Indictment in Anthrax Case May Not Have Been Imminent, But Evidence Still Compelling

Many of Friday’s reports regarding the untimely death of Dr. Bruce Ivins asserted that his indictment for sending anthrax-laced letters was imminent. Today, NPR’s Dina Temple-Raston cast doubt on the immediacy of that indictment. Citing FBI sources, Ms. Temple-Raston reported that while great progress had been made, there were certain crucial steps that had to be taken before Dr. Ivins could be indicted. The FBI, for example, had written up the case and informed the Justice Department that it would soon seek approval to formally charge Dr. Ivins, but it had not presented all of its evidence to a grand jury, nor had a grand jury voted on whether or not to indict the government researcher. Seeking and receiving a grand jury indictment could itself have taken weeks. Contrary to most early reports of Dr. Ivins’ suicide, a recent meeting between FBI investigators, Dr. Ivins, and his lawyers was not held so that the FBI could inform the doctor of his impending indictment. Instead, the FBI hoped that Dr. Ivins might cooperate with its investigation after seeing some of the evidence against him. Unfortunately, the pressure this meeting put on Dr. Ivins seems to have been too much.

Regardless of the timing of his indictment, or the intent of the FBI meeting, the evidence against Dr. Ivins is compelling. One of the strongest links the government has established between Ivins and the letters comes from new DNA analysis developed just for this case. The FBI has long believed that the anthrax used was made by our own government, simply due to its quality. Knowing this, investigators were able to focus on the few federal facilities that handle anthrax, and Fort Dietrich quickly moved to the top of the list. It appears that Dr. Ivins’ undoing may have come from an unreported contamination incident at Fort Dietrich.

In December 2001, just three months after the anthrax-laced letters began appearing in politicians’ and newsmakers’ offices, the desk of one of Dr. Ivins coworkers became contaminated with anthrax. Rather than report the breach to his supervisors, Dr. Ivins simply cleaned up the anthrax and continued about his business. The contamination went undetected until May 2002, largely due to the investigation into the anthrax-laced letters. When asked about the incident in 2002, Dr. Ivins asserted that he did not want to “cry wolf” given all that was happening at the lab and that he believed he had cleaned up the errant pathogen. These statements, as well as new DNA testing techniques, ultimately brought Dr. Ivins to the fore of the investigation.

Had Dr. Ivins properly reported the December 2001 anthrax contamination at Fort Dietrich, he may never have come under FBI scrutiny for the anthrax letters that terrorized the country just following the 9/11 attacks. The reason for this is twofold. First, Dr. Ivins’ statements themselves, made to Army superiors,  appeared suspicious coming from an experienced anthrax researcher. It appears that the FBI was unsatisfied with his justification for not notifying Army superiors of the contamination. Second, his insufficient cleanup of the affected area provided investigators with the evidence linking him to the letters. After fellow researchers also reported contamination in their work areas, widespread testing was conducted to determine the extent of the breach. This testing revealed anthrax spores on a bookcase in Dr. Ivins office, Room 19, which would lead to his eventual downfall.

As the FBI had long suspected a government employee of involvement in mailing the anthrax-laced letters, it seemed only logical that investigators would compare the DNA of the anthrax from the letters with that of the anthrax that contaminated Dr. Ivins’ office. Coincidence seemed highly unlikely, given the material in question. The positive match between both samples validated the government’s investigation and provided it with the evidence necessary to pressure Dr. Ivins into cooperating. It is this very pressure that led Dr. Ivins to take his own life.


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