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FBI reveals trail that led to scientist

Officials lay out the evidence they say proves a desperate man acted alone in the 2001 anthrax attacks.

August 07, 2008|David Willman and David G. Savage | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — In an extraordinary attempt to prove the guilt of a suspect now beyond their reach, government officials Wednesday released a wealth of new details about the troubled life of Bruce E. Ivins, and said they had evidence that would have convicted him in the 2001 anthrax mailings that killed five people.

Hundreds of pages of previously secret documents show how the FBI, using new scientific tools, began to establish the guilt of one of the very scientists it had been relying on to crack the case. Ivins, 62, died of an apparent suicide July 29.

"We stand here today, firmly convinced that we have the person who committed those attacks," said Jeffrey A. Taylor, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, whose office would have prosecuted Ivins. "And we are confident that, had this gone to trial, we would have proved him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt." He said Ivins had acted alone.

Ivins was the "sole custodian" of the unique strain of anthrax that caused the deaths of five Americans, and had started working late in his laboratory the nights before the letters were mailed, according to a federal affidavit from Thomas F. Dellafera, a postal inspector who was part of the investigation team.

When asked for samples of the anthrax he was working with, the affidavit said, Ivins purposely provided the wrong or unusable material until an FBI agent marched into his secure lab and seized a flask of the lethal bacterium.

The government used Ivins' own desperate words, found in e-mails sent in the months and days before the attacks, to show a man racked by paranoia who described himself as "scary." At the same time, he was increasingly upset by the trouble besetting an anthrax vaccine he was trying to return to production.

As described by authorities Wednesday, Ivins may have perpetrated the attacks in an effort to create fear that would, in turn, spur greater federal spending and overall support for biodefense.

The unveiling of the evidence implicating a man who last week apparently killed himself was met with relief from many relatives of the anthrax victims -- and with derision from Ivins' lawyers.

"The government's press conference was an orchestrated dance of carefully worded statements, heaps of innuendo and a staggering lack of real evidence, all contorted to create the illusion of guilt," said attorneys Paul F. Kemp and Thomas M. DeGonia.

But Maureen Stevens, widow of the first victim, Robert Stevens, said she felt relieved after flying from Florida to Washington to attend a special FBI briefing.

"They've put it all together. . . . There is so much that they have gathered, and they worked so hard. I feel I can rest now," she said.

Taylor, joined by officials from the FBI and the U.S. Postal Service, referred to genetic testing of material retrieved from the tainted letters and the victims and detailed other evidence that he said proved Ivins' guilt. Yet the presentation fell well short of providing specifics that many experts say would be needed to rigorously analyze the government's conclusion that the anthrax powder could only have originated from a flask in Ivins' laboratory.

"I assume they can prove it," said Dr. Philip K. Russell, a virologist and retired Army major general who formerly oversaw research conducted at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Ft. Detrick, Md., where Ivins worked. "But the question is, does that 'genetic match' match anything else in the world? Show us the data -- and let's see it published."

Asked at the news conference when the genetic-testing data would be made public, Joseph Persichini, assistant director in charge of the FBI's Washington field office, said: "I'm not going to comment on when the publications and the process will come out, but the FBI lab will do that accordingly."

The government's presentation also raised questions about why the FBI for years exhaustively targeted Dr. Steven J. Hatfill, a former researcher at Ft. Detrick, while agents did not seek to search Ivins' home or vehicles for traces of anthrax until last fall.

This June, the government agreed to pay Hatfill $5.8 million to settle a lawsuit in which he asserted that the FBI and Justice Department had improperly leaked information about him -- some of it misleading or inaccurate -- to news organizations.

Wednesday's news conference was not attended by senior Bush administration officials, such as FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, who has presided over the investigation since soon after the mailings occurred in the fall of 2001. Earlier in the day, Mueller met with families of some of the anthrax victims. The director also briefed current and former congressional officials who were affected by the mailings that killed five people, injured 17 others and unleashed new fear after the Sept. 11 attacks.

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