Dr. Bruce E. Ivins at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (“USAMRIID”) was the parent material for the letter spores. An intensive investigation of individuals with access to that material ensued. Evidence developed from that investigation established that Dr. Ivins, alone, mailed the anthrax letters.
In addition to access, Ivins logged excessive nighttime hours, was absent during the time the envelopes were mailed, and could have made the trip to the mailbox in Princeton, NJ, during that window. Critics say that without physical or other decisive evidence, the investigation should not be closed. Regardless, the Justice Department is satisfied with its result. Assistant Director in Charge Joseph Persichini, of the FBI Washington Field Office, stated categorically that, “Bruce Ivins was responsible for the death, sickness, and fear brought to our country by the 2001 anthrax mailings.”
Normally, when a suspect is not formally indicted, the evidence against him is not publicly released, in part due to the presumption of innocence of criminal defendants. However, according to the FBI’s website, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia stated at the press conference that “because of the extraordinary public interest in this investigation . . . we are compelled to take the extraordinary step of providing the victims, their families, Congress, and the American public with an overview of some recent developments as well as some of our conclusions.” The Amerithrax Investigative Summary, 96 pages in length, chronicles in detail the investigation conducted and the evidence obtained. On the last page, its brief conclusion states, “Based on the evidence set forth above, the investigation into the anthrax letter attacks of 2001 has been concluded.”
Critics of the investigation will no doubt continue to question its processes and the substance of the evidence uncovered. There is, however, a larger national security issue lurking between the lines. Nine years later, is the U.S. population prepared to deal with a widespread anthrax attack? A December 2009 poll conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health found that while 89% of respondents would follow recommended procedures to obtain necessary antibiotics, almost 40% would not begin taking them immediately, as directed. That study, at a minimum, raises concerns about how effective federal, state, and local programs would be at reducing the effects of such a bio-terror attack, even assuming those programs themselves are operating under ideal conditions.
Image courtesy of the AP, via the Washington Post