Shortly after 9/11, someone dropped a number of letters into the US postal system tainted with highly toxic aerosolized anthrax spores. The letters were non-descript, and for all practical purposes, apparently non-traceable. After the first set, another set were sent. Ultimately, five people died from inhalational anthrax, and many others became quite ill. A nation was further traumatized after the terrible events of 9/11.
Was this a follow-on attack by foreign agents? Was this an act of opportunistic domestic terrorism?
Early investigations offered a jaw-dropping clue: The anthrax spores in the letters were “pure American, from Texas soil, and assigned to the U.S. Army for safekeeping.”
An intensive investigation by the FBI (involving 7 years, over 6,000 interviews, numerous polygraph tests, and sophisticated science) and foremost American scientists (involving new techniques for bioforensics) reveal a compelling case for charging a civilian microbiologist working at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID). (The case never went to trial. At 62, the suspect Dr. Bruce Edward Ivins apparently committed suicide in July 2008.)
Jeanne Guillemin’s “American Anthrax” describes that case and the ground-breaking bioforensic investigations. It reveals a gaping vulnerability in the country’s own bioweapons establishment with insufficient oversight of individuals with access to dangerous bio-agents.
“American Anthrax” offers a coherent narration of the first recipients of anthrax-tainted letters at American Media, Inc. in Florida, legislative offices, and New York media companies. An editor and some US postal service workers who came in contact with this aerosolized agent or who picked it up from a counter surface died. Others had skin lesions from cutaneous anthrax spore exposure.
Simultaneously, with these revelations, she provides an insider’s view of the Beltway politics, with different factions from the president on down spinning the data with different interpretations-mostly attributing the anthrax attack to terrorists abroad. Government systems were already strained by the response to 9/11 and the ramp-up to war. Worse yet, public statements made by officials often encouraged non-productive actions-such as anonymous anthrax hoax letters and sightings of white powder.
Meanwhile, the FBI launched one of its most complex investigations in history. They had long made it their business to make much of the world knowable through solid evidence-based investigations. They analyzed the text of the letters, with one reading:
“THIS IS NEXT
TAKE PENACILIN (sic) NOW
DEATH TO AMERICA
DEATH TO ISRAEL
ALLAH IS GREAT”
The envelopes were 34-cent pre-stamped blue federal eagle envelopes with no sign of DNA or fingerprints. The federal investigators ran numerous tests to figure out where these envelopes had been sold. They tracked the mailed envelopes to a particular mailbox in Princeton, New Jersey; they canvassed numerous neighborhoods to try to find potential witnesses.
They worked closely with scientists to see if they could find distinctive characteristics in the anthrax spores found in several of the envelopes. They tracked the original sources of all anthrax and then created information about capabilities-of government research labs and commercial entities-in terms of being able to create dry anthrax spores.
They pursued leads of bioweapons labs abroad in Afghanistan.
They even exhumed bodies to check if a reported scab on the leg of one of the 9/11 terrorists was anthrax-related.
Through painstaking work, the team looked at those with background and expertise, access to anthrax, and possible motives.
No one was excluded out-of-hand, and everyone was considered a possible suspect unless they could be categorically excluded and their alibis had checked out.
They looked at self-professed bioterror experts. They followed up on those who’d published in the field.
A break occurred when scientists discovered a distinctive morphotype signature in the spores used in the attacks-based on four telltale signs.”The goal was the discovery of the same four morphotypes in any of the approximately 1,000 samples in the FBIR, in such a way that the evidence would be decisive-like identified fingerprints-and trial-worthy,” writes Guillemin. So on February 2002 began the painstaking and expensive gene sequencing of all the repository of Ames strains. None who had submitted samples to the repository would be involved in the laboratory analysis, and all the samples would be coded.
Meanwhile, the press reports were going wild with speculations. Bacillus anthracis, a livestock bacterium, was considered “the premier biological weapons agent of the twentieth century” and had been “bomb fill” in at least five major military arsenals. In a post-9/11 context, the populace itself was already on emotional war footing.
Several administration officials let slip a name of one of the persons of interest in the investigation, who then turned around and filed suit against the government (later winning millions because of his job losses and reputational harm). Erroneous information about silica coating the outside of the anthrax spores (which would indicate that the spores were weaponized for increased infectiousness) was leaked to the public creating misinformation (the silica was present under the exosporium) and further fear. (This information came from an early reading of an x-ray spectrometer analysis of the chemical elements in the mailed anthrax spores.)
By the time Dr. Bruce Ivins came under FBI suspicion, there were a number of indicators that raised red flags for investigators. Foremost was the fact that the anthrax spores used in the attacks came from a batch over which he had sole control: Reference Material Receipt -1029 (RMR-1029). All the others who had received parts of the samples were painstakingly eliminated as suspects through shoe leather detective-work and the checking out of alibis.
Compounding the suspicions was the fact that he was slow to submit samples. When he did, he did not follow requested protocol.
When his samples were submitted, though, he had submitted a different set. “Soon, a confounding result emerged, the kind that had to be double-checked.
When tested, the sample from the RMR-1029 flask prepared by the Naval Medical Research Center proved positive for all four signature morphotypes.
Yet the samples that Bruce Ivins had submitted in April 2002, ostensibly from the same flask, had tested completely negative.
Summoned for an interview on Friday, March 31, 2005, Ivins insisted that for the April submission he had taken the spores from the RMR-1029 flask.”
His mislabeling of samples could be seen as “subterfuge,” in Guillemin’s words.
When investigators probed into his life, they brought the full force of the law enforcement microscope on his life-starting with his birth.
They found an individual with a number of fake email identities who would take on others’ names to commit revenge on women who had turned down his advances.
He had an obsession with KKG sorority and admitted breaking into their houses multiple times to steal their codebooks and to harass its members.
He drove over hundreds of miles once to search out KKG homes. (He maintained this obsession well into his 60s.
The sorority was of interest because there was one near where the mailbox where the anthrax letters were mailed from).
He wrote numerous complaint letters to public figures.
In the anthrax attack investigation, he tried to insinuate himself into the investigative work. When asked who could be responsible, he tried to deflect attention from himself by pointing to several of his female assistants, with whom he had awkward relationships (he tried to share intimate information about himself).
He was long married and the father of two adopted twins, but he and his wife slept in separate bedrooms and seemed distant from each other. Suffering from anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, sleep disorders, and back and leg pain, Ivins consumed a lot of alcohol, anti-anxiety drugs, and sleeping pills.
While he worked at a Bio Safety Level (BSL) 3 laboratory at USAMRIID, his employers did not take due care in checking up on his mental health and the possible impacts of that on his life. At work, he sometimes overstepped his authority and failed to report biohazard spills according to policy. (He would launch his own cleanups without informing his supervisors.) In the time period around the time of the mailings of the anthrax letters, he made anomalous solitary nighttime visits to his lab. During when the letters were mailed, there were sufficient time periods when he could have driven to Princeton, New Jersey, and back, without breaking with his recorded time at other locales. In this new light, his Bureau interviews showed inconsistencies and “lies.”
He contacted a fellow scientist whom he had pursued romantically as a student on September 21, 2001, about the anthrax letters, “not realizing that on that date no one but the sender would have known about the letters to the media,” writes Guillemin. His emails showed that he emotionally dissociated between a “good” and “bad” self. His earlier FBI polygraph, which he had passed, had been done when he was apparently on Valium, which could have dampened signs of anxiety.
While eccentricities may raise suspicions, in total, they only add color to the evidence of a serious crime that involved the use of an anti-civilian weapon of mass destruction “with malice aforethought, punishable by either the death penalty or life imprisonment” (according to Title 18 of federal law)
The FBI Amerithrax investigation results were spelled out in the sealed warrant application, which “succinctly laid out the case against Ivins as it then stood.
He had been in charge of the flask from which the letter spores had originated; he had spent suspicious night hours in the high-containment lab just prior to the mailings; his state of mind, by his own admission, had been unstable; the potential failure of BioPort threatened his research future; and his post-September 11, 2001, emails echoed the phrases used in the four anthrax letters.”
The FBI strove to make its case in public after Ivins’ suicide by releasing thousands of pages of documents to show the evidentiary trail beyond a reasonable doubt.
Billions of US tax dollars are poured into research and efforts to protect human and animal health. With tightening dollars, she suggests some changes, to align investments with where reasonable risks may be. Current biodefense initiatives are “extravagantly out of proportion to known threats.”
She suggests the importance of deeper background checks for those working with biological select agents and toxins (BSATs) and a closer monitoring of employees’ mental health.
She warns against excessive secrecy in biodefense projects, and notes the thin line between defensive and offensive bioweapons research.
Dr. Guillemin, a medical anthropologist, is a Senior Advisor in the Security Studies Program at MIT. She is the author of Anthrax: The Investigation of a Deadly Outbreak and Biological Weapons: From the Invention of State-Sponsored Programs to Contemporary Bioterrorism.
She was one of the scientists sent by the US to investigate the 1979 Sverdlovsk anthrax outbreak in a closed town in the former Soviet Union, causing the deaths of over 100 people.
The weaponized anthrax had leaked from Military Compound 19. Had the wind been blowing different, more than a hundred thousand people would have been in the path of the pathogen.
Shalin Hai-Jew works for Kansas State University. She lives in Manhattan.