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In 2000, US military personnel are being required under the threat of court-martial to be inoculated with an anthrax vaccine. But the vaccine, known as Anthrax Vaccine Absorbed (AVA), is not working very well and some soldiers are getting sick. This results in a loud public outcry lasting into 2001. One of the key scientists working on the vaccine is future anthrax attacks suspect Bruce Ivins.
Problems - The vaccine is being made by a company known as BioPort, but in 1998 the company’s sole manufacturing plant was shut down following the discovery of problems there. Ivins is working at USAMRIID, the US Army’s top bioweapons laboratory, and he and about six other USAMRIID scientists were assigned by the Defense Department to fix the problems with the vaccine so production could resume. In a June 2000 e-mail message, Ivins writes, “Unfortunately, since the BioPort people aren’t scientists, the task of solving their problem has fallen on us.” In a July 2000 e-mail message, he writes about the inoculation program, “think the sh_t is about to hit the fan… big time… It’s just a fine mess.”
Alleged Motive - After Ivins’s suicide in 2008, government officials will theorize that Ivins was stressed out due to the vaccine crisis and started having psychological problems. It is undisputed he was having problems at this time (see April-August 2000 and September-December 2001), but officials will further theorize he grew so upset that he was driven to launch the anthrax attacks to eliminate doubts about the vaccine. Investigators will cite Ivins’s e-mail messages from August 2001 regarding ABC News reporter Gary Matsumoto, who had been pressuring Ivins to turn over copies of his notebooks detailing experiments with the vaccine. Ivins complains about Matsumoto, “We’ve got better things to do than shine his shoes and pee on command. He’s gotten everything from me he will get.”
Criticism of FBI - However, Ivins’s colleagues will later criticize the FBI’s vaccine theory. They acknowledge that there was a real threat the AVA vaccine could be pulled from the market. But they also say that Ivins and others were working on a promising new vaccine that was considered safer and more effective. Ivins’s colleague Jeffrey Adamovicz will comment, “There was a lot of consternation, a lot of pressure to rescue this thing. But if AVA failed, he had his next vaccine candidate. It was well on its way to what looked to be a very bright future.” Colleague Gerry Andrews will similarly comment, “Nothing is unimaginable… But I would definitely say [the FBI’s AVA theory] is doubtful.” The Defense Department claims at the time that the vaccine is both safe and effective. But eventually Ivins’s notebooks will be made public and they will show Ivins thought the vaccine was making some test animals sick. (Lipton 8/8/2008)
By the end of March 2005, the FBI clearly suspects Bruce Ivins for the 2001 anthrax attacks (see October 5-November 21, 2001). Ivins works at USAMRIID, the US Army’s top bioweapons laboratory, and his lab was raided by the FBI to find Ivins’ anthrax samples (see July 16, 2004). He has been questioned about suspicious behavior around the time of the attacks and since (see March 31, 2005). Yet Ivins is still allowed to work with anthrax and other deadly germs at USAMRIID. McClatchy Newspapers will report in August 2008, “[A] mystery is why Ivins wasn’t escorted from [USAMRIID] until last month when the FBI had discovered by 2005 that he’d failed to turn over samples of all the anthrax in his lab, as agents had requested three years earlier.” In 2003, USAMRIID implemented a biosurety program that required all scientists working there to undergo regular intrusive background checks, which includes disclosure of mental health issues. They also have to undergo periodic FBI background checks to retain their security clearances. Jeffrey Adamovicz, head of USAMRIID’s bacteriology division in 2003 and 2004, will later say that USAMRIID officials knew at least by late 2006 that Ivins was a suspect, yet he maintained his lab access and security clearances until July 10, 2008, shortly before his suicide later that month (see July 10, 2008 and July 29, 2008). Adamovicz will say, “It’s hard to understand if there was all this negative information out there on Bruce, why wasn’t it picked up in the biosurety program or by law enforcement.” (Gordon 8/7/2008) By contrast, anthrax attacks suspect Steven Hatfill lost his security clearance in 2001 after it was discovered he had misrepresented some items on his resume (see August 23, 2001).
Scientist Bruce Ivins begins to believe that the FBI anthrax attacks investigation is turning its focus towards him. He is correct, but it is unclear how he knows this (the FBI begins openly monitoring him at some point in 2007 (see Autumn 2007-July 29, 2008)). At USAMRIID, the US Army’s top bioweapons laboratory, he tells colleagues that the FBI might be trying to set him up to take the fall for the attacks. His former boss Jeffrey Adamovicz will later recall that Ivins begins to poke holes in the FBI’s efforts. For instance, Ivins says a positive DNA match between the anthrax in the letters and anthrax at USAMRIID would mean little, “because those labs are shared.” (Williamson and Gorman 8/7/2008) It is unclear why the FBI is suspecting Ivins already, because a match between the anthrax used in the attacks and anthrax held by him will not be made until early 2007 (see Early 2007).
Not long before anthrax attacks suspect Bruce Ivins commits suicide on July 29, 2008 (see July 29, 2008), W. Russell Byrne, an infectious-disease specialist who knows Ivins, sees him at a Sunday service at the local Roman Catholic church they both attend. Bryne will later recall: “He just looked worried, depressed, anxious, way turned into himself.… It would be overstating it to say he looked like a guy who was being led to his execution, but it’s not far off.” (Warrick, Thompson, and Hernandez 8/2/2008) Ivins is under 24-hour surveillance by the FBI at this time (see July 23, 2008), but it is unknown if he is under any kind of suicide watch. Jeffrey Adamovicz, who was Ivins’s boss several years earlier, will later say: “A lot of the tactics [the FBI used against Ivins] were designed to isolate him from his support. The FBI just continued to push his buttons.” (Warrick, Thompson, and Davis 8/3/2008)
On August 1, 2008, it is first reported that Bruce Ivins, a scientist at USAMRIID, the US Army’s top bioweapons laboratory at Fort Detrick, Maryland, apparently killed himself after the FBI made him their chief suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks (see October 5-November 21, 2001). But many of Ivins’s colleagues at USAMRIID doubt that he was the killer.
On August 1, one unnamed colleague says, “They took an innocent man, a distinguished scientist, and smeared his reputation, dishonored him, questioned his children and drove him to take his life.… He just didn’t have the swagger, the ego to pull off that kind of thing, and he didn’t have the lab skills to make the fine powder anthrax that was used in the letters.” (Ross and Sauer 8/1/2008)
On August 2, an unnamed USAMRIID employee says, “Almost everybody… believes that he had absolutely nothing to do with [the anthrax attacks].” (Warrick, Thompson, and Hernandez 8/2/2008)
Former colleague Norm Covert says, “We’re looking at a man with a distinguished 30-something-year career, unparalleled and known around the world.… His career and his reputation are trashed and the FBI still hasn’t said what they have on him.” (CNN 8/2/2008)
Also on August 2, Dr. Kenneth Hedlund, the former chief of bacteriology as USAMRIID, says, “He did not seem to have any particular grudges or idiosyncrasies.… He was the last person you would have suspected to be involved in something like this.” (Abruzzese and Lipton 8/2/2008) Three days later, Hedlund adds, “I think he’s a convenient fall guy. They can say, ‘OK, we found him, case closed, we’re going home. The FBI apparently applied a lot of pressure to all the investigators there, and they found the weakest link.” He also says that Ivins was a bacteriologist and lacked the expertise to convert the anthrax into the deadly form used in the 2001 attacks.
Former colleague Dr. W. Russell Byrne says he believe Ivins was singled out partly because of Ivins’s personal weaknesses. “If they had real evidence on him, why did they not just arrest him?” (Kiehl 8/5/2008)
On August 4, David Franz, head of USAMRIID in the late 1990s, says, “The scientific community seems to be concerned that the FBI is going to blow smoke at us.” (Willman 8/4/2008)
On August 6, more than 200 of his USAMRIID colleagues attend a memorial for him. Col. John Skvorak, commander of USAMRIID, praises Ivins’s “openness, his candor, his humor and his honesty.” (Williamson and Gorman 8/7/2008)
On August 8, former colleague Gerry Andrews says, “Nothing is unimaginable. But I would definitely say it is doubtful” that Ivins was behind the anthrax attacks. (Lipton 8/8/2008)
Also on August 8, Melanie Ulrich, a USAMRIID scientist until 2007, says the FBI’s case against Ivins does not add up and their description of him does not match the person she worked with for six years. For instance, she said that shortly after 9/11, an intensive, all-encompassing psychological review was conducted of all USAMRIID employees with access to dangerous biological agents, and it does not make sense that some as supposedly as unstable as Ivins could have remained employed for years of such scrutiny. The FBI claims that an anthrax flask in Ivins’s custody was the “parent” of a certain anthrax strain, but Ulrich says different anthrax samples were genetically identical so any one sample can not be more of a “parent” than any other. The FBI suggests Ivins used a lyophilizer to make powdered anthrax, but Ulrich says Ivins signed out a SpeedVac, but not a lyophilizer, which is too large to fit in the secure protective area Ivins used at the time. Furthermore, a SpeedVac operates slowly and it would have been impossible for Ivins to use it to dry the amount of anthrax used in the letters in the time frame the FBI says he did. (Schotz 8/8/2008)
On August 9, after the FBI has laid out its evidence against Ivins, Jeffrey Adamovicz, one of Ivins’s supervisors in USAMRIID’s bacteriology division, says, “I’d say the vast majority of people [at Fort Detrick] think he had nothing to do with it.” (Isikoff 8/9/2008) He also says that the anthrax sent to Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD) was “so concentrated and so consistent and so clean that I would assert that Bruce could not have done that part.” (Gordon 8/7/2008)
Former colleague Luann Battersby says Ivins was weird, but “not any weirder than a typical scientist.… He was not the weirdest by far I worked with down there.” She says that he was not a “strong person.… I would say he was milquetoast.… The fact that he was a terrorist doesn’t really square with my opinion with who he was.… I’m amazed at all this. I assume there’s evidence and that it’s true, but I certainly never would have suspected him.” She says she is unsure if he had the technical skills to commit the crime. (Heaney 8/10/2008)
Experts disagree if recently deceased anthrax attacks suspect Bruce Ivins had the skills needed to make the anthrax used in the attacks.
Bioweapons Expert - “One bioweapons expert familiar with the FBI investigation” says Ivins did have this skills. This expert points out that Ivins worked with anthrax at USAMRIID, the US Army’s top bioweapons laboratory, and regularly made sophisticated preparations of anthrax bacteria spores for use in animal tests. “You could make it in a week,” the expert says. “And you could leave USAMRIID with nothing more than a couple of vials. Bear in mind, they weren’t exactly doing body searches of scientists back then.”
Former Weapons Inspector - But others disagree. Richard Spertzel, a former UN weapons inspector who worked with Ivins at USAMRIID, says: “USAMRIID doesn’t deal with powdered anthrax.… I don’t think there’s anyone there who would have the foggiest idea how to do it. You would need to have the opportunity, the capability and the motivation, and he didn’t possess any of those.”
Unnamed Former Colleague - An unnamed scientist who worked with Ivins says it was technically possible to make powdered anthrax at USAMRIID, but, “As well as we knew each other, and the way the labs were run, someone would discover what was going on, especially since dry spores were not something that we prepared or worked with.” (Warrick, Thompson, and Davis 8/3/2008)
Former Supervisor - Jeffrey Adamovicz, who had been Ivins’s supervisor in recent years, says that the anthrax sent to Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD) was “so concentrated and so consistent and so clean that I would assert that [Ivins] could not have done that part.” (Gordon 8/7/2008)
USAMRIID Division Chief - Gerry Andrews, the chief of USAMRIID’s bacteriology division at USAMRIID from 1999 to 2003, says the anthrax in the Daschle letter was “a startlingly refined weapons-grade anthrax spore preparation, the likes of which had never been seen before by personnel at [USAMRIID]. It is extremely improbable that this type of preparation could ever have been produced [there], certainly not of the grade and quality found in that envelope” (see August 9, 2008).
FBI Scientist - On August 18, FBI scientist Vahid Majidi says, “It would have been easy to make these samples at USAMRIID.” He believes that one person could make the right amount of anthrax in three to seven days (see August 18, 2008). (US Department of Justice 8/18/2008)
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