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Anthrax source still debated

Sunday, August 10, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT

Loory: The FBI says Dr. Bruce Ivins, an anthrax germ warfare specialist, was the man who killed five people and injured 17 others after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Ivins, who worked at the biological weapons laboratory in Fort Detrick, Md., committed suicide July 29, before he was charged with any crime. Ivins had a history of psychological problems, dating to before 9/11. The FBI said the spores used in making the powdered anthrax that killed and wounded the 2001 victims came from a vial Ivins controlled. Some feel these charges against Ivins after his death are similar to the implication that another Fort Detrick scientist, Dr. Steven Hatfill, was involved in the killings. The FBI has apologized to Hatfill, and a court awarded him $5.8 million in damages for invasion of privacy. Ivins' family and friends say Ivins wasn't involved and that the FBI's hounding drove him to suicide. At the Justice Department's recent press conference, how convincing was attorney Jeffrey Taylor's argument that the government has gotten its man and can close the case?

Lara Jakes Jordan, Justice Department reporter, The Associated Press, Washington, D.C.: The government is sure it has gotten the right guy, but there are gaping holes in the case. It is based almost completely on the DNA evidence of the spores Ivins controlled in his lab. Investigators used sophisticated technology, unavailable when the case first came up, to conclusively isolate the Ames anthrax to a flask in Ivins' lab. However, officials can't put Ivins in Princeton, where the mailbox the letters were sent from is. And nothing indicates Ivins had real problems with any of the five letter recipients. The DNA evidence is fairly conclusive, but this is a circumstantial case. People who knew Ivins say it's easy for the government to blame a dead guy for the crime. They say he may have been strange but that doesn't make him a killer.

Loory: Is Ivins dead because the government indicated it planned to charge him?

Jordan: Ivins' lawyer is claiming that. Ivins knew he was going to be charged but may not have known it would be for capital crimes. A plea deal discussion was underway, but he knew the government was closing in.

Loory: Why was a man with a history of mental disturbance allowed to work at a germ warfare laboratory?

Jordan: Employers can only go so far in asking people about their mental histories. The FBI background check had asked if Ivins was taking medication or if he had been treated for depression. But until recently, the background check didn't ask probing questions about a federal employee's mental health. When the FBI focused on Ivins in 2005, his security clearances were ratcheted back. He lost access to some of the germ warfare he had been working with for years. Basically, he was relegated to paperwork.

Loory: Dr. Horowitz, you've studied germ warfare. What do you think of the government's case?

Dr. Leonard Horowitz, public health and emerging disease expert, author of "Death in the Air: Globalism, Terrorism, and Toxic Warfare," Sandpoint, Ohio: The case is full of holes. It's a cover-up. One week before the first mailing, I told the FBI it had a deadly anthrax scam unfolding. I had been studying the inside operations of the anthrax vaccine maker in Michigan. This was a psychological operation of fanning fears through serial homicide. It sold about a billion dollars worth of the antibiotic Cipro for the Bayer Corporation and about $500 million of a stockpiled, flawed anthrax vaccine.

Loory: You're saying these letters were mailed as part of a drug manufacturer conspiracy?

Horowitz: Absolutely. I brought that conspiracy to the FBI's attention. Instead of recognizing me as someone with expertise who wanted to help, national security agents apprehended me and made me a suspect. What investigators are missing is the anthrax that was mailed was a highly sophisticated, never-before-seen, hyper-concentrated strain. Ivins didn't have that at Fort Detrick.

Jordan: Investigators say the strain was at Fort Detrick and was isolated to the lab Ivins used, to one vial under his control. They call that beaker the murder weapon. If other places have the strain, investigators didn't make that clear. Others at Fort Detrick might have had access, but the FBI says it chased down other leads, and it's convinced nobody else had the means or the motive to do it.

Loory: How is this case going down among U.S. allies?

Brooks Tigner, Europe defence technology editor, Jane's International Defence Review, Houston: This doesn't do America's image abroad any good. It probably adds to the problems America has created with Guantanamo Bay and the Iraq conflict. One gets a sense from European officials that about 30 years of foreign goodwill has been dismantled in the last six or seven years. The general perception is of an increasing lack of accountability within the U.S. government.

Loory: Why don't media outlets worldwide appear concerned with anthrax use in the U.S.?

Tigner: The consensus is biological threats are easiest to concoct. Europeans don't talk about it because they don't want to encourage perpetrators to move in that direction. However, NATO and the European Union are looking into this - NATO from a military standpoint and the EU from the perspective of protecting civilians. There is no common methodology on the military side for NATO or the EU. The military labs are as secure as they are in the States, but on the civilian side at hospitals and university labs, there are no common standards of protection or of vetting personnel.

Loory: What about the possibility this was a conspiracy that originated elsewhere in the world?

Jordan: Officials said during the last seven years the investigation took them to six continents. They spent tens of millions of dollars tracking it down and, in the end, came back to a lab that was 50 miles from their headquarters.

Horowitz: It's important to look at the case's history. The British-American germ warfare efforts have always worked together and Porton Down, Britain's main biological weapons protection facility, shipped the Ames strain to the U.S. Following the mailings, approximately tens of thousands of people took Cipro, which was oddly the only government-sanctioned antibiotic for anthrax. That is absurd because one could kill anthrax with everything from penicillin to tetracycline.

Loory: Did Ivins have a financial motive because he was developing a vaccine he hoped to get royalties from?

Jordan: It's debatable. Ivins was one of two people who applied for a patent for the vaccine. According to the patent application, he didn't stand to make much money from it, maybe $30,000 or $40,000.

Loory: The FBI and the Justice Department's inability to solve this case to everyone's satisfaction is another block on the government's credibility at a time that is unacceptable worldwide. The matter remains a mystery.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Jared Gassen and Catherine Wolf.

 

 


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