Suicide of an Anthrax Suspect

David Willman of The Los Angeles  Times  reported yesterday that long time anthrax researcher Dr. Bruce Ivins committed suicide, quite possibly as a result of pending charges related to the 2001 anthrax attacks in the US. The FBI has not yet released details of the investigation. It may turn out that investigators have significant, undisclosed evidence. We can be pretty sure they do.

To be sure, he might have done it. That disclaimer aside, the FBI has a weak history on this case and the evidence as presented in the initial reporting is just as weak. His colleagues were quoted in the Washington Post:

"Almost everybody at 'RIID believes that he has absolutely nothing to do with Amerithrax," said a USAMRIID employee, referring to the FBI code name for the investigation. "The FBI has been hounding him mercilessly.""

An article in The New York Times states:  

Several of Dr. Ivins's neighbors and colleagues urged people not to rush to judgment, despite the doctor's death.

Dr. Ivins was passed over as a likely suspect at first. He was their second choice.

Dr. Steven Hatfill was originally the main suspect of the FBI investigation. The FBI leaked damaging information about Hatfill to an obliging media in an attempt to apply pressure on him. The FBI wanted Hatfill stressed into fessing-up by making a media circus of the investigation.

But there was a problem; Hatfill didn't do it. After years of ruinous treatment by the FBI and the media Hatfill just received over $5 million in compensation. In this new case against Dr. Ivins the FBI did keep the investigation under wraps. It apparently even made people connected to him sign nondisclosure agreements during interviews about Ivins. But with his death the FBI is making it clear that Ivins is the bureau's newest Hatfill.

In 2001-2002, Dr. Ivins was at the center of two contamination incidents at his research facility, which is part of the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infections Diseases (USAMRIID). The incident was well documented and disclosed in an investigation published by the Frederick News Post (Frederick, Maryland is the site of Fort Detrick) years later. 

Notably, the Frederick News Post  reporting only discussed occupational safety investigations and mentions nothing about criminal investigations related to it. Current reporting makes it appear that those incidents spurred no criminal component at the time. That only happened after the FBI reviewed the matter again in 2006. The LA Times' Willman writes:

The FBI's new top investigators -- Vincent B. Lisi and Edward W. Montooth -- instructed agents to reexamine leads or potential suspects that may have received insufficient attention.

The facts surrounding the contamination events weigh heavily in the LAT account, perhaps driven by FBI sources. On first blush, there are some questionable actions on the part of Dr. Ivins related to the matter. In late 2001, Dr. Ivins suspected a contamination event, then conducted tests, and decontaminated the area without reporting the incident to safety officials or management. It was a clear breach of policy.

But was a criminal intent the only logical explanation? As presented in the current reporting it might leave readers with the impression that he was covering up an evidence trail. But that is hardly the case. The Frederick News Post wrote this about the initial incident that the doctor failed to report:

In December 2001, a USAMRIID technician told Dr. Bruce Ivins, a microbiologist in USAMRIID's Division of Bacteriology, that she was concerned she was exposed to anthrax spores when handling an anthrax-contaminated letter.

The anthrax involved in the suspected contamination was also contained in the letter which was being processed. If he was trying to destroy evidence why not destroy the letter as well? That makes no sense. When questioned about the incident in a sworn statement Dr. Ivins stated:

"In retrospect, although my concern for biosafety was honest and my desire to refrain from crying 'Wolf!' . . . was sincere, I should have notified my supervisor ahead of time of my worries about a possible breach in biocontainment," Ivins told the Army. "I thought that quietly and diligently cleaning the dirty desk area would both eliminate any possible [anthrax] contamination as well as prevent unintended anxiety at the institute."

Well, let's try and get into his head a bit. His lab was dealing with evidence in one of the most important criminal investigations in the history of this country. And now a technician tells him contamination has occurred. He was supposed to report it. But what if he had?

There would have been an official log of this incident which would likely be used by a defense council in any legal proceeding. Reporting the incident, in his likely reasoning, might have provided a criminal the ability to discredit the most important evidence in the case by claiming improper lab techniques caused contamination of the evidence.

As an expert in the field he would be more qualified than just about anybody to determine if a possible contamination posed enough danger to make it worth the risk of reporting the event.

The contamination might not even have been caused by the lab. It might have been improperly packaged at collection. But as the lead scientist he also had to know that screwing up the most important evidence in the biggest criminal case in the country would likely kill his career. That's certainly strong motivation for him to violate policy.

He made a judgment call, the wrong one, but we don't have to look for criminal intent to explain the action. 

Hypothetically, if Dr. Ivins were responsible for the anthrax mailings, wouldn't it have made more sense for him to make sure the incident was on record? That way, he could discredit the evidence in his own defense should it come to that. He didn't cause the contamination; someone else did. It would have given him a perfect defense.

That event went unreported until it came up during the investigation surrounding a second contamination event. The Frederick News Post stated:

He [Dr. Ivins] again became suspicious of contamination April 8, 2002, when two researchers reported potential exposures to anthrax after noticing flasks they were working with had leaked anthrax, crusting the outside of the glass tubes.

This second report of possible contamination led the doctor to do some on the spot testing. The reporting around this event seems to place emphasis on what it calls "unauthorized" testing conducted by the doctor giving it an almost sinister quality.

But let's put ourselves into his head again. Here is a professional that is supposed to have answers. He can go to the safety officer or lab manager with a report of a possible contamination, or as an expert he can do some sampling to get a fix on the situation before he reports it. I think many professionals would like to have the clearest picture possible before reporting a potential incident. He would most likely have been instructed to do just what he did anyway if he waited for orders to conduct the sampling. Again, he made the wrong choice, but we don't have to look for criminal cover-up to explain it.

But it was his technique that provided the only statement of suspicion from another unidentified scientist in the LA Times reporting. According to the initial safety investigation, the doctor found small amounts of two different strains of anthrax scattered in the facility, outside of the hot labs where they manipulate the bacteria, and in his office. He reportedly decontaminated those areas. But he did not swab again to confirm the decontamination had worked or identify further contamination. The LA Times addressed this:

But Ivins' recollections should have raised serious questions about his veracity and his intentions, according to some of those familiar with the investigation. For instance, although Ivins said that he swabbed areas near and within his personal office, and bleached surfaces to kill any spores, and that some of the swabs tested positive, he was vague about what should have been an essential next step:

Reswabbing to check whether any spores remained.

"I honestly do not recall if follow-up swabs were taken of the area," Ivins said. "I may have done so, but I do not now remember reswabbing."

The undisclosed expert quoted by the LA Times finds it damning that the doctor failed to check the area again after he took steps to decontaminate it:

That's bull----," said one former senior USAMRIID official. "If there's contamination, you always reswab. And you would remember doing it."

The former official told The Times that Ivins might have hedged regarding reswabbing out of fear that investigators would find more of the spores inside or near his office.

That's pretty weak. Once the doctor had reported the contamination and that it was in his office, what would have stopped the FBI or another scientist, safety officer, or lab manager from doing a "reswab" to locate this supposed potential evidence?

If that was his intent, he could have just substituted samplings and declared the reswab negative. There are dozens of ways he could have thrown off suspicion, if inclined to do so, that would have been undetectable.

But we can attribute his failure to reswab to other less sinister reasons. According to the safety investigation, the samplings from most of the contaminated locations in the lab except for one (which was the closest point to the hot labs) had such low levels of contamination that they posed no risk even to someone who had not been immunized by anthrax vaccine.

Add to that the fact that these lab workers are immunized and the doctor most likely found the contamination so innocuous that he wasn't concerned for his personal safety. And since the lab personnel must decontaminate upon leaving the facility he probably wasn't worried about it getting out either. It wouldn't be the first time a professional got too comfortable dealing with a dangerous subject matter. He probably just didn't feel much concern in the matter. He probably didn't fell like disclosing that his failure to follow procedure stemmed from a case of laziness, so he hedged on his report to the safety investigation. Another clear mistake, but not indicative of a man who launched anthrax attacks.

But then, he became the subject of an intense FBI investigation in which his indiscretions became evidence against him. The emotional crumbling of the man since he became the main suspect in the investigation is being used to portray him as unstable, just the kind of guy who could do this. But, I have seen no indication in the public reporting that Dr Ivins was suffering from any type of behavioral or emotional disorder before the FBI gave up on Hatfill and zeroed in on him.

It must have made him feel huge guilt that his own bad choices, which probably seemed minuscule at the time, had brought this upon him. He must have felt incredible disappointment that a career he had spent his life working for was crumbling around him. He had to know given the FBI treatment of Hatfill, that guilty or not, he was going to go through hell. Faced with a discredited career, years in which he would have been under suspicion, legal woes, financial troubles, the loss of all he holds dear, it is quite conceivable that he might have killed himself, not in an attempt to cheat justice, but to escape the humiliation.

What truly concerns me is motivation. Remember, it wasn't that long ago that the FBI's chief spy hunter turned out to be a spy. Despite his confinement for several years now, as a Washington Post article reflects, there is no clear chief motivation for why Robert Hanssen betrayed his country. But perhaps the most agreed upon motivation is that he harbored anger because he didn't feel like he was taken seriously enough by the FBI. He was sounding the alarm over the perils posed by the Communist threat. He tried to warn us, but we wouldn't listen. So he made it happen to prove he was right. That's plausible.

But that doesn't appear to be true for Dr. Ivins. As far as I can tell from open sources, he conducted solid scholarly work, but was not an alarmist. He wrote scientific research about how to treat or test for anthrax. He didn't write political treatises about the threat posed by biological weapons as have others.

Most of the spies we know about are caught in the service of other countries and they do it for various reasons. Money is a big one. Ideology or even the thrill of the chase might be the reason for others.

But there was no backer that we know of to pay Ivins for it if he did commit the crime. There was no thrill of the chase for a man who crumbled emotionally at the investigation of what could be nothing more than bad lab procedure. There is no sign that he had a point to make. There is no strong evidence in the public view that he did it.

Or maybe the FBI got the right guy. I don't know. I kind of hope they did because I would rather find some semblance of justice achieved in his suicide. Otherwise this becomes the tragedy of an innocent man hounded to death by my government.

Update: Since writing this article a request for a restraining order against Dr Ivins has come to light in which a social worker claims he had a long, violent history. That tidbit has become part of the reporting with no one stopping to ask for evidence. I don't doubt that she felt threatened or her version of the events she experienced. The man obviously crumbled. But demonstrating a "pattern" is important for obtaining a court order like this. I would not be surprised if the "history" was exagerrated to make sure she got the order. I find it odd that she would know he had such a history but that the military, his family, and friends did not. 

Ray Robison is co-author of Both in One Trench.
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