Anthrax Redux: Did the Feds nab the wrong guy?
March 26, 2011 8:10 AM   Subscribe

Anthrax Redux. Wired's gripping account of the FBI's investigation into the 2001 anthrax attacks.
posted by dudekiller (17 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

I worked in a government agency mail room while this was going on. They had to close it down for a few days at one point while they checked for 'contamination'. It was kind of scary at the time.
posted by empath at 8:57 AM on March 26, 2011

But despite all these flaws, the circumstantial evidence remains compelling. It could just be a coincidence that the killer spores were ultimately traced back to a single parent flask and that this flask just happened to be overseen by a depressed scientist with occasional violent fantasies. It could just be a coincidence that this same scientist screwed up his anthrax submission to the FBI—even though he helped develop the submission protocols. It could just be a coincidence that his after-hours work spiked right before the mailings. But put all of those coincidences together and something stronger than happenstance emerges. For the Justice Department, it’s enough to prove Ivins was the anthrax mailer.
This is the buried lead in the 3rd to last graf.

There are some things not addressed in this article that make the situation a little more understandable. There was an enormous amount of confusion about "weaponized" and what that means. There were two batches of anthrax used in two separate mailings. The first batch was crude, had considerable "vegetative matter" (dead cells) and very large particle size. The second batch was incredibly pure and had very small particle size.

Because the FBI compartmentalized the investigation, very few experts saw both batches. The first batch looked like amateur hour. The second batch was unlike anything that anybody who worked in bioweapons had ever seen. It was not chemically treated to kill the electrostatic charge. This is what most people meant by "weaponized." It didn't need it. What nobody knew at the time was that exceptionally pure spores did not clump electrostatically.

The sort of anthrax that was prepared for military purposes was crude and dirty compared to the second batch of Amerithrax. This is because military anthrax was produced in an industrial process geared towards huge quantities. So none of the bio-weapons "experts" had anything useful to say. They were playing off what they knew. Most of the expertise revolved around Bill Patrick (who patented the process for weaponization used by the US) and Richard Spertzel (most important of the 'bug hunters" in Iraq.) There were problems with both Patrick's and Spertzel's theories of the case. Patrick was not just wrong in some of the information he presented to the FBI, he was also working as a consultant with Hatfill on the "anthrax by mail" study.

But Patrick's biggest influence on the case was convincing most people that the only way to weaponize anthrax was by the process he patented. That was totally wrong. So he had the FBI chasing wild geese for a couple of years. When they went after Hatfill, Patrick's connection to Hatfill was the nail in his coffin as far as working with the FBI went.

Ultimately, the FBI's case came down to we've eliminated everybody but one suspect, so he must have done it. You might be able to get a grand jury to indict on that sort of evidence, but it would be thrown out in pretrial hearings.

Probably the biggest cause of the investigation going to the dogs was the secrecy surrounding bioweapons research. Battelle Ohio was involved, possibly in ways that could be interpreted as possibly violating the Biological Weapons Convention. Ivins was the link between Dietrich, Battelle and Bioport, the only link that is known.

So Ivins is the best suspect around, but the evidence was not good enough to indict and definitely not enough to convict. So what do you do when the FBI has a high profile case that they can't bury, can't get an indictment and would never be able to get a conviction?

The sad part is the "eliminate all suspects" approach combined with the secrecy that surrounds biowar work means the tinfoil hat crowd will forever be dragging out argumentum ad ignoratum fallacies. And there will likely never be a satisfactory conclusion.
posted by warbaby at 9:01 AM on March 26, 2011 [31 favorites]

Like all living things, anthracis produces mutant offspring as it multiplies. But those mutants have trouble going dormant. When the anthrax loses its host, many mutants die out and the bacteria returns to a near-pure state. It’s almost as if the law of evolution doesn’t apply.
That's not how evolution works! That's ordinary evolution! Gah!
posted by delmoi at 9:17 AM on March 26, 2011 [6 favorites]

Meanwhile, Fraser-Liggett’s team had genetically sequenced the four telltale mutants that grew out of the killer anthrax. They were all 99.99 percent identical. But that tiny fraction of difference—less than a thousand base pairs—was enough to give each mutant a unique genomic signature. If a batch of anthrax tested positive for these four morphs, it meant that it was provably identical to the attack anthrax. Before, researchers had relied on Worsham’s discerning but still subjective eye to tell them which strains looked similar to the morphs in the killer batches. Now they had the kind of hard genetic data they could take to a judge and jury.
Huh, that's really interesting. The vast majority of Anthrax was totally pure, non-mutated. But a very few cells were mutants. The researches were able to find mutant forms in with the regular stuff and identify them that way. I had no idea that was how it worked.
posted by delmoi at 9:32 AM on March 26, 2011

Ivans might have been involved in preparing the anthrax, but I think the FBI can't place him at the scene of the mailings because somebody else did that part.
posted by vibrotronica at 10:01 AM on March 26, 2011

Ivans might have been involved in preparing the anthrax,
The problem is preparing anthrax and sending it out to people was his job. Anyone who'd received Anthrax from him 'officially' could have done it.

Reading the article, I'm not very convinced of his guilt. I was under the impression that this "RMR-1029" was sent out to a lot of people. There are some odd irregularities, but I think if you analyze anyone's life under a microscope you'll find some random behavior. Like the throwing out of GEB: Maybe he just felt like throwing out a book at 1AM. The connection between the book and the letters is pretty tenuous, because trying to "decode" the message makes no sense (it's either 'pat' or 'fny'? what?). There is some circumstantial evidence but nothing that really stands out to say that he did it. (The chart he did trying to throw suspicion off his batch, for example)

I mean in this case you have a homicide investigation that relies on the prime suspects to help analyze the evidence.

The motive they give the guy: More research funding, would apply to any Anthrax researcher out there.
posted by delmoi at 10:44 AM on March 26, 2011

And there will likely never be a satisfactory conclusion.

posted by hippybear at 10:44 AM on March 26, 2011

So many problems with that investigation as written up by Wired.

They point to the spores not working once (and being cherry picked), then working a second time (when taken 'properly' assuming that the first batch wasn't good). How did the scientists helping them NOT insist on reproducing the only real incriminating evidence? Was it because there was intense pressure from above and they wanted their data right then? Did they cherry pick data like they accused Ivins of cherry picking colonies?

On the subject of weird behavior, am I the only one who doesn't think it odd that the man would devolve completely when he finds himself at the center of an investigation into mass killings AND starts self medicating with an alcohol/anti-depressant combination?

They admitted that Ivins mass batch was a 'witches brew' of other anthrax preparations. Did all of these preparations come from Ames? Were the subsamples sent out to other researchers of the 'finished' RMR-1029 or did Ivins send out samples as he was adding to his soup stock of anthrax?

How were the envelopes 'leaky' in the mail yet 'sealed' during transit? Someone would have had to have delivered them with monkey suit to avoid getting themselves sick. Or taken massive doses of cipro, which they would have found somewhere.

Ugh, how did people not lose their jobs over this in a very public way? More than that, how did they ever get away with publicly accusing people with this kind of evidence base?
posted by Slackermagee at 10:49 AM on March 26, 2011

So many question marks...
posted by Slackermagee at 10:50 AM on March 26, 2011

Anyone who'd received Anthrax from him 'officially' could have done it. This is not correct. The level of purity of the spores was something that continually stumped attempts at reproducing the second batch (Leahy) spores. The only lab in the country with experience dealing with dry spores (Dugway) couldn't make a powder as pure as the Leahy sample. That had people really spooked. Adding to the confusion, the first (NBC) batch was very impure and not very virulent.

The powder got out of the envelopes when they were run through the high speed sorting machines which beat the heck out of them; much more force than normal handling.

Hatfill probably got into trouble over his faked credentials. There's speculation this was the problem with his polygraph. Polygraphs are not reliable, they're mostly a way of putting somebody under pressure during interrogation. One of the things that exonerated Hatfill was he tested negative for anthrax antibodies. Anybody exposed or immunized would show a positive for the antibodies.

The Wired article is a good review, even though they hype the "wrong guy????" angle in the headline. They very much got right the bit about Hatfill having faked credentials. That dropped out of the news once he started suing people right and left.

Probably the best reporting on the story is the work of Scott Shane, initially at the Baltimore Sun and late at the NYT. Shane was able to turn up sources who had worked at Dietrich who provided some very good suggestions that developed into leads. He is also very very good at researching documents and doing FOIA work. Among other things, he uncovered the Dugway connection by digging through environmental impact statements.

Here's Shane's 2009 review of the case in the NYT and the FPP on it.
posted by warbaby at 11:33 AM on March 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

That was an interesting read...
posted by ph00dz at 5:08 PM on March 26, 2011

The New York Times has an article, Panel on Anthrax Inquiry Finds Case Against Ivins Persuasive, which appears to be based on this report.
posted by jonp72 at 7:24 PM on March 26, 2011

In short, they nabbed the guy who supplied everybody's anthrax because he kept a witches brew of past production runs and he had emotional problems, not terribly convincing. Do we even have any narrative as to why the different mailed batches were so different? Very strange.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:24 PM on March 26, 2011

The Wired article left a lot out about Ivin's bizarre pre-investigation behavior, which included driving hundreds of miles to mail weird letters and packages to objects of his various obsessions. This is the DOJ report [big .pdf] containing details like that - I highly recommend it to anyone interested in this stuff. The case it makes against Ivins is pretty convincing, even though it does not answer every question.
posted by Mid at 7:14 PM on March 27, 2011

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