Anthrax Case Closed On Guilt Of A Dead Man

The FBI closed one of its most important cases Friday. In 2001, letters containing deadly anthrax spores were mailed to politicians and the news media. Five people died. The FBI eventually focused on researcher Bruce Ivins as a suspect. In 2008, as the Justice Department was preparing an indictment against him, Ivins killed himself. Now, the Justice Department has officially closed the case, concluding that Ivins was behind the attacks and acted alone. Host Scott Simon talks to NPR's Dina Temple-Raston about the story.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The Justice Department has closed its investigation into the anthrax attacks, one of its longest running active cases. A handful of letters containing deadly anthrax were sent to politicians and news organizations in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks. Five people died; 17 people got sick.

The FBI said that yesterday, unequivocally, that Army researcher Bruce Ivins was behind the anthrax killings and that he acted alone. NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston joins us. Dina, thanks for being with us.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

SIMON: Of course, we have to remind ourselves: the FBI originally accused somebody entirely different of being behind these attacks. They had to pay him millions of dollars in damages when they cleared him of the attacks. Why are they so sure now that it's Bruce Ivins?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, I'm not so sure the controversy will ever go away, because Bruce Ivins, the man they're accusing in this crime, committed suicide before he was formally charged. But the FBI did try to lay out a really compelling case. And by formally closing the case, the FBI is no longer bound by grand jury secrecy requirements, so that means they can release a lot of evidence that we didn't see back in July and August of 2008 when this story first broke.

SIMON: And what have they released and what have you noticed in that pile of evidence?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, a lot of what we saw we knew, but there's more specificity and there's more specificity and there's more detail. For example, the strain of anthrax that was used in the attacks was a strain that Ivins and only a handful of other people had access to.

And the FBI said back in the summer of 2008 that they'd eliminated other people as suspects. They were much more specific in the release that they made yesterday about how they eliminated those people. And then back during the timeframe in 2001, Ivins is spending a lot of long hours in the lab alone just before these mailings happened.

Now, we knew that, but what we got to see is actually logs. Seven extra hours over three days in September 2001, when the first mailing happened; 12 extra hours over a little more than a week when the second mailing happened.

SIMON: Yeah, he said his marriage was just breaking up, right? That was...

TEMPLE-RASTON: That was his explanation, that they were long hours because his home life was difficult. But the other part of it was that there was no big project going on in the lab at that time that would have justified his time there.

SIMON: Some of these emails as you read through it can be both poignant and alarming.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Indeed. You know, he writes in one email: I'm down to the point where I - and I'm quoting here - where there are some things that are eating away that I feel I can't talk about. And then in December 2001 he sent an email to a colleague that said: I've made up some poems about having two people in one. Quote: "I'm the other half of Bruce. When he lets me out, when I get steamed out, I don't pout. I push Bruce aside and I'm free to run about."

SIMON: Now, he was also apparently stalking - and I hope that's not a legal term - I have to be careful using - a former coworker with some of the same techniques that were used ultimately with the anthrax mailings.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. He was sending her presents and he drove up to New York from Maryland to drop off a bottle of Kahlua on her doorstep - late-night drive. He would send her packages and put fake return addresses on the packages and then mail them from other cities so she wouldn't know they were from him. This is the same sort of thing that happened with the anthrax letters.

SIMON: So we're talking about a man in a desperate mental state and I guess he began to realize that the world was closing in on him. The world - the FBI.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, that he was a target in the investigation. You know, we have emails that he sent after testifying before the grand jury. And you could see that he was sort of coming unglued. In one he says - and I'm quoting here -I look like I'm 90 years old. I feel older than that. At some point in people's lives, I think they give up. That's where I am.

And then there was a document that reports what his lawyer apparently told him, and here's what it says - and I'm quoting again: Ivins attorney told him that an indictment was coming and to be prepared to face the death penalty. And that would've been in late June 2008, and a month later he committed suicide.

SIMON: And the only possible motive might have been he wanted to call attention to the importance of anthrax, I guess.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, we'll never know for sure because he killed himself. But funding for an anthrax vaccine was drying up, and the sense is that he wanted to remind people that anthrax was a serious threat and this was a way to do that.

SIMON: NPR's Dina Temple-Raston, thanks so much.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

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