Seven Years On, Anthrax Mystery Comes to an End

The Los Angeles Times is reporting today that the government’s primary suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks committed suicide Tuesday, just as the Justice Department prepared to charge him with mailing the anthrax-tainted letters that killed five people. Bruce Ivins, 62, worked at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Dietrich, MD for 18 years, where he had access to anthrax, as well as other biological weapons. Mr. Ivin’s brother confirmed the death to CNN.

The anthrax scare, coming just months after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, has been a particularly troublesome and embarrassing incident for the federal government. In the early days of the attacks, it was not clear whether the anthrax letters were related to the terrorist attacks. When it became clear that the incidents were unrelated, the government was left without much direction in its investigation. The focus eventually fell on Steven J. Hatfill, another scientist at Fort Dietrich, but this proved misguided (the government settled with Mr. Hatfill in June for the tidy sum of $5.82 million). It now appears that the misdirection may have come from Mr. Ivins. In a particularly ironic twist in this seven-year saga, Mr. Ivins assisted the government in its initial investigation focused on Mr. Hatfill.

In 2006, after five years of floundering following its focus on Mr. Hatfill, the FBI appointed new agents to investigate the letters. Agents returned to Maryland to re-interview lab employees, and particular attention was paid to Mr. Ivins after investigators learned he had covered up an anthrax contamination beginning in December of 2001. His actions during and following the contamination made investigators suscipcious, and it would appear for good reason. The government’s settlement with Mr. Hatfill put further pressure on Mr. Ivins, who was already being treated for depression. A collegue reported he was considering suicide as early as June, as the FBI appeared to be closing in on him. He was placed on administrative leave and committed to a psychiatric treatment center, where he spent a few days in June. Following his release, his emotional state deteriorated further, and a collegue reported he was emotionally broken by the federal scrutiny. Mr. Ivins died Tuesday in a Frederick, Maryland hospital after ingesting a lethal dose of Tylenol with codeine.

The Department of Justice is expected to make an announcement regarding Mr. Ivin’s death later today.


UPDATE: Additional Sources (last updated 08/01/08 at 10:05 am):