What's Next In The FBI's Anthrax Investigation?

The FBI this week may release some of the evidence against Bruce Ivins, a U.S. government researcher who was under investigation for the anthrax attacks of 2001. He killed himself last week. Investigators have told NPR they were still several major legal steps away from an indictment.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

This week, we may learn some of the evidence against Bruce Ivins. He's the U.S. government researcher who was under investigation for the anthrax attacks of 2001. He killed himself last week. The first reports of Ivins' suicide suggested that he died just before his indictment.

But investigators tell NPR that any indictment was still weeks away. The reporter who learned that is NPR's Dina Temple-Raston, who's in our studios. Good morning.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So what was the state of the investigation?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the FBI felt it had enough to press charges against Ivins, but they still had some legal hoops that they had to go through. They'd written up the case, but they hadn't received any sort of permission to go forward from the Department of Justice. And that could've taken days or even weeks to get.

On top of that, there was this whole separate question of the grand jury. They'd been approving subpoenas all the way along as they were investigating the case, but the jurors hadn't heard the case in its entirety yet, and they hadn't even been asked to vote on the case, to bring an indictment. And that would've taken - conceivably - weeks. So an indictment was hardly imminent, as a lot of the reports said.

INSKEEP: Well, that gets to a critical question, then, particularly since there will now never be a trial of this man. Did they have a lot of strong evidence against him or not?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, to be honest, we're not quite sure. There are grand jury secrecy requirements, and the FBI can't release the evidence they have yet. But sources close to the investigation said that the smoking gun they have consists of this new science that they specifically developed for this case.

And basically, as I understand it - and I'm not a scientific expert - it basically allowed them to uncover the DNA code of the specific strain of anthrax, a type of genetic fingerprinting, that got them right to Ivins. And once they had narrowed that down, they were able to look at who had access to that particular strain of anthrax, and that narrowed the field dramatically.

What's interesting is that the sources told me that the FBI had zeroed in on Fort Detrick virtually from the start, and that helped them sort of try to decide who could be a possible suspect. They brought in a FBI profiler and tried to narrow it down very much after that.

INSKEEP: Fort Detrick, that's the Army research facility where Ivins worked, correct?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly.

INSKEEP: But we do have to ask - simply because it's been seven years and because the FBI for so long seemed to focus on an entirely different government scientist - whether they know what they're talking about this time.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the other government scientist, of course, is Steven Hatfill, who - they ended up settling with him for almost $6 million. But the way the FBI laid it out for me was that there were just so many things that lined up suggesting that it was Hatfill that they just couldn't write those things off as a mere coincidence.

The FBI profiler that I mentioned just a moment ago, his profile was that the suspect was probably white, in biodefense, probably connected to Fort Detrick. And if you think about it, that could've been Hatfill, or it could've been Ivins. You know, these things are very general. They were both at the lab and both fit that rather general description.

There was a lot of circumstantial evidence against Hatfill - a bioterrorism novel he'd written, failing a lie-detector test, things like that. And on top of that, there was this big issue of his behavior. Everyone in the lab was under suspicion at one time or another, but Hatfill was the only one who was squawking so much and being so public about it. And it became a case of "he doth protest too much."

After he was cleared, FBI Director Mueller completely changed out the FBI team that was there and put an agent named Edward Montooth in charge, and they…

INSKEEP: New investigators now.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Completely new investigators. The idea was to put fresh eyes on the investigation. And with those fresh eyes, Ivins emerged as the next best suspect.

INSKEEP: We're talking with NPR's Dina Temple-Raston, who's got new details of the investigation of Bruce Ivins, the scientist who committed suicide amid the anthrax investigation. We are going to hear from one of Ivins' family members in a moment, but before we do, Dina, I just want to know: Does this suicide mean the case is closed?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, it's not so simple. There's a process to go through. You know, this is why FBI is known as a bureaucracy. They have to actually formally close the case. And usually what they do is they present the evidence to the U.S. attorney, and he signs off on closing the case. In this case, I think it might get kicked all the way up to the attorney general, Michael Mukasey.

INSKEEP: Does this mean that the grand jury testimony, or what would've been grand jury testimony, can now be released, whatever they've got?

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's what we're hoping for. Again, there are a couple of steps to go through. But what we're expecting is Mukasey closes the case, and then FBI Director Mueller promised the families that he would brief them before they would read about all of this in the paper. So that needs to happen.

And once that happens, I think we're going to see a press conference, probably in the middle of the week, in which we'll at least see pieces of the evidence. I don't think we're going to get the entire case, but I think we'll get enough to sort of answer a lot of these questions that are swirling around.

INSKEEP: Dina, thanks very much.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston.

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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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