Anthrax Indictment May Have Been Weeks Away

Government investigators tell NPR that they were still several major legal steps away from indicting army researcher Dr. Bruce Ivins for the 2001 anthrax attacks when he killed himself this past week.

While they had written up the case and told officials at the Department of Justice they were prepared to go forward, the department had not yet approved the case. What is more, the evidence against Ivins had not yet been presented in its entirety to a grand jury and jurors had not yet been asked to vote on an indictment. That process could have taken weeks.

There had been some media reports saying that Ivins killed himself on Tuesday because he had been told that he was going to be indicted imminently. People close to the case told NPR that the FBI had a discussion with Ivins' lawyer and had presented him with some of the evidence in the case.

But the idea at the time was to convince Ivins' lawyer that it was in his client's best interest to admit to mailing envelopes with anthrax in the fall of 2001. People close to the investigation said it wasn't so much a plea discussion as the FBI making clear that they were steaming toward an indictment of Ivins.

The FBI is expected to provide a briefing on the evidence as early as midweek. The timing depends on a number of factors.

The case has to be formally closed before the FBI is no longer bound by grand jury secrecy requirements.

The bureau also has a blanket rule about not discussing pending cases. Normally, a case is closed by presenting evidence to the appropriate U.S. attorney and getting him or her to sign off on the case. Because the anthrax case is so high profile, officials said it is likely that Attorney General Michael Mukasey will have to sign off on closing it.

Once that happens, the FBI is expected to brief the anthrax victims who survived the attack and the families of the five people who died in the spate of anthrax mailings that took place in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

FBI Director Robert Mueller had promised the families that they would be briefed on the case and would not have to read about it in the papers. He is trying to make good on that promise, but can't do so until the case is closed and the grand jury restrictions are lifted.

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