On September 18, 2001, letters containing anthrax were sent from Trenton, New Jersey to some 5 news organizations and on October 9, 2001 to two Senators Tom Daschle (D-SD) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT). In all, these attacks resulted in 5 deaths and 17 others infected who survived. In early 2002, Steven J. Hatfill became the FBI’s prime suspect. Per a suit filed against John Ashcroft then Attorney General, the DOJ, and FBI on August 26, 2003, Hatfill came to the FBI’s attention through a theory developed by Barbara Rosenberg, a professor at SUNY Purchase. Rosenberg met with Daschle and Leahy’s staffs on June 18, 2002 and Hatfill’s apartment was searched by the FBI one week later on June 25. Hatfill was a civilian researcher in the Army’s biological warfare unit at Fort Detrick, Maryland. Ashcroft famously called him a “person of interest.” He was basically tried and convicted in the media on the basis of government leaks. His phone was tapped. He lost his job and was followed by the FBI everywhere he went. On June 27, 2008, seven years after it began its investigation, the Justice Department settled with Steven Hatfill for $4.6 million. This included a cash payout of $2.825 million and the purchase of a $150,000 annuity for 20 years. In return, the DOJ admitted no wrongdoing. Suits by Hatfill against various reporters and their news organizations remain at a variety of points from dismissed, to in process, to settled. These represent another instance of reporters being sued over their sources. The anthrax attacks remain unsolved, and the FBI has been criticized for the poor quality of their investigation and their early acceptance of the Rosenberg theory to the exclusion of all others.
Shortly after Steven Hatfill’s exoneration, on July 29, 2008, another researcher at the Fort Detrick facility Bruce Ivins committed suicide. Ivins had worked at the facility for 36 years and had been involved in research on a vaccine against multiple strains of anthrax. Initial reports suggested he had become the FBI’s prime suspect in the anthrax case after the bureau’s long investigation/persecution of Hatfill. His home was searched twice. He began attending group therapy. On July 9, 2008, he was escorted from his work and committed for psychiatric evaluation after a social worker Jean Duley who ran the group sessions alleged Ivins stated he was about to be charged with 5 capital murders and had discussed plans to kill his co-workers. A psychiatrist described Ivins as “homicidal, sociopathic with clear intentions”. Despite this, he was released but refused access to his lab. On July 24, Duley sought a restraining order against him (at the suggestion of the FBI) citing threatening phone calls, and a history of threatening behavior going back to his graduate school days (although he had no criminal record). On July 27 Ivins was found at his home unresponsive having apparently taken a large number of Tylenol with codeine. He died two days later.
It all seemed so open and shut. The FBI had finally gotten the right man. Seeing the forces of the law closing in on him, the guilty man killed himself. Except there were questions. If Ivins had a history of threats going back decades, why had he been given clearances and allowed to work in such a dangerous area? If Ivins could become the government’s prime suspect so quickly after it dropped its investigation of Steven Hatfill, why had he not been more thoroughly investigated anytime in the previous 7 years? And while a guilty man might commit suicide so might a hounded one, especially with the spectacle of Steven Hatfill’s ordeal very much on his mind. Also how much weight was to be given to the statements of Jean Duley the “therapist” who it turned out had little training and no credentials but who did have an interesting rap sheet? Then there was the FBI’s case. Ivins certainly considered himself to be a target of its investigation. It is Department of Justice policy to inform a witness to a Grand Jury if he/she is a “target” of investigation, and Ivins had appeared before one. But not only did the FBI not arrest Ivins a suspected terrorist with access to deadly pathogens it made no attempt to have him removed from his lab. Finally, in an August 4, 2008 New York Times story published nearly a week after his death, it came out that the Grand Jury had not progressed very far in its investigation, that several more weeks (so nothing imminent as first reported) of testimony had been planned, that the case against Ivins was, as in the case of Hatfill, mostly circumstantial, and that there was no evidence showing that he had traveled to New Jersey at the time the anthrax letters were posted in 2001.
What is important to remember here is that the FBI has blown two investigations into the anthrax letters. What, if any, part Bruce Ivins had in them is and likely will remain unknown.
There are two other aspects of the anthrax attacks that should be mentioned. Because of its geographic location, the nature of its research, and the kind of anthrax it had access to and which was used in the letters, it has been understood from early on that Fort Detrick (not al Qaeda or Iraq) was the source of the anthrax used. Nor was Hatfill the first anthrax suspect who had worked at Fort Detrick.
An anonymous letter postmarked September 21, 2001, three days after the first anthrax letters were posted and twelve days before the first anthrax case was diagnosed, is sent to the FBI claiming that a former Fort Detrick researcher Ayaad Assaad might be planning a biological attack. Assaad was a naturalized Egyptian-American who had worked at Fort Detrick from 1989-1997. During that time he had been subjected to scurrilous racist attacks by some of his co-workers, most notably Lieutenant Colonel Philip Zack and Doctor Marian Rippy. Both were reprimanded. Zack left Fort Detrick in December 1991. Rippy left shortly thereafter in February 1992. The FBI unconditionally cleared Assaad but the timing of the informant letter and the early connection to Fort Detrick are disturbing to say the least.
At the same time, the Bush Administration was quick to draw a relationship between the anthrax attacks and Iraq. Government scientists at Fort Detrick leaked to ABCNews investigative reporter Brian Ross that a particular preparatory material bentonite had been found in the anthrax samples recovered. Yes, the place that was the source of the anthrax was originally the same place that was tasked with investigating it. The claim was made that only Iraq used bentonite indicating clear Iraqi involvement in the attacks. Coming so quickly on the heels of 9/11, it suggested that the Iraqis might be involved in that as well. The problem was it wasn’t true. Yet as of August 2008 despite calls following the death of Bruce Ivins, Brian Ross has never given up the names of the “sources” who lied to him, had clear conflicts of interest in shifting attention away from Fort Detrick, and who helped generate a false argument for war with Iraq.