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Colleagues: Ivins' Suicide Not Proof Of Guilt

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Colleagues: Ivins' Suicide Not Proof Of Guilt


Colleagues: Ivins' Suicide Not Proof Of Guilt

Colleagues: Ivins' Suicide Not Proof Of Guilt

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Scientist Bruce E. Ivins was respected by his colleagues at the Army biodefense research center at Fort Detrick in Maryland. His death, and his possible connection to an FBI investigation in the 2001 anthrax killings, hits a tight-knit community.


Now, we don't know a lot about the case against Bruce Ivins. The FBI's released just a few details about the scientist who overdosed on prescription painkillers earlier this week.

NPR's David Kestenbaum spent the day in Frederick, Maryland, where the late scientist lived and worked. David, you've been talking to his friends, his colleagues at the Army Bio-Defense Lab at Fort Detrick?

DAVID KESTENBAUM: Yeah, I would describe them as mostly sort of puzzled. I mean, at some point the interviews got, you know, they came sort of close to tears - the two people I talked to today. But, you know, they mostly said they just - it was not the guy that they saw, you know, working with him at the lab.

Here's one example. This is Jeff Adamovicz, who worked with Ivins at the Bio-Defense Lab and at one point was actually his boss.

Mr. JEFF ADAMOVICZ (Former Director of Bacteriology Division, U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases): There's no way I can conceive that Bruce had anything to do with the anthrax mailings. And I still, unless somebody presents me with what would have to be overwhelming evidence, I'll never believe it.

KESTENBAUM: Now, I mean, you often - you hear this sometimes about people who do terrible things, you know. But on the other hand, these were people who spent many years with him, and that is in contrast to the comments filed by a therapist, apparently who Ivins was a client of. And she was asking for a restraining order and she said that he had, you know, had a history of homicidal threats.

And no one I talked to who worked with him said that squared with the guy they knew.

SEABROOK: The FBI has been keeping very quiet about this.

KESTENBAUM: I think that's really what's frustrates the scientists. You know, they're willing to believe things but they'd like to see the data and they feel like at this point they don't understand what the motive would be. You know, no one said, look, here's the shed in the woods where this guy went out and made the powdered anthrax. You know, here's - he didn't have an alibi the day the letters were mailed.

They just don't see, you know, they would like to see some evidence other than just the understanding that he was the focus of the investigation.

SEABROOK: One of the things that I find most interesting about this is how the FBI traced the anthrax back to its source. There was an FBI statement yesterday about significant advances in the scientific forensics of this case. David, what do you know about that?

KESTENBAUM: Right. So, the FBI would love to be able to take the anthrax and the letters and know where it came from, maybe by analyzing the genetics. And that's very hard thing. So, they were able to tell in general what strain it was. It was the strain called the Ames strain but that wasn't very restrictive. A lot of places had the Ames strain, so they've been trying to advance that and they've had some success.

But the people I've talked to who know a bit about that research say it did not reach the point of an actual fingerprint, where you could say here's the anthrax that was in the letters and here's the stuff we found maybe in this guy's office and it's a perfect match. So, again, unclear exactly how far they got in being able to pinpoint where it came from.

SEABROOK: I see, and make the case against Bruce Ivins.

KESTENBAUM: And make the case against - or anybody.

SEABROOK: Bruce Ivins' lawyer wrote that Ivins was innocent and under relentless pressure.

KESTENBAUM: Yes. Ivins' friends who I talked to today, you know, talked about him being depressed in the past months. One of them said that he had mentioned that the FBI at one point had interrogated, taken his whole family, taken each member to a different location and interviewed all of them quite intensively, and that the FBI or the investigators had told his kids and his wife that he had done all these terrible things, and that was pretty traumatic.

Also Ivins was barred from coming to his place of work, and for a guy who's been going there for three decades, you know, that can be crushing.

SEABROOK: And now there's a memorial planned for Bruce Ivins.

KESTENBAUM: There's a memorial planned for next weekend. One of his children -one of his kids on their Facebook page wrote, I will miss you, dad; I love you and I can't wait to see you in heaven. Rest in peace. It's finally over.

SEABROOK: NPR's David Kestenbaum. Thanks very much, David.

KESTENBAUM: You're welcome.

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Anthrax Case Raises Concerns About Lab Security

Anthrax Case Raises Concerns About Lab Security

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On Tuesday, Bruce Ivins, a former researcher at Fort Detrick Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Md., committed suicide after learning investigators were going to charge him with the 2001 anthrax attack. hide caption

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On Tuesday, Bruce Ivins, a former researcher at Fort Detrick Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Md., committed suicide after learning investigators were going to charge him with the 2001 anthrax attack.

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Dr. Bruce Ivins committed suicide earlier this week as the government was about to charge him with killing five people through anthrax-tainted letters in 2001. More than 30 years ago, he was hired to study anthrax vaccines at the Army's Institute of Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick, Maryland.

David Danley used to work with Ivins and other scientists at Fort Detrick. He says the place was wide open back then.

"There were no locks on the doors, and you could pretty much wander the building without a lot of interference," he says.

It was an academic place, where researchers happened to be studying deadly material.

It wasn't until 1997 that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention established what it called a select-agent program to regulate "toxins that have the potential to pose a severe threat to public health and safety."

"There was a requirement to register the laboratory, not the individual," says Dave Franz, who was the commander of the research center then.

Labs had to register only if they wanted to transfer something like anthrax from one facility to another. Labs keeping the material in one place didn't have to register at all.

Franz says people studying the disease didn't need clearances in order to work with the agents. Some people had clearances to access sensitive intelligence, but in general, the country was more concerned with protecting secret information than dangerous material.

Danley says things changed at the lab only after five people died from anthrax-laced letters in 2001.

"That's when locks went on doors and armed guards and the whole nine yards," he says.

After that, everyone needed security clearances.

By that point, Ivins had been working at the lab for decades. Even then, a background check apparently failed to catch what his therapist has called "a history dating to his graduate days of homicidal threats, actions, and plans."

Everyone who gets a security clearance has to fill out the same form, called an SF-86. The form asks whether the applicant has ever been treated for a mental illness and requires the person to let investigators view private medical records.

"I don't believe that reviewing a person's medical record is part of a typical security investigation unless there is an indication that there's a concern there," says Michael Woods, who used to be chief of national security law at the FBI.

Woods says investigators only find what they look for. And what they look for depends on what the applicant reports and what other people say about that person.

"Any system will miss someone somewhere," he says. "And the alternative here is to have a much higher level of scrutiny for everybody in the system. I don't particularly want investigators going through my medical records if there's not a reason, a security-related reason to do that."

Security investigations already can take as long as 18 months. Reviewing everyone's medical records would make it take even longer. Woods says there's no good way to overcome the human factor either.

People generally don't want to volunteer damning information about themselves, or about others. The result, Woods says, is a system that will always have flaws.

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