NEAL CONAN, host:
It's now more than seven years since somebody mailed deadly anthrax spores to news outlets and congressional offices and killed five people. The FBI believes they know who did it - Bruce Ivins, a scientist at Fort Detrick, Maryland who developed the anthrax vaccine used by American soldiers in the first Gulf War. Ivins killed himself last July, leaving no confession, and many of his former colleagues believe he was innocent.
Yesterday, the New York Times published a lengthy portrait of Bruce Ivins, described as an amateur juggler with mental illness, alcoholism and secret obsessions with hints of violence. If you have questions about the investigation and its conclusions, our phone number is 800-989-8255; email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation at our Web site. That's at npr.org, just click on Talk of the Nation. Scott Shane wrote the front page story in yesterday's Times and joins us here in studio 3A. Thanks very much for coming in.
Mr. SCOTT SHANE (Reporter, New York Times): Thanks for having me.
CONAN: And you say that Bruce Ivins was revered by his colleagues as a rare ray of light.
Mr. SHANE: Yeah, he was a - everyone recognized that he was sort of a quirky character. But a lot of people really liked him. He came across as a very caring person, he'd ask if someone had been out sick or had lost a relative. He kept Hershey's kisses in his office and people would come by and get them. He was a juggler, as you mentioned. He also played the piano, and he would play a keyboard in his Catholic church on Sunday mornings and sometimes take it to an office party and liven things up. He sent lots of sort of joke emails around to friends. And you know, like any government bureaucracy - USAMRIID is the acronym for the United States Medical - Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases - it could be kind of a glum place, and people, I think generally liked Bruce Ivins.
CONAN: And one of those jokey emails was spelling out Happy Holidays with anthrax spores.
Mr. SHANE: Yeah, that was in 2004. He sent out a sort of Christmas card by email and said something like the spores wish you Happy Holidays and sent it around. It's the kind of thing that, I think, in the absence of the anthrax letters and in the absence of any suspicion from the FBI, people would probably sort of chuckle and think here's a guy who was really into his work and had a sense of humor. Obviously, after the FBI's allegations, it comes across as perhaps a somewhat darker kind of gesture.
CONAN: But even after those allegations, even after a lot of information about Bruce Ivins was made public following his suicide, after all of that, some of his colleagues really still believe he's innocent.
Mr. SHANE: That's right. And they have some good reason to believe that. They knew him, not only as a human being, but they knew him as a scientist. And they have some sense of what went on in his lab and what was possible, what wasn't. So, I think you certainly have to take their doubts seriously. Four of his colleagues who had worked very closely with him for many years, all of whom have Ph.d.s, wrote an obituary for the scientific journal Microbe that ran in November and praised him in very strong terms and didn't mention the allegations that he was essentially a mass murderer. So, that gives you a sense of the depth of skepticism out there at Fort Detrick.
CONAN: And the skepticism is based, in part, on the fact that the FBI, for several years, suspected another government scientist, a man named Bruce Hatfill…
Mr. SHANE: Steven Hatfill.
CONAN: Steven Hatfill, excuse me, who - again, you look at the circumstances - wrote a novel about a bio-terror attack and had other very suspicious things about him. And you ask a very disturbing question in your story: Had Dr. Hatfill committed suicide, as some people suspected he might had at some point, when the investigation got very intense - had he committed suicide, would the FBI have named him as the killer and closed the case?
Mr. SHANE: Well, that is a question that haunts, I think, a lot of people associated with this case. I started covering the anthrax letters when I worked for the Baltimore Sun and covered them - the case pretty intensively in the first couple of years. And very quickly, even though there was some Islamist or pseudo-Islamist rhetoric in the notes that came with the anthrax, for various reasons, the FBI began focusing on a theory that this was a domestic attack, probably from some kind of bio-defense insider.
And increasingly, the scientific evidence accumulated that pointed to Fort Detrick, possibly to another - one of a couple of other government labs or contractor labs. And so, they started looking very hard at the core scientists at Fort Detrick, at the Army lab there, and Bruce Ivins was one of those people. The irony was that, at the same time, the FBI, which of course began this process with very little expertise on bio-terrorism, depended on Dr. Ivins and some of his colleagues for their knowledge, their technical sort of advice about anthrax, about how the powder could've made - been made and where it could've come from and so on.
So, from very early on, the scientists out there had this duel status of adviser and suspect. Steven Hatfill had worked at that lab in Fort Detrick for a couple of years, from '97 to '99, and was himself a somewhat quirky guy and some scientists out there had suggested the FBI take a look at him. And the FBI quickly put together what seemed like a fairly provocative at least, but totally circumstantial case that perhaps he had done this. And some FBI investigators were quite convinced that he was the guy. But they could not close the deal.
They found some provocative things - you mentioned the novel. He had on his resume that he had a working knowledge of wet and dry bio-warfare pathogens. He kept a sample of an anthrax simulant at home and some notes on weaponizing anthrax. They found that he had filled prescriptions for the antibiotic Cipro, which can protect against anthrax, two days before each of the anthrax mailings. And they knew that he'd lost his security clearance about a month before the letters were mailed, due to apparently a questionable polygraph.
They also found some other - they found a history of sort of exaggerating his qualifications. They found that he'd actually forged the Ph.D. that he'd used to get jobs at NIH and later at Fort Detrick. So, it was really - you can see why they took an interest in this guy and they put a lot of resources into him, followed him around for years. Finally, just earlier this year - sorry, last year in June, they announced that they were paying him a settlement in lawsuit that he'd filed…
CONAN: Because they had leaked information about his name…
Mr. SHANE: Right, technically speaking, it was not for - because they'd investigated him, it was because they had violated the Privacy Act by leaking information about him. At that point, you sort of wondered, well, is this because they think they have the guy who really did it? And in August, they announced, after Bruce Ivins' suicide, that that was the case.
CONAN: Well, you said, they could never nail down the case against Dr. Hatfill. Could they prove it against Bruce Ivins?
Mr. SHANE: With Bruce Ivins, I think it's probably fair to say that the case is considerably stronger, partly because Hatfill was virologist, and there was never any proof that he had done much hands-on work with anthrax - again, he'd done a little bit of work with anthrax stimulants - whereas Ivins was an anthrax specialist and for 20 years had - his job had been essentially to develop a vaccine, and part of that involved growing anthrax, essentially spraying it on animals that were vaccinated and using that to test the vaccine. So, he was an old hand at anthrax, one of the most experienced people in the government with anthrax.
But, as with Hatfill, there was no single smoking gun, no single piece of evidence that could really close the case, as FBI officials have acknowledged. They couldn't - the letters were mailed in Princeton. They couldn't prove that Ivins had ever been in Princeton. He said he hadn't been there since 1959. They couldn't - the notes had been Xeroxed, had been photocopied. They couldn't put him, you know, with a photocopier making the notes, copying the notes. They couldn't find any evidence - security camera or anything like that - that found him buying the kind of envelopes, pre-stamped envelops, that were used in the attacks. So, there were all kinds of possible sort of items that could've nailed the case, and they couldn't find any of those. Now, they maintain that the accumulation of evidence surrounding Dr. Ivins, including a pattern of working late in the labs for several nights before each of the mailings, added up to proof beyond a reasonable doubt, which they believed they could present in court and use to convict him.
CONAN: Well, that was opportunity. What about his motive?
Mr. SHANE: The motive has always been somewhat obscure, but the FBI and others have long speculated that the motive might have been, on the part of a bio-defense insider, an American bio-defense insider, to call attention of the public and the government to the threat of bio-terrorism.
CONAN: By killing people?
Mr. SHANE: Well, there's some evidence that whoever mailed the letters may not have intended to kill or may have taken some steps to avoid that. Whoever did it put the word anthrax in the notes, put "take Penicillin" in the notes. Now, if this were an al-Qaeda attack, you wouldn't expect them to do anything that would warn people that they could take antibiotics and reduce the death toll.
And, you know, you can talk to folks who'd studied bio-terrorism, worried about bio-terrorism for years, and many people in the field were frustrated. They felt this was a terrible threat, and they feared that until there was an attack, no one would take it seriously. The irony, of course, is that if indeed that was the motive of these letters, it worked very well, and the government greatly increased the spending on bio-defense and has spent about $50 billion since 2001 on bio-defense.
The irony there, of course, is that if indeed Bruce Ivins was the culprit, they've multiplied by 10 or 20 times, depending on what estimate you accept, the number of people and number of places where dangerous pathogens are being worked on. And assuming that, you know, in every thousand people, there's a couple with a screw loose, perhaps we have increased the threat of a bio-defense insider.
CONAN: Our guest is Scott Shane of the New York Times who wrote a profile of Bruce Ivins, the man the FBI believes is the anthrax killer. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And if you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255; email us, email@example.com. Jeff's on the line, Jeff calling from Chesterfield, Missouri.
JEFF (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call. One aspect of this that I don't think has been discussed at all, that I know of, that I think might start to make some sense out of things is, basically, after the Democratic senators had received anthrax and other senators - one Republican, I think, as well - would that have allowed the government to start tapping their phones because they were the target of a terrorist attack? And if that is the case, boy, that really kind of opens a whole can of worms. And when I heard that they wanted to wrap this whole thing up, you know, before the Bush administration was out with claiming Ivins was the one, and he was dead and not too much we can follow, you know, up on after that fact.
CONAN: Why would the government tap the phones of the victims?
JEFF: Of the victim, yeah. Imagine being able, now, to have a reason to tap the actual phone.
CONAN: What makes you think they did?
JEFF: Because he got anthrax.
CONAN: But Jeff, what makes you think they did tap the phones of the victims?
JEFF: Well, I'm just saying, if they were doing an investigation and they were looking for the terrorists, you know, they would probably try every venue, and you know, to try and capture those people. And it would give them a legitimate right to tap their phones.
CONAN: Scott Shane, any indication that the FBI tapped the phones of Senator Leahy or other Congress people or the news media, for example?
Mr. SHANE: No, I don't think there's any evidence of that. But this caller does raise an interesting aspect of this case, which is that there are many conspiracy theories out there related to the case and many sort of amateur detectives who've made the case their own and many of whom have come up with a favorite suspect. Some of them focus on al-Qaeda and people they think are associated with al-Qaeda. Others have, you know, a former boss in the pharmaceutical industry who they never like who they're pretty sure is behind this. And one of the problems, of course, with Ivins' suicide and the fact that there won't be a trial is that, you know, in a sense, this is likely always to remain an open case.
CONAN: An open case. The colleagues of Bruce Ivins, as you reported, liked him a lot, revered him. He was a person they liked, but they did not know about, well, some other aspects of his personality. He had a penchant for secrecy.
Mr. SHANE: He did and he seems to have compartmented his life quite carefully. His family apparently did not know that for many, many - for decades, he'd had an obsession with sororities and their secret rituals - stretching all the way back to college. He had gone - in the late '70s, early 80s, he'd entered some sorority houses and he'd taken some kind of code book or secret ritual book. And more recently, on the Internet, he'd left all kinds of postings about these sororities. His brother told me that he had no idea, even though he spent a week each year vacationing with Bruce Ivins - his brother, Charles, had no idea that he'd been in treatment for alcoholism and he'd been in both A.A. and residential treatment. So, he does seem to have been able to keep secrets and separate his life, which may strengthen the FBI's theory.
CONAN: Yet, there is still the question: Did the FBI hound the wrong man to kill himself?
Mr. SHANE: Well, that's - certainly, those of us who followed the Hatfill saga have that concern. Steven Hatfill, according to his friends, was quite depressed and was drinking at the time the FBI focused on him. There were - his friends described times when he would drive around Washington and at times there'd be a whole convoy of FBI surveillance vehicles following him. One of them actually ran over his foot when he was shopping in Georgetown. And Dr. Hatfill approached a car and the surveillance vehicle tried to take off and actually ran over his foot. The intensity of the scrutiny and the constant presence of these watchers, I think, would put anyone under a lot of stress.
CONAN: Scott Shane, thanks very much.
Mr. SHANE: Thank you.
CONAN: Scott Shane's story on Bruce Ivins was published on the front page of yesterday's edition of the New York Times. I'm Neal Conan. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News in Washington.
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