Are We Safer Since 9/11?
A Special Report Investigates
By Marcus Stern & Adam Piore
November 10, 2008
Seven years after
9/11, a deadly anthrax attack, and billions of dollars spent on homeland
security, experts say we may be more vulnerable than ever to bioterrorism.
A special report.
Leroy Richmond still can't believe his luck. In 2001 the postal worker and volunteer safety captain at the U.S. Postal Service's Brentwood facility in Washington, D.C., was among the first to see the bulletin from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention informing the office that two anthrax-dusted letters had passed through his workplace on their way to senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy.
But even as the 56-year-old father of three hastened around the cavernous building near the Capitol warning coworkers to keep an eye out for suspicious white powder, he never considered that the deadly bacterium might already be germinating in his lungs. "I was keeping everyone on high alert," recalls Richmond, a lanky retiree with a pencil-thin mustache. "Some people looked at me and said, 'Are you all right? You look like you have a cold.' "
When Richmond's wife, Susan, drove him to a local clinic about a week later, he was so weak, she had to help him out of the car. By then, he was struggling to breathe and couldn't even tell the doctor his name. After finding no obvious cause, Richmond's internist almost sent him home with some aspirin. At the last minute, though, the doctor reconsidered and sent him to the hospital, a decision that saved Richmond's life. Even there, it took two sets of X-rays and several examinations before the doctors suspected the truth: Richmond was infected by anthrax. "When you look at it, there was so much confusion," Richmond says. "The biggest reason I'm alive: an act of God."
Now, seven years after the attack, the idea that a heinous act such as this one-which sickened Richmond and 16 others, killed five, and terrorized a nation wholly unprepared and without defense—could go undetected for weeks seems impossible to him. Most Americans would make this assumption. Were such an attack to occur today, Richmond asserts from his home in suburban Virginia, "it would be totally different." The tainted letters would be detected quickly, he believes. Doctors would immediately recognize the symptoms of anthrax infection. If the attack were on a massive scale, rescuers would rush to the scene and decontaminate it. Fatalities would be unlikely.
But a special report for Reader's Digest by ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest, suggests otherwise. Despite some $48 billion in federal spending on biodefense—including a new nationwide network of research labs and a $1 billion detection system called BioWatch operating in more than 30 cities-the nation may be just as vulnerable to an attack today as it ever was. Indeed, some biodefense experts warn, we may be less safe.
In recent months, government auditors, public health experts, and outside watchdog groups have unearthed a litany of failures and mistakes in the nation's vast and burgeoning bio-defense program. In September, the Partnership for a Secure America, a bipartisan group of leading national-security experts, issued a report stating that the United States remains "dangerously vulnerable" to nuclear, chemical, and biological attacks.
Margaret Hamburg, MD, a former New York City health commissioner and a former assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, warns that another anthrax attack would likely still be met with "chaos, uncertainty, and delayed and missed diagnoses."
While higher-risk areas such as New York City tend to be further along, in many parts of the country, emergency plans to prepare hospitals for an influx of bioterrorism victims are still in early stages. "Individual hospitals have gotten more prepared," says Tara O'Toole, MD, director of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, who is completing a study on the subject commissioned by Health and Human Services. "But we still aren't able to care for large or sustained increases in patient demand such as you would see during a bioterror attack. We don't have rapid diagnostic tests that say you have anthrax or flu … even though the technology exists."
Frustrated weapons-proliferation experts complain that biodefense programs are haphazard and disorganized, spread across the Department of Homeland Security and at least 11 other departments and agencies, with no single person in charge. Critics point out that BioWatch can't detect pathogens released indoors, underground, on planes and buses, or in most subways. Others worry that the system is not capable of providing real-time information to first responders, potentially a fatal flaw.
But these troubling findings seem like mere side notes when compared with the main concern of some scientists: that government programs have heightened the level of danger by vastly increasing the number of researchers and labs authorized to handle deadly substances.
When the government released its case last summer against the man they believe engineered the 2001 anthrax attack, the possibility of an insider abusing the system to deadly effect became very real. While antiterrorist programs focused on international terrorism, this suspect was homegrown: He was a longtime research scientist named Bruce Ivins who worked in a government lab.
A similar incident, or one much worse, could happen again. In its efforts to protect Americans, the government has vastly increased the number of researchers with access to deadly agents. But, say critics, it has failed to implement sufficient oversight and stringent security procedures to screen them. Any terrorist looking to infiltrate a lab today has hundreds more targets to choose from than he did seven years ago. Brian Finlay, a senior associate at the Henry L. Stimson Center, a nonpartisan think tank, puts it bluntly: "There's no question that the proliferation of bioresearch is leaving us less secure by the day."
FROM TERROR TO ERROR
With its quaint brick buildings, wooded parks, and weekend tailgate parties, the campus of Texas A&M University hardly looks like a front in the war on terror. But teams of researchers there have long been part of the government's growing army of scientific soldiers.
Recently they have also become something else: poster children for the dangers inherent in the willy-nilly expansion of the nation's bioresearch program.
It all started when a private watchdog organization, the Sunshine Project, uncovered problems at one of the university's Biosafety Level-3 labs, which can handle "select agents"-dangerous pathogens, such as anthrax and tularemia, that can be aerosolized and used in terrorist attacks and for which a treatment or vaccine may exist. (BSL-4 labs handle select agents with no vaccine or cure, including Ebola and Lassa fever, as well as smallpox, which does have a vaccine.)
Last year, the CDC temporarily halted research on select agents at A&M when it found the school had allowed unauthorized access to contagious pathogens, misplaced vials of hazardous agents, and kept poor records on who entered the labs. Several employees showed signs of exposure to contagious and potentially fatal bacteria. The university, however, failed to report the cases.
In one troubling incident, on February 9, 2006, a PhD lab worker with no training in handling the highly infectious brucella bacteria, and no authorization to do so, was enlisted to clean out a chamber that aerosolizes pathogens. An investigation concluded that she wore ill-fitting protective goggles, a mistake that may have allowed the bacteria to enter her body through her eyes.
It was six weeks before the worker came down with flulike symptoms. It took 62 days to confirm the diagnosis of brucella infection. During much of that time, she "had resumed her normal activities, interacting with many people," the Government Accountability Office later wrote in its report. "It was fortunate that transmission beyond the initial exposed individual was difficult and that there was no risk of spreading the disease to the community," the GAO noted. "Many agents cause diseases that are easily transferred from human to human through coughing or fluid."
Nor is the A&M facility the only federally funded lab where shocking allegations have emerged. The institution's state rival, the University of Texas at Austin, now has two BSL-3 labs. Last June, Harold Davis, the associate vice president overseeing security compliance, resigned, accusing the university of resisting federal security guidelines. The university says it is in full compliance with federal regulations.
In September, a GAO report singled out security problems in two of the nation's BSL-4 labs. According to news reports, a lab at the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio, Texas, had an outside window looking directly into the room where dangerous materials were handled, and the only vehicle barrier was a gate arm that swung across the road. The other lab, at Georgia State University in Atlanta, lacked complete security barriers and monitored cameras.
Even the CDC is not impervious to mishaps. At one lab a recent lightning storm caused a power outage, and the lab's backup generators shut down. Although no pathogens were on the site at the time, electricity to a critical safety system was cut off. In another case at the same $214 million facility, staffers duct-taped a door leading to a containment area when its lock broke. Even when the lock was repaired, the duct tape stayed on for a year as an "enhancement."
To some public health experts, the growing list of careless accidents and potential disasters illustrates fundamental flaws in a system that was built too fast, has become too big, and still operates with too little oversight. In the wake of 9/11 and the deadly anthrax attack that followed, the government made tens of billions of federal dollars available for bioterror research. And the National Institutes of Health was encouraging labs to expand into this kind of research. Thousands of microbiologists turned to this rewarding new field.
The result was that hundreds of new labs began storing and handling pathogens. "Suddenly there were swarms of people wanting to work on this issue," says Dr. Hamburg, who now serves as senior scientist at the Nuclear Threat Initiative. She recalls the frenetic atmosphere when the spending surge began in 2002: "There was lots of money-it was just a frenzy at the feeding trough."
All told, over the last seven years, the number of labs that possess select agents multiplied more than twentyfold, estimates Richard H. Ebright of the Waksman Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers University. Over 1,350 public and private BSL-3 labs and 15 BSL-4 labs-and some 15,000 scientists-have been authorized to handle these types of disease-causing and often fatal agents.
Many experts defend the proliferation of labs, including Dr. O'Toole of the Center for Biosecurity, who engaged in biological warfare games in the '90s that helped galvanize biodefense. "We can fight about the right number of labs," she says, "but the more researchers you have working on this, the more likely you're going to get effective medicine and vaccines against these threats."
Nevertheless, years after the anthrax attack, federal oversight of many labs still relies on self-policing, according to a 2007 GAO study. The "limited federal oversight that does exist for high-containment labs is fragmented among different federal agencies," the report stated. It went on to say that "no agency is responsible for determining the aggregate risks associated with the expansion of these labs."
All BSL-4 labs and the BSL-3 labs that handle select agents are required to register with the Department of Agriculture or the CDC. But, experts say, more unregistered BSL-3 facilities working with pathogens that are not considered select agents but are still dangerous, such as tuberculosis, HIV, and typhoid, are operating under the radar, increasing the likelihood of accidents and other problems.
It's not even the potential for sloppy lab procedures that worries some scientists the most. It's the lack of effective mechanisms to screen those working in them. For instance, researchers handling select agents are required to undergo checks by the Department of Justice. Among the factors that would disqualify a subject: previous commitment to a mental institution, a federal crime, or association with terrorist groups. But the investigations are nowhere near as stringent as those used for new FBI or CIA hires. It wouldn't be hard, say critics, to slip in through the cracks.
"The simplest, most likely path" for terrorists looking to acquire bioweapons capability "is to obtain bioweapons agents and training by penetrating a U.S. research project," says Rutgers's Ebright. "One well-placed graduate student, postdoctoral fellow, or technician … it's only a matter of time."
The case of Ivins-who committed suicide shortly after the FBI identified him as the 2001 anthrax killer-is a powerful indictment of the system of background checks. Ivins reportedly battled mental health problems and told a therapist earlier this year that he'd experienced homicidal thoughts as far back as graduate school.
DETECTING THE DANGER
Another concern is the government's effort to set up a system to detect and respond to bioterror attacks. A key component of that initiative is BioWatch, in which technicians have deployed a system of sensors in more than 30 undisclosed cities to detect some airborne biological threats, including anthrax, plague, and smallpox.
In theory, BioWatch would set off early-warning systems in the Department of Homeland Security, which also oversees the National Biosurveillance Integration Center, charged with integrating and analyzing data from 12 different agencies to ensure the earliest possible detection of a biological attack. It's a comforting idea. There's only one problem: It takes as long as 34 hours for threats to register with BioWatch, according to the GAO, because the air samples are manually collected and taken for analysis in labs. By the time results are analyzed, individuals exposed to the contaminants would likely have scattered, limiting the ability of first responders to contain the outbreak.
Efforts are under way to develop new technologies. But most experts agree the system is a long way from providing real-time detection or even registering the full arsenal of biological threats facing the United States. As Dr. Hamburg says, 9/11 led to a "lot of wishful thinking that new technologies might be the answer. There were a lot of investments made—some that made sense, some that didn't."
LOOKING FOR LEADERSHIP
How best to address the wasteful funding and bad planning in our biodefense programs? Milton Leitenberg, a University of Maryland researcher who authored a 2005 report on biodefense published by the Army War College, argues that a careful review and assessment of the various terrorist threats the country faces is essential, to be quickly followed by the designation of a person, or at the very least one agency, empowered to make changes. When biodefense programs were implemented after 9/11, he says, "there was really no significant public figure saying 'Just a minute—let's do an assessment first.' "
Dr. Hamburg hopes that the government's misconceptions about and mistakes in its biosecurity efforts will be faced squarely by the next Congress and especially by the incoming president and his national-security team. The new administration is going to have to "make some hard decisions about what programs just haven't fulfilled their promise or never made sense in the beginning, and which programs have value but need to be strengthened or extended," she says.
Whatever happens, Leroy Richmond will be watching. Seven years after the attack, tossing a football around with his 13-year-old son or vacuuming around the house is enough to exhaust him. Unable to return to work because of his health, he sometimes loses his train of thought midconversation—"senior moments," he insists, that are unrelated to his age. But he trusts the government he worked for all those decades to get it right. He believes it's only a matter of time.
--ProPublica's Marcus Stern
received a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for his role in breaking the story of
former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham's political corruption. Adam Piore
is a former editor at Newsweek. For more on this story, including links
and resources, go to propublica.org.
TO A TOWN NEAR YOU?
labs, which handle the most deadly pathogens, like Ebola, have tripled
since 9/11. The number of Level-3 labs handling dangerous germs like anthrax
has swelled to more than 1,350-too many to map below.
THE WAR AT HOME
Q: The federal government has spent more than $48 billion to combat bioterrorism, resulting in more labs and scientists handling these pathogens. Are we more vulnerable?
A: No. I think the stuff we have experimented with is very tightly secured, both against release as well as any possible attack. The problem is that the ingredients for a biological weapon can be found in nature.
Q: Where in the U.S. are we vulnerable now?
A: Traditionally, the threats have been focused on big cities. As we increase our security in the cities, the possibility remains [that terrorists] will shift their focus to other locations. In this country and other countries, some plotting has occurred and been carried out in middle-size communities.
Q: The FBI was investigating an insider for the 2001 anthrax attack. Is the country protected from its own employees?
A: Since that case, we've taken a hard look at security procedures. We have good security measures at high-threat labs. We do thorough background checks. With the BioWatch program, we have the capability to detect biological agents in the air and to collect clinical data that would indicate something is going on.
Q: How can BioWatch be fine-tuned?
A: The next generation that we're working on will give us more of a real-time composition of air with only a number of hours' delay, greatly reducing the wait time.
Q: Is Al Qaeda less of a threat than pre-9/11?
A: Yes, because of where we now are in Afghanistan. [Al Qaeda doesn't] have a full country in which they can operate with impunity, building laboratories in which to experiment with chemical and biological weapons, training openly, having the support of the leadership in that country.
Q: Thomas Kean, chairman of the 9/11 commission, has said "the weakest part of our homeland security is the citizen." What's your advice about disaster preparation?
A: People are very good about reporting stuff that they see is suspicious. The area where I think Kean is right is in the response to a disaster. A lot of people shy away from making minimal preparations. We have a site, ready.gov, that will tell you the basic things [you need] to be prepared for any kind of emergency.`1
Q: Do you sleep well at night?
Number of U.S. scientists authorized
to work with deadly pathogens: 15,000
Committee for Freedom of the Press
November 12, 2008 · Secret courts
Newspapers seek unsealing of anthrax search records
A federal court today will consider two newspapers’ request to release documents related to the 2001 “Amerithrax” investigations.
The New York Times on September 4 asked U.S. District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth for access to warrants and supporting materials related to searches of property owned or used by Dr. Bruce E. Ivins, Dr. Stephen J. Hatfill, and Hatfill’s former girlfriend. The Los Angeles Times joined in the request on September 9.
The newspapers noted that the 2001 anthrax investigation was one of the most complex and far-reaching criminal probes in American history. They argued that “the public has a qualified right of access to these court records, and no proper basis exists for continuing to keep the Warrant Materials under seal, particularly given the public’s knowledge that these three individuals were subject to scrutiny by the Amerithrax investigators.”
Hatfill was initially considered a “person of interest” in the case, but has since been cleared. He settled a lawsuit this summer against the government stemming from the investigation. Shortly after the settlement, within days of Ivins' suicide, the government claimed that Ivins was the “sole suspect” in the attacks.
The newspapers argued that the public should see the records in part because “Questions continue to be raised about how the investigation became misdirected in focusing on Dr. Hatfill (at huge expense to the American taxpayer), why it took seven years to complete the investigation, and whether the government’s conclusion that Dr. Ivins was solely responsible for the anthrax mailings is sound.”
— Rory Eastburg
Newspapers Pursue Anthrax Probe Records on Hatfill
Thursday, Nov. 13, 2008
Two U.S. newspapers yesterday urged a federal court to release search warrants and other records linking former U.S. Army biological defense researcher Steven Hatfill to the 2001 anthrax mailings that killed five people, the Associated Press reported (see GSN, Aug. 11).
The Justice Department has eliminated Hatfill’s public status as a “person of interest” in the killings and paid him $5.8 million to resolve an invasion of privacy lawsuit.
Lawyers for the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times contended that privacy concerns were outweighed by the public's right to learn on what basis investigators searched Hatfill’s residence and the apartment of his girlfriend.
"The public has a right to know why he was targeted," said Jeanette Melendez Bead, an attorney representing the news organizations.
Government attorneys said the documents should remain sealed to protect Hatfill, who was never charged with a crime. The Justice Department eventually identified Army microbiologist Bruce Ivins as the perpetrator. Ivins killed himself last summer before charges could be filed
(Jesse Holland, Associated Press/Google News, Nov. 12).
Scientific impossibility: Did FBI get their man in Bruce Ivins?
By Deborah Rudacille
Bruce Ivins was a cold-blooded murderer, a deranged psycho-killer, who in the fall of 2001, cooked up a virulent batch of powdered anthrax, drove to Princeton, N.J., and mailed letters loaded with the lethal mix to five news organizations and two U.S. senators.
At least, that’s what the FBI says.
The letters infected 22 people, killing five, including two Maryland postal workers.
The sixth victim of the madness was Ivins himself, a 62-year-old biodefense researcher at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, who committed suicide rather than face charges.
Case closed? Neatly wrapped up? Not so fast.
Married for 33 years — and a father of two — with a 35-year career as a civilian microbiologist at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Ivins, a devout Catholic, worked as a senior research scientist and an expert in animal models of anthrax. In 2003 he received the Army’s Decoration for Exceptional Civilian Service for work on an anthrax vaccine — an assignment the FBI now says provided a motive for the attacks.
Ivins apparently was obsessed with the investigation. According to the FBI, on Sept. 7, 2007, he sent an e-mail to himself, claiming to have figured out who mailed the anthrax letters. “I should have it TOTALLY nailed down within the month,” he wrote. “I should have been a private eye.”
Ivins, who did not name anyone in the e-mail, died on July 29, 2008, at Frederick Memorial Hospital after overdosing on prescription Tylenol with codeine. The FBI says he killed himself. The presence of the drug was determined from a blood sample. No autopsy was ordered.
Before his death, he was under 24-hour police surveillance, which included interrogations about his research and work habits, searches of his home and office, and intense questioning of family members and co-workers. Friends say that the FBI offered Ivins’ son $2.5 million and a sports car to hand over evidence implicating his father in the attacks.
The month before Ivins’ death, the federal government agreed to pay $5.8 million to another former Fort Detrick researcher, Steven Hatfill, for “improperly identifying him as a suspect in the case.”
When he learned the FBI was going to charge him with the crime after clearing Hatfill, Ivins swallowed a bottle of Tylenol.
Rush to judgment
In exclusive interviews with The Examiner, two former directors of the bacteriology division at Fort Detrick challenged the science underlying the case against Ivins. They argue it would have been impossible for Ivins to have produced the powdered anthrax in the contaminated letters in the time frame proposed by the FBI — the two weeks following the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
The BSL-3 (biosafety level 3) suite where Ivins worked at the Institute was composed of a series of laboratories and an office where access was restricted to trained personnel who were required to log in and out.
“Knowing the layout of the BSL-3 suite, the implication that Bruce could have whipped out [anthrax mixture] in a couple of weeks without detection is ridiculous,” says Gerald P. Andrews, director of the bacteriology division and Ivins’ supervisor from 2000 to 2003.
The first anthrax letters were
mailed to the New York offices of ABC, NBC and CBS, the New York Post and
the National Inquirer in Boca Raton, Fla., on Sept. 18, 2001. The second
letters were mailed to Sens. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)
Infectious disease specialist W. Russell Byrne, who preceded Andrews as the division’s director, said he “never believed Ivins’ could have produced the preparations used in the anthrax letters working in the bacteriology division area of Building 1425.”
Departmental policy prohibits Institute employees from speaking with the media. But one researcher, speaking anonymously, told The Examiner: “It would have been impossible for Ivins to have grown, purified and loaded the amount of material in the letters in just six days. It simply could not be done.”
Claire Fraser-Liggett, professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and director of the University of Maryland Institute for Genome Sciences, asked, “What would have happened in this investigation had Dr. Hatfill not been so forceful in his response to being named a person of interest. What if he, instead of fighting back, had committed suicide because of the pressure? Would that have been the end of the investigation?”
The smoking flask
Fraser-Liggett’s genetic analysis of the anthrax spores in the letters led to a flask of hybrid anthrax bacillus (known as RMR-1029) created and managed by Ivins at Fort Detrick — a preparation the Justice Department says is the murder weapon.
“The key breakthrough was the science that then focused their attention laserlike onto that flask and the person who had control of that flask and the person who made the spores in that flask,” U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Taylor claimed in laying out the evidence against Ivins on Aug. 6, 2008.
The DNA evidence linking the dry anthrax spores in the contaminated letters to the “wet” anthrax spores in the flask of RMR-1029 is not in dispute. “The part that seems still hotly debated is whether there was sufficient evidence to name Dr. Ivins as the perpetrator,” Fraser-Liggett says.
Ivins kept the one-liter flask of RMR-1029, but some 300 people within the Institute also had access to the flask, according to those familiar with operations there. Before 1999, the preparation was stored in a separate containment area, about 100 yards from the main building. At that time, “access was more vague, because the flask wasn’t under Ivins’ direct custodial control,” Andrews says.
Ivins also shared samples of RMR-1029 with researchers at other facilities.
“Another lab might take a couple of milliliters of that spore preparation and create a daughter preparation,” Andrews says. “How many [samples] Ivins gave out I have no idea, but he did it through official channels, and there is a chain of custody records that indicates which labs got RMR-1029 and how much of the material they got.”
It was those “daughter preps” that ultimately led Fraser-Liggett to Ivins’ flask. Her team at the Institute for Genomic Research began DNA sequencing of the spores in the four anthrax-loaded letters recovered after the 2001 attacks. The team spent two years analyzing 20 different samples of B. anthracis to create a group of tests capable of genetically fingering the distinctive variety of anthrax found in the letters.
They screened nearly 1,000 samples of B. anthracis collected from labs around the world. “The results identified only eight samples that contained all four of the genetic mutations,” she says. “Each of those could be traced back to this one flask at USARMRIID-RMR-1029.”
“I have complete confidence in the accuracy of our data,” Fraser-Liggett says, but she concedes it fails to prove Ivins is guilty.
One reason for doubt is the sheer volume of powdered anthrax Ivins is alleged to have grown. Nearly 1 gram per contaminated letter would have required months of intensive labor and hundreds of agar “plates,” on which the spores are grown, Byrne says.
“This number of plates is impossible to handle inconspicuously,” says George Mason University professor and former Soviet bioweapons researcher Sergei Popov. “It would be impossible to cover up these activities.”
Prosecutors insist Ivins carried out the work secretly at night and on weekends.
That scenario is patently impossible, Andrews says. “You can’t just throw a flask up in the air and have dry weaponized spores come down. One preparation may take between three and five days — Day 1 to prepare the materials and start seed cultures, Day 2 to inoculate the spores, Day 3 to harvest, centrifuge and purify the spores. And those are the wet spores,” he says, which then need to be dried into a powder. And that would take at least another day.
“So for 10 envelopes, 100 preparations would be required to make all the mailed material at three to five days for each preparation,” he says. “Months of continuous spore preparation without doing any other work and avoiding detection? It’s ridiculous.”
Taylor also insists Ivins had access to a lyophilizer — a sophisticated machine used to dry anthrax.
Andrews mocks the suggestion that Ivins produced the fine powdered anthrax by freeze-drying the newly harvested pores in the lab’s lyophylizer. “The only lyophylizer available was a speed vac,” he says. “That’s a low-volume instrument that you can’t even fit under a hood” used to contain toxic vapors and debris.
Even with the proper equipment, mass producing a sufficient volume of spores remained dangerous. It had the potential to contaminate not only the person doing the work, but also the lab environment. “Certainly if you had makeshift equipment you wouldn’t be able to pull it off without making a mess,” Andrews says.
Popov said that the only way the FBI scenario works is if someone else provided the spores to Ivins. “What if somebody fermented the spores for him?” he asks. “What’s in favor of this hypothesis is the presence of silica in the spores. This is a signature of a large-scale fermentation process.”
In other words, the evidence points to a high-volume, mechanized operation and not to a lone madman cackling over agar plates at night in an empty lab.
Lack of evidence
The anthrax-laced letters contained no traces of DNA. There is no evidence indicating Ivins visited Princeton, N.J., at the time the letters were mailed — no fingerprints or hair samples from the “smoking mailbox,” no time-stamped photos at New Jersey automated teller machines or convenience stores, no gas receipts.
Apart from the flask of RMR-1029, the case against Ivins is this: He was depressed, working long nights and weekends in September 2001, and had the time to drive to New Jersey.
Ivins’ therapist, Jean Duley, who had a history of drug and alcohol-related charges, treated him for six months. She told authorities he threatened to kill her and his co-workers after learning he faced indictment. He was committed for a few days and released five days before his death.
“Dr. Ivins had a history of mental health problems and was facing a difficult time professionally in the summer and fall of 2001 because an anthrax vaccine he was working on was failing,” Taylor said in August. “He was very concerned, according to the evidence, that the vaccination program he was working on may come to an end.”
For more than a year, Ivins and other institute researchers had been working out the kinks on a 30-year-old anthrax vaccine suspected of causing serious health problems in Gulf War vets. He also was working on a next-generation vaccine for which he already had secured two patents. But in the fall of 2001, the Pentagon’s vaccine program for 2.4 million troops faced fierce opposition by lawmakers — including Daschle, pushing to end the program.
Taylor insists Ivins was the “sole culprit” and wanted “to create a situation, where people all of a sudden realized the need to have this vaccine.”
If that was indeed the anthrax killer’s motive, it worked.
Ivins’ innocence could rest on weird science
The single most important piece of scientific evidence that raises doubt on whether Bruce Ivins was the mastermind behind the anthrax attacks could very well prove his innocence.
The high silicon content of the spores and the presence of a bacterium B. subtilis in two of the recovered letters are significant scientific factors that have yet to be satisfactorily explained.
The FBI says that the silicon in the spores accumulated naturally during the growth process — important to its case against Ivins, who co-workers say did not have knowledge of the specialized techniques used to weaponize anthrax spores by coating them in silicon.
Silicon creates an electrostatic charge between particles that helps the lethal powder disperse more readily.
“The silicon is probably the most important scientific evidence that would lead anybody to question whether Bruce was capable of making these spores,” says Gerald P. Andrews, Ivins’ former boss.
Andrews and George Mason University professor and former Soviet bioweapons researcher Sergei Popov believe the silicon was purposely added, due to unnaturally high levels of the mineral in the spores.
Also unexplained is the presence of a unique genetic strain of the bacterium B. subtilis in the anthrax letters.
“Why wasn’t this unique B. subtilis strain looked for in Bruce’s lab — or any other lab in the BSL-3 suite?” Andrews asks. “It may, in fact, serve as a marker for where those preparations were really made.”
So far, FBI scientists have failed to produce a powdered anthrax equivalent to the toxic mix that Ivins is alleged to have turned out in the course of a few late nights and weekends in the lab at Fort Detrick.
“The only opinions that I would place any confidence in would have to come from individuals who have made the stuff, in the same quantity of the letters,” said infectious disease specialist W. Russell Byrne. “And then I would ask them to go into B3 in building 1425, work there for a couple of weeks and reproduce what they say Bruce did. That’s the only way I could, in good conscience and in the spirit of objective scientific inquiry, believe them.”
Bruce Edwards Ivins
The real cost of fining a reporter
By Ken Paulson
It's the rare politician who steps up to confess crimes or corruption without a little prodding from the police or the press.
That's why the image of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer standing at the podium Monday to acknowledge his misconduct was so disappointingly familiar. Law enforcement had busted a prostitution ring, and The New York Times had revealed that Spitzer was "Client 9."
Virtually every day in this country, in communities large and small, news organizations reveal misconduct or betrayal of the public trust by public officials. They base their reporting on their own investigations or, at times, those of law enforcement agencies.
That's why the decision by federal Judge Reggie Walton to hold former USA TODAY reporter Toni Locy in contempt of court for refusing to reveal her law enforcement sources in the anthrax-letters case is so disturbing.
Under Walton's order, Locy is to be fined $500 a day for a week, then $1,000 a day for a week and then $5,000 a day for a week unless she discloses her sources' identities. Further, Walton has taken the unprecedented step of ordering that no one can help her pay her fines. Late Tuesday, those penalties were put on hold because a three-judge panel issued a stay in the case. But if implemented, the fines would almost certainly mean financial ruin for Locy, now a professor of journalism at West Virginia University.
Why is Walton trying to compel Locy to reveal her sources? And why is protecting her sources important enough to Locy to risk bankruptcy and jail?
The case began just one week after the horrific attacks of 9/11. On Sept. 18, 2001, letters tainted with anthrax were sent to NBC anchor Tom Brokaw and the New York Post. About two weeks later, a photo editor at American Media Inc. died after inhaling anthrax. Then letters containing anthrax were sent to U.S. Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. The cases mounted. Over time, five people would die from anthrax exposure.
The Justice Department was under tremendous pressure to solve the case and to ease public anxiety, but progress was slow. On Aug. 6, 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft publicly called Stephen Hatfill, a former researcher at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, "a person of interest" in the case.
As the investigation continued without any arrests, Justice Department and FBI officials shared what they knew of the investigation with a wide range of reporters. They wanted to convey to the public that they were making progress and that the threat had been contained. Hatfill's name continued to figure prominently in those reports.
But in the end, Hatfill was never charged. Indeed, no arrests were ever made in the case, and the true culprit remains unknown. Hatfill filed suit against the government, contending that officials of the Justice Department and the FBI had violated the Privacy Act by disclosing confidential information about him.
To win damages from the government, Hatfill's lawyers are trying to compel reporters to disclose who told them about Hatfill and the investigation.
We don't use a lot of anonymous sources at USA TODAY. We believe readers will trust us less if they don't know where our information is coming from. But there are times when confidential sources are needed to expose misconduct and mishandling of public business. A whistle-blower will not come forward if he runs the risk of having his identity known. Someone who can expose corruption will stay silent if he can be outed by a federal judge.
Keeping an eye on people in power and how they do their jobs is a driving force behind American journalism. In this case, Locy is being ordered to disclose the identity of public officials sharing information with her (and in turn the public) about one of the most important criminal investigations in modern history.
The judge is not ordering disclosure of sources because national security is at stake or because someone has published leaked grand jury testimony. This is just about improving Hatfill's chances of a big payday from the government.
To the extent the government unjustly accused this man and damaged his reputation, he has every right to be compensated. But Hatfill's attorneys don't need Locy. They're ready to go to trial and already have a number of people — including the former attorney general — whom they can identify as the sources of information to reporters.
So what was so damaging about these articles that Locy wrote? The story published on May 29, 2003, reported that Hatfill had been hounded by the FBI. Far from implicating or damaging Hatfill, the story cited sources suggesting that evidence against him was thin and that "one of the law enforcement sources says investigators sometimes wonder whether they focused on Hatfill too soon and ignored someone who deserved more attention." A second story published in June said that the FBI had begun draining a pond near Hatfill's home to look for possible evidence, but that an early report of anthrax contamination there had been contradicted by further tests. (These stories can be seen at www.usatoday.com/news/nation/locy.htm)
That was it. No stunning disclosures or fingers pointed at Hatfill. To the contrary, Locy wrote a balanced report on where the FBI's investigation was and why it had not led to an arrest. At the time, Hatfill's representatives complimented Locy on her coverage. Five years later, she faces possible bankruptcy for those same articles. The upshot is that Toni Locy is about to lose all her life savings because of two updates on the investigation that revealed virtually no new or incriminating information. And if Locy's tips were "leaks," then the attorney general had already blown up the dam.
In its most basic terms, Locy is being punished by one arm of the government for listening to another arm of the government.
One complication in this case is that Locy can't recall precisely who gave her information. Some might be skeptical, but they shouldn't be. Many reporters write more than 100 stories a year, with a number of sources in each. These were minor stories five years ago, published inside the paper and not on the front page. And she received information in casual conversations over the course of several days; she wasn't meeting Deep Throat in a garage. Judge Walton's solution: Tell us about all your anthrax sources so they can be questioned further by Hatfill's attorneys.
News organizations throughout the country have rallied behind Locy because they recognize the stakes here. Journalism in the public interest sometimes requires reliance on government insiders with confidential information. But investigative reporting will be forever undercut if journalists are unable to protect the confidentiality of those who would seek to disclose wrongdoing.
And while some journalists are prepared to go to jail to protect these principles, it's an open question how many are willing to see their life savings disappear and families be irreparably harmed by a judge willing to take unprecedented steps to aid a plaintiff in a civil suit.
A federal shield law is under consideration that would provide better protection for reporters, a long overdue measure that would help in instances such as this. But it's coming too late for Locy.
It inevitably sounds self-serving when members of the news media talk about their First Amendment rights. But courts have long recognized that the free-press clause was intended to serve as a check on government, and there has to be latitude for reporters to accomplish that mission.
I was reminded of that once again Saturday night at the annual Gridiron Dinner, a good-natured roast of the press and politicians held in the nation's capital.
President Bush brought down the house with a Texas-themed parody of Green Green Grass of Home, but it was his closing comment about the First Amendment that struck exactly the right note.
The president, who has had his share of battles with the news media, simply said: "You can't have democracy without a free press. Period. End of debate."
I only wish Judge Walton had been in the front row.
Ken Paulson is the editor of USA TODAY.
Costly program with a shady past
By Deborah Rudacille
he Food and Drug Administration licensed Anthrax Vaccine Adsorbed in 1970, based on a 1950s study of textile mill workers who processed imported goat hair. Each year, several mill workers contracted anthrax, a disease that humans get by touching, breathing or ingesting the pathogen bacillus anthracis from infected animals.
Of the 400 vaccinated workers, three contracted anthrax, and all of them developed cutaneous anthrax, a skin infection that is rarely fatal if treated with antibiotics. The FDA then approved AVA as safe and effective against cutaneous anthrax.
When anthrax is inhaled, however, its spores germinate in the lungs, releasing toxins that cause internal bleeding and death.
For nearly two decades, scientists studying B. anthracis in biodefense programs — like the one at Fort Detrick in Frederick — received the vaccine that the Michigan State Department of Public Health produced under contract to the Pentagon.
During the first Gulf War the fear of billowing clouds of weaponized anthrax engulfing U.S. troops led to mass immunization. About 150,000 troops received AVA in 1990-91, although the vaccine had never been licensed by the FDA for that purpose.
“There were those who were against it and who made a great fuss about this being an experimental vaccine,” says D.A. Henderson, former chief of the Office of Public Health Emergency Preparedness. “But it was the only vaccine we had.”
In 1998, the Pentagon mandated all active duty and reserve troops to receive the shots. That same year BioPort Corp. bought the Michigan plant and the state’s license to manufacture AVA.
The newly formed company was facilitated by the late Adm. William Crowe, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Crowe was friendly with Fuad al-Hibri, the Lebanese-German businessman who became a naturalized American citizen while bidding for the vaccine production facility.
With a limited stockpile, BioPort secured a $45.1 million contract with the Pentagon to ramp up production of a new vaccine, with $16 million upfront for renovations to the aging Michigan facility. Despite the gush of cash, from 1999 through 2001 the company failed a series of FDA inspections and failed to ship a single dose of new vaccine.
The new product also failed potency tests, but the contract signed with BioPort obliged the Pentagon to pay for the unusable product. The cost was steep: $10.64 per dose versus the previous price of $4.36 per dose under Michigan’s ownership.
With supplies short, the government then injected troops with the old vaccine. Some troops developed symptoms similar to those of Desert Storm veterans suffering from the mysterious collection of maladies lumped together as “Gulf War syndrome.”
In April 2000, the Department of Defense assigned a team of anthrax researchers from the Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases in Frederick to work on BioPort’s vaccine.
The team included Bruce E. Ivins, who, with two of his colleagues, was awarded the Decoration for Exceptional Civilian Service for the role they played in getting production moving again. Ivins’ job was enhancing the potency of the formulation.
The FBI later accused Ivins of salvaging the program by creating “a situation, a scenario, where people all of a sudden realize the need to have this vaccine.” That “situation” was the anthrax letter attacks of 2001, which killed five people and sickened at least 17 others.
Sen. Tom Daschle, D.-S.D., received one of the anthrax-loaded letters, nearly two months after he wrote to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld challenging the vaccination program and punishment of soldiers rejecting the anthrax vaccine.
The FBI insists Ivins sent the letter, even though several leading scientists say it would have been impossible for Ivins, who died this past July 28 after overdosing on prescription Tylenol, to have committed the crime. (Read Part I of this series at baltimoreexaminer.com.)
“The case is solved. We are 100 percent sure that Dr. Ivins was the sole perpetrator of the anthrax mailings,” said FBI spokeswoman Debbie Weierman.
While doubt about Ivins’ guilt lingers in the science community, there is strong evidence the attacks saved the program.
Three months after the attacks, the FDA relicensed BioPort’s Michigan plant, and by the end of 2003, the company (now Emergent BioSolutions Inc.) signed a new $245 million contract with the Pentagon.
The next year the company built a $95 million anthrax vaccine plant in Frederick and secured a $122.7 million contract from the Department of Health and Human Services to provide five million doses of the vaccine for civilian use in the event of an emergency.
In December 2005, the FDA issued a final order declaring the vaccine (now called BioThrax) safe and effective for use against inhalation anthrax.
To date, no enemy has assaulted U.S. troops overseas with anthrax.
Anthrax vaccine timeline
» February 1998 — Michigan Biologics Products Institute halts production of anthrax vaccine to renovate facility after stockpiled vaccine fails Food and Drug Administration tests for potency and contamination.
» September 1998 — Facility and license sold to BioPort Corporation for $25 million and $7.9 million of stockpiled vaccine. BioPort signs a Pentagon contract for $45 million worth of vaccine, including $16 million in immediate cash for renovations. FDA suspends shipments from the facility because of quality-control problems.
» September 1999 — Pentagon approves a $24.1 million bailout of the new company after the facility fails FDA inspections.
» April 2000 — Bruce Ivins
is appointed to the Anthrax Potency Integrated Product Team from the U.S.
Army Medical Research
» July 2000 — Pentagon curtails vaccine program because of supply problems. Committee on Government Reform recommends suspension of anthrax vaccination program.
» April 2001— White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove concedes to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz that AVIP is a “political problem.”
» June 2001 — Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD) and Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) write to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld challenging AVIP.
» August 2001 — Two undersecretaries of defense recommend minimizing use of the vaccine.
» September 2001 — Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Henry H. Shelton rejects the recommendation, insisting that AVIP is the centerpiece of a bio-defense program.
» September, October 2001 — Anthrax letters mailed, killing five and sickening 17. Daschle receives one of the letters.
» January 2001 — FDA approves BioPort license to manufacture and distribute anthrax vaccine under new trade name BioThrax.
» June 2002 — Pentagon restarts AVIP. All military personnel required to receive anthrax vaccinations in run-up to Iraq war.
» March 2003 — Ivins wins award for work on BioPort’s vaccine.
» November 2004 — VaxGen of San Francisco awarded a contract to produce 75 million doses of next-generation anthrax vaccine, for which Ivins holds two patents.
» October 2004 — U.S. District Judge Emmett Sullivan suspends AVIP, ruling troops cannot be forced to comply with mandatory vaccination.
» May 2005 — Pentagon appeals judge’s order, seeks to resume mandatory vaccinations.
» May 2006 — Government Accountability Office report says vaccine has not been adequately tested on humans, long-term safety has not been studied and data on short-term reactions is limited.
» October 2006 — Pentagon begins voluntary vaccination program for select personnel.
» December 2006 — VaxGen’s contract for new vaccine canceled after it misses clinical trial deadline.
» February 2007 — Pentagon resumes mandatory vaccination of select troops.
» May 5, 2008 — Emergent BioSolutions Inc. (formerly BioPort) buys rights to VaxGen vaccine.
» July 29, 2008 — Ivins commits suicide.
» August 2008 — Ivins is fingered as culprit in anthrax attacks. FBI says he was concerned that Congress would end the vaccine program.
» September 2008 — PharmaThene Inc. of Annapolis and Emergent win government vaccine contracts worth more than $1 billion; Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., proposes a bipartisan commission to investigate the anthrax attacks and the government's response and investigation.
» Oct. 1, 2008 — Emergent wins second order from Department of Health and Human Services for 14.5 million doses of BioThrax worth $404 million.
» Oct. 9, 2008 — Emergent shielded from lawsuits related to anthrax vaccine by Department of Health and Human Services
Md. lawmakers consider anthrax investigation commission
By Sara Michael
U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings’ Washington, D.C., office was shuttered in 2001 after anthrax spores were found, so he’s “very sensitive” to the investigation into the crime, he said.
Now, Cummings said he supports a review of the investigation. U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., proposed legislation in September to create a congressional commission to investigate the attacks and the federal government’s response.
“Whatever we have to do to get to the bottom of this anthrax issue, we need to do it,” Cummings said.
Holt’s bipartisan commission would mirror the 9/11 commission and make recommendations on how to prevent such attacks and respond to future bioterrorism threats.
Holt also has questioned the response.
The tainted letters were mailed from his district.
“Myriad questions remain about the anthrax attacks and the government’s bungled response to the attacks,” Holt said in a statement.
The FBI named Bruce Ivins, a microbiologist at Fort Detrick in Frederick, the sole perpetrator of the 2001 attacks.
Ivins died of an apparent overdose in July.
But lawmakers and scientists alike have raised doubts about the FBI’s conclusion.
Cummings said he “didn’t know” if he agreed with FBI’s conclusion.
“I wonder about that. That’s all I can say,” he said.
U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., also has raised concerns about the FBI’s handling of the case and questioned FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III at a hearing in September.
Cardin was still reviewing Holt’s legislation this week and could not comment yet on whether he supports it, said spokeswoman Sue Walitsky.
U.S. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., who represents Frederick, also has expressed skepticism, saying recently that the law enforcement activities resulted in Ivins’ suicide and “damaged morale” among Fort Detrick employees.
“Congressman Bartlett has not been persuaded by the FBI’s evidence presented to date,” said spokeswoman Lisa Wright.
Bartlett also has shown interest in Holt’s measure, but wasn’t sure Holt will reintroduce it in the next session, Wright said.
Holt’s spokesman Zach Goldberg said Holt does plan to reintroduce the measure.
(inflicted) defense can up risk
By The Baltimore Examiner Newspaper
Two clear facts shine from the clouded mystery of anthrax attacks on America and our government’s tenuous claim seven years later of closing the case with the suicide of a suspect.
Fact No. 1: Government warnings about anthrax being a weapon of mass destruction were false. Somebody dispersed the most lethal strain our tax dollars can produce — weapons-grade or near enough — via the U.S. Postal Service, exposing tens of millions of people, yet managed to infect 22. Five died. But from anthrax vaccination, at least 21 died and thousands reported a wide range of illnesses.
Fact No. 2: If FBI accusations against their prime suspect in the 2001 attack are true, it means billions of dollars taxpayers invested on the premise of prevention actually increased the risk.
When senior biodefense researcher
Bruce Ivins died from an overdose of Tylenol 3 after being identified as
sole suspect, our central
However, co-workers at the U.S. Army Medical Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick say the actions attributed to Ivins over the time the government claims are scientifically impossible.
This is going to be another never-healing wound in America’s body of unsolved mysteries.
But mystery should not distract us from the truth. Our government’s response to bioweapons is raising the danger level from them.
Think it through, citizens. The very vaccination program intended to thwart anthrax apparently sickened and killed more people than an actual mass attack.
After the 2001 attack, our government hurled $41 billion at bioterror with no real coordination or study. High-level labs multiplied threefold. A dozen agencies exponentially increased the number of facilities and workers handling pathogens. Now we have more than 15,000 potential Bruce Ivins.
Meanwhile, our leaders provided no adequate increase in oversight, coordination, training, security, surveillance, testing, background checks or psychological screening.
Statistically, something going horribly wrong now approaches sure thing. That is not just a threat to residents of Frederick, Bethesda and other communities. It is, as the spread of anthrax spores proved, a threat to the whole world.
We learned in 2001 the actual danger from anthrax was lower than vaccine.
But these biohazard labs grow a lot more dangerous pathogens than anthrax. The next one to get out could kill millions.
President Bush must immediately halt programs until we can impose coordinated oversight, then assess security and capacity needs.
We must not let self-defense become self-inflicted catastrophe.
FBI's early anthrax hunches revealed in documents
The unsealed papers show how the FBI came to think Steven J. Hatfill was responsible for the deadly 2001 anthrax mailings.
By David Willman
Reporting from Washington -- Investigative documents unsealed Tuesday revealed provocative details behind early suspicions that led the FBI to target the wrong man in the 2001 anthrax mailings that killed five people.
The misguided investigation continued for years into the original suspect, Dr. Steven J. Hatfill, who in June won a $5.8-million settlement from the FBI and the Justice Department for violating his privacy rights. On Aug. 8, the U.S. attorney for Washington explicitly exonerated Hatfill from any involvement in the mailings.
The documents were made public by order of a federal judge in response to a lawsuit brought by the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. Lawyers for the newspapers argued that the investigation of the mailings was a matter of high public interest and among the most complex and expensive in the annals of federal law enforcement.
The investigation culminated with the suicide on July 29 of Bruce E. Ivins, a government microbiologist who was about to be charged in the deadly mailings that also sickened or injured 17 people. Authorities said evidence showed Ivins, acting alone, carried out the attacks.
The unsealed documents dealt not with Ivins but with Hatfill, disclosing some of the early mistaken suspicions and false leads behind the troubled investigation.
In a sworn statement seeking a judge's permission to search Hatfill's apartment and other property in July 2002, FBI Agent Mark P. Morin alleged that Hatfill, while employed as a research scientist at Ft. Detrick in Maryland from 1997 to 1999, "had access to the unlocked storage freezers in which the Ames strain" of anthrax was kept.
Later, the FBI found that the unique formulation of anthrax powder used in the mailings was prepared by Ivins and was never accessible to Hatfill.
Morin's affidavit included a curious entry linking Hatfill in an unspecified way to the former Rhodesia. It cited the deaths of anti-government rebels from anthrax exposure. However, the FBI made no allegation that Hatfill had access to anthrax in what is now Zimbabwe.
The affidavit also suggested that Hatfill lied to the FBI about his use of Cipro, a drug that can save the life of a person exposed to inhaled anthrax. According to the sworn statement, in the months before and after the anthrax mailings, Hatfill filled several prescriptions for Cipro. The affidavit added, "During an interview with FBI agents on March 27, 2002, Steven Hatfill denied taking any Cipro during the months of September and October of 2001."
Hatfill's attorney, Thomas G. Connolly, said in an interview Tuesday that he was puzzled by the allegation that his client might not have been truthful about Cipro.
"It's well known that Dr. Hatfill had Cipro prescribed to him after nasal surgery," he said. That surgery, Connolly said, was performed on or about Sept. 11, 2001.
The attorney also issued a statement suggesting the unsealed documents be kept in perspective.
"Search warrant affidavits are designed to raise suspicion. . . . But like so much of what has been written about Dr. Hatfill in the past seven years, the affidavits released today cite sources whose names are unknown and whose credibility cannot be tested," the statement said.
"Our repeated experience has been that people make wild accusations in secret, only to retract them under public questioning. . . . [W]e know in 2008 that Steven Hatfill had nothing to do with the anthrax attacks."
One of the first federal investigators to question Hatfill about the anthrax mailings, now-retired FBI Agent Bradley Garrett, said Tuesday that Hatfill had remained the bureau's "only viable suspect -- until they figured out" Ivins.
Defenders of Ivins, including his lawyers and some former colleagues at the Army's biological weapons research institute at Ft. Detrick, contend that a trial would have exonerated the scientist.
Willman writes for the Los Angeles Times.
Times researcher Janet Lundblad contributed to this report.
Court unseals Hatfill anthrax documents
"... We know in 2008 that Steven Hatfill had nothing to do with the anthrax attacks. It will be unfortunate for all involved if the release of these documents misleads anyone into thinking otherwise." — Hatfill's attorney, Thomas Connolly
Originally published November 26, 2008
By Justin M. Palk
The U.S. District Court for Washington unsealed several search warrants Tuesday served on Steven Hatfill and Peck Chegne, with whom Hatfill shared an apartment during the first year of the investigation into the 2001 anthrax mailings.
Early in the investigation, the government identified Hatfill -- a biodefense researcher who worked at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at the time of the mailings -- as a person of interest in the case. He was exonerated by investigators last summer.
In August, federal investigators identified Bruce Ivins, a USAMRIID microbiologist, as its sole suspect in the mailings. Ivins died in July, after he apparently overdosed on painkillers. His attorney maintains Ivins was innocent.
In August 2002, investigators searched Hatfill's Frederick apartment and storage room, his 2000 Chevrolet Camaro, his Ocala, Fla., storage locker and Chegne's Washington apartment.
Those searches followed similar searches performed in July 2002 with Hatfill's permission. Investigators swabbed the premises for anthrax, but did not find any.
The searches produced items including miscellaneous biology equipment and pharmaceuticals in a biohazard bag, a classified document, microscope slides, a silencer, a lab coat and flight suit.
In the search of Chegne's apartment, investigators found a container of the antibiotic Cipro, prescribed to Chegne, inside a mason jar of coffee, according to one of the search warrant returns. The Food and Drug Administration has approved Cipro for the treatment of 14 types of infections, including anthrax.
In affidavits supporting the warrants, FBI agents cited several items in Hatfill's background that made him a person of interest in the case, including his work at USAMRIID; his work as a bioterrorism consultant; a magazine article for which Hatfill reportedly demonstrated how someone could "cook up a batch of plague" in their kitchen with commonly available supplies. They also cited two prescriptions Hatfill had filled for Cipro in September and October 2001. In both cases, the prescriptions were filled two days before one of the two sets of anthrax letters were postmarked.
The affidavits also relied on witness statements that Hatfill had claimed he had served in the Rhodesian military in 1979 and 1980. At that time, Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, was in the midst of a civil war, and rebel-held areas experienced the worst anthrax outbreak in world history. That outbreak was supposedly the result of an anthrax attack by Rhodesian government forces Hatfill was working with.
The identity of the witness who made these statements to the FBI has been redacted from the affidavits. Other redactions include more than a full page of text under a section describing the scope of the searches investigators planned to undertake.
In an e-mailed statement, Hatfill's attorney, Thomas Connolly, wrote the purpose of a search warrant affidavit is to raise suspicion, and without knowing the identity of the sources on which the affidavits were based, their credibility cannot be tested.
"Whether or not it was right for the government to rely on this kind of information to obtain a search warrant in 2002, we know in 2008 that Steven Hatfill had nothing to do with the anthrax attacks," he wrote. "It will be unfortunate for all involved if the release of these documents misleads anyone into thinking otherwise."
The documents have been sealed by the court since 2002. In the motion to seal, the government noted Hatfill was only one of several persons of interest to the grand jury, but "it is premature to characterize Hatfill's status as being a target, subject or even a suspect (in the investigation.)"
Disclosing the records, however, would create the perception that he was a suspect, as well as possibly compromising the investigation, according to the motion.
News organizations filed suit earlier in September to have the records unsealed, citing the public interest in the case as a whole, as well as the public's interest in knowing how the government initially chose to focus its investigation on Hatfill.
Detrick scientists receiving additional biosecurity training
Originally published December 04, 2008
By Justin M. Palk
Fort Detrick scientists who work with dangerous diseases are getting additional training this week in securing their labs and the samples they work with.
The extra training was prompted by a comprehensive Army review of its biosurety programs that began in August, according to an e-mail from Caree Vander Linden, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.
The Army undertook the study after the Department of Justice announced it believed a USAMRIID scientist was responsible for the 2001 anthrax mailings that killed five and hospitalized 17.
This is the first of the Army's five labs that deal with dangerous diseases, known as biological select agents, that will receive the additional training, Vander Linden wrote.
The other four labs are the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Chemical Defense, at Aberdeen Proving Ground, the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Forest Glen, the Edgewood Chemical and Biological Center, in Edgewood and the U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command, at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah.
This week's training will cover topics that include physical and operational security, mishap reporting requirements, and the biological personnel reliability program, which the Army uses to certify people for work with select agents.
The Army will also review and certify USAMRIID's accountability procedures to ensure that all the select agent materials the labs deal with are accounted for, Vander Linden wrote.
The Army task force on biosurety has not yet released its findings, she said.
The Army's announcement of new training came the day before the congressionally mandated Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism released its final report. It highlighted the need to secure all of the more than 400 labs in the U.S. that handle select agents, not just the Army's.
The report calls for a comprehensive interagency review of the select agents program administered by the Department of Health and Human Services, and increased federal oversight of labs where researchers work with dangerous diseases, including mandates for biosecurity and biosafety equipment and training.
December 10, 2008
Psychological Tests for Bioagent Researchers?
Should academics who work on dangerous pathogens be required to undergo periodic psychological evaluations to ensure that they are not mentally imbalanced as U.S. Army researcher Bruce Ivins appears to have been? Currently, they're not. But the question was clearly on the table today at a meeting of the National Scientific Advisory Board on Biosecurity.
Over the last two years, the board has been discussing what federal agencies, institutions, and scientists must do in order to prevent the accidental or deliberate misuse of life sciences research. In the wake of Ivins' implication in the 2001 anthrax letter attacks, NSABB is now looking into ways to minimize the threat of an academic scientist with access to deadly pathogens carrying out a criminal or terrorist attack. Although federal rules already require institutions and individuals who do research on select agents to undergo a security check, the case of Ivins, who committed suicide on 29 July, has raised concerns about whether current procedures are good enough.
The board has yet to come up with any recommendations on the matter, but adding mental health evaluations to the screening process is a possibility. One NSABB member told Science that the board could decide not to recommend any new requirements in the end.
Committee for Freedom of the Press
December 15, 2008
Supreme Court won't hear Hatfill's libel suit
The Supreme Court on Monday refused to take up Steven Hatfill's libel lawsuit against The New York Times over a series of 2002 columns describing Hatfill as a possible focus of the anthrax investigation.
The high court made no comment in declining to revive the case.
Hatfill's four-year-old suit against the paper has twice been considered by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond (4th Cir.) and twice been tossed at the district court level. In it, he alleged that Nicholas Kristof's columns, "both directly and by implication," falsely accused him of mailing anthrax-laced letters in the fall of 2001.
Once considered a "person of interest" in the anthrax investigation, Hatfill's name was officially cleared this summer. His onetime colleague, Bruce Ivins, died of an apparent overdose in late July in the face of an indictment in the attacks.
The Times lawsuit was one of several Hatfill filed over his public link to the case; just this summer, he settled a separate Privacy Act suit with the Department of Justice over the original media leak of his status in the criminal inquiry.
Kristof dedicated several columns in 2002 to the anthrax case and urged the FBI to either ramp up its investigation of one "Mr. Z," as Kristof called him, or exonerate the man. In August of that year, at a press conference Hatfill called to proclaim his innocence, he outed himself as "Mr. Z."
In addition to the broad libel claim, Hatfill listed 11 statements from the columns he believed were defamatory. He further alleged The Times intentionally inflicted emotional distress on him.
The district court first dismissed the lawsuit for failure to state a claim. Chief District Judge Claude Hilton found, among other things, that the Kristof columns could not "reasonably be read" as pointing the finger at Hatfill.
Hatfill won a reversal of that order on appeal. In a July 2005 published opinion, the Fourth Circuit found that the columns were in fact capable of carrying defamatory meaning.
Once Hatfill had identified himself as "Mr. Z," the court found, the litany of reasons Kristof had supplied in The Times for encouraging investigators to look harder at him would make "a reasonable reader . . . conclude that Hatfill was responsible for the anthrax mailings in 2001." In a footnote, Judge Dennis Shedd wrote that Kristof went beyond reporting on the official investigation and its possible targets and actually "generated suspicion" of Hatfill.
The case was thus sent back to the district court, where early last year Hilton granted a Times motion for summary judgment: Insofar as national concerns over biological warfare were concerned, Hilton found, Hatfill was a limited-purpose public figure and so subject to the higher standard of actual malice for a defamation claim.
Again, Hatfill appealed; he said he was not in fact a public figure, and argued that in any case he had supplied the requisite evidence of actual malice on The Times's part to override summary judgment. In an opinion issued this summer, the Fourth Circuit upheld the lower court ruling.
Writing for the court, Judge Paul Niemeyer plodded through a lengthy examination of Hatfill's carrer as a scientist, for both the government and private entities, and his history of appearing on television and in newspapers providing his expertise on biological weapons. Given all that, Niemeyer concluded, Hatfill clearly had access to the media and had "voluntarily assumed a role of special prominence in a public controversy" -- elements of a limited-purpose public figure designation.
"Through these media, Dr. Hatfill voluntarily thrust himself into the debate," Niemeyer wrote. "He cannot remove himself now to assume a favorable litigation posture."
Lastly, the court found that Kristof truly believed Hatfill might have been linked to the attacks, and so The Times did not publish with actual malice. For that, the paper evidently did not intentionally inflict emotional distress.
— Kathleen Cullinan
at military biolabs to get tighter
Originally published December 19, 2008
By Justin M. Palk
The armed forces are tightening security at their biodefense labs following a four-month review of lab security, biosurety and safety policies.
"In order to stay in this business, we have to ... change the culture of the scientists and the workers in the labs to be more vigilant after each other," said Maj. Gen. Robert Lennox, the Army's assistant deputy chief of staff for operations and training. "That has started already, but it's going to be a continuing process."
In a teleconference held Thursday afternoon, officials from the Army, Air Force and Navy announced their review had found their labs met or exceeded federal and Defense Department standards, but they would be making improvements to lab security and personnel procedures.
Security improvements include more detailed background checks on lab workers holding lab closed-circuit camera videotapes for one year, quarterly and annual reviews of biological select agents inventories, and new training for lab supervisors charged with overseeing their subordinates' lab access.
Beth Willis, with Frederick Citizens for Biolab Safety, said these changes are a good first step, and many of them address issues FCBS raised in its original petition for a National Academy of Sciences review of the new USAMRIID building.
"This is all a great improvement, but it's one step," she said. "When they talk about meeting standards but want to go one better, that is admirable, but the national standards for these biolabs need to be greatly improved."
The military's review began in August following the announcement by U.S. Department of Justice investigators that they believe Bruce Ivins, a U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases microbiologist at Fort Detrick, was responsible for the 2001 anthrax mailings that killed five and hospitalized 17 others.
Although the review did not specifically examine the allegations surrounding Ivins, both the multi-service review and a separate review by the Defense Science Board identified protecting against an insider threat as the most difficult challenge the labs face, Lennox said.
To help address that issue, lab workers will undergo security screening commensurate to that required for a top secret clearance, which adds interviews with people who know the worker, such as neighbors, to checks already completed, such as reviews of the worker's finances, hesaid.
Additionally, the supervisors charged with administering the personnel reliability program will receive formal training in doing so, something they hadn't received before.
Lennox noted that Ivins passed his background checks, but said the military is trying to increase the number of opportunities to catch someone misusing a lab.
"We tried to add a number of obstacles that a knowledgeable insider would have to overcome," Lennox said. "You have to fool the cameras, you have to fool the people in your background checks, you have to fool your co-workers -- we're trying to raise the bar in a number of areas."
Survey Reports Scientists 'Suspicious' Of FBI
by David Kestenbaum
Morning Edition, December 22, 2008 · Top scientists are "suspicious" of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and reluctant to discuss their work with agents, according to a new survey by the FBI and two professional scientific associations.
The survey results showed that only 35 percent of scientists would share research results with the FBI. By comparison, 87 percent of the scientists said they would discuss their work with the public.
"They would rather talk with a total stranger from the general public than an FBI agent about their research," says Michael Stebbins, the director of biology policy at the Federation of American Scientists. Stebbins helped plan the survey. "That is just shocking to me," he says. "To see that so many of them didn't trust the FBI on a fundamental level really showed that there is an uphill battle that the FBI has to face."
The FBI conducted the survey — the first of its kind — as part of a larger effort to understand what it needs to do to gain the trust and cooperation of the scientific community. Federal investigators say they need the technical expertise of the country's top scientists to tackle urgent issues from cybercrime to chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
What's Not To Love About The FBI?
There were some bright spots in the survey for the bureau. When scientists were asked a more general question about their "feelings" toward the FBI, 70 percent were either "warm" or "neutral"; 30 percent felt "cool." Polls show the general public has a slightly more positive view.
And the vast majority of scientists seemed open to helping the FBI under certain circumstances. Just over 90 percent reported that requesting technical expertise in a specific area was a "good or excellent" reason to be consulted by the FBI. Eighty percent said helping with an ongoing investigation would be a "good or excellent" reason to help.
Stebbins is surprised though, by what he sees as an "unhealthy level of paranoia" among scientists. Researchers worried that the FBI would inhibit their ability to conduct research, or would want to classify their work, read their personal e-mails, or ask them to monitor the work of their colleagues.
Scientists reported that agents asked about their international travel and requested that they "spy" on their foreign colleagues, according to the survey results. In one case, a scientist reported a computer was taken and searched.
Why Scientists Might Be Suspicious
The survey did not get at how scientists formed their views, but Stebbins said that the notion of a field agent pulling up to a lab in an SUV, wearing a suit and a gun might make researchers nervous. "Naturally, if you're a scientist, and an FBI agent shows up at your door," Stebbins says, "your first reaction is going to be shock and fear."
Only 15 percent of scientists who responded to the survey had ever had any professional contact with law enforcement agents.
The surveys were sent out from late January to mid-February while the FBI was in the middle of one of its investigations into the 2001 anthrax killings. The seven-year case highlighted the sometimes complex relationship between scientists and law enforcement.
During that case, the FBI needed scientific help to track the anthrax spores, but the same researchers who were helping the bureau were also potential suspects.
The FBI first focused on the wrong person. Then they pursued Bruce Ivins, the army scientist the FBI believes was responsible for the attacks. Ivins committed suicide earlier this year. Some of Ivins' fellow researchers say the FBI pushed him to the breaking point.
The survey went out to nearly 11,000 members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. About 12 percent of scientists responded.
Vahid Majidi, who heads the FBI's Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, isn't surprised by the results. "There is a mysticism that goes with being an agent of the FBI," he says. Taking out your badge "doesn't provide the best icebreaker."
Majidi was a chemistry professor earlier in his career and recalled being nervous the first time he met an agent. FBI headquarters is not the sort of place that puts visitors at ease. The guards at the front desk sit behind unusually thick bulletproof glass, and guests must pass through turnstiles that resemble Star Trek teleporters.
Daniel Cloyd, who runs the FBI's Counterintelligence Division, says misconceptions about law enforcement are widespread.
"In movies, we tend to run the gamut," he says. "We're either supermen and women who can do no wrong, or we're bumbling fools who can do nothing right." Neither is accurate, he adds.
Improving The FBI's Image
The FBI is looking at ways to reach out to the scientific community. It already sends agents, some of whom are scientists, to scientific meetings. Stebbins says a training video is being prepared that will feature researchers talking about why they feel the way they do.
Stebbins praises the FBI for trying to address the problem and for making the survey results public. "They deserve a tremendous amount of credit," he says. "That's an unusual thing to do, for a federal agency."
Jan 5, 2009 05:09 PM
steady stream of clues pointed to Ivins during FBI anthrax investigation
The trail that led to Bruce Ivins as the prime suspect in the 2001 deadly anthrax mailings ended when the government scientist died of a drug overdose in July as the FBI prepared to arrest him for the attacks. Six months later, the New York Times has published what it touted as "the deepest look so far at the investigation" of his role in the attacks based on interviewed with Ivins's friends, colleagues, anthrax experts and law enforcement officers involved in the probe.
The most surprising revelation: the long string of clues that Ivins, who worked in the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), left behind dismissed by FBI agents trying to track the source of anthrax that killed five people, sickened 17 others and caused panic at a time when the wounds of the September 11 terrorist attacks were still fresh.
Among the many clues ignored, according to the Times: The Army learned that in December 2001 Ivins had secretly swabbed for anthrax spores outside his secure laboratory space at USAMRIID (a federal biodefense research lab at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md., where he had worked for 18 years) but failed to report the incident immediately to his superiors at the lab as per standard procedure. Records later showed, the Times reports, that Ivins had worked "unusually late hours" in his lab for several nights before each of the anthrax mailings.
Ivins, though highly skilled at handling anthrax, did not become a suspect even after the FBI determined that the anthrax had been weaponized and likely came from a domestic source, as Scientific American.com reported in September.
In one chilling anecdote in the Times story, Nancy Haigwood, now director of the Oregon National Primate Research Center and a former classmate of Ivins at the University of North Carolina, recounts receiving an e-mail from Ivins containing a photograph of him working with anthrax in the laboratory without gloves--a very dangerous safety breach. "I read that e-mail," she said, "and I thought, 'He did it.' "
releases some Ivins e-mails
Originally published January 23, 2009
By Justin M. Palk
The U.S. Army released 33 pages of Bruce Ivins' e-mails Thursday from his account at Fort Detrick.
The e-mails, obtained by The Frederick News-Post under the Federal Freedom of Information Act, span the period from September 1998 through January 2002.
The documents contain 16 threads of communication, some including multiple e-mails between Ivins and his correspondents.
The e-mails all address one of three issues: the work of Ivins and other individuals to plan an international meeting of anthrax researchers in Annapolis for the summer of 2001; discussions of lab research; and in two cases, copies of The New York Times articles about the investigation into the 2001 anthrax mailings that Ivins e-mailed to himself.
The news articles both concern the difficulty investigators had early on in tracking the history and origins of the Ames strain of anthrax used in the mailings.
The Army continues to review additional e-mail messages from Ivins.
In August, the Department of Justice announced it considered Ivins, a U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases microbiologist, its sole suspect in the 2001 anthrax mailings that killed five and hospitalized 17 others.
Ivins died on July 27 after intentionally overdosing on acetaminophen.
His attorney has maintained Ivins was innocent.