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Many early clues to anthrax suspect

Records show the FBI missed the signs: Ivins used a restricted lab at key times and failed to provide a sample or report a supposed spill.

August 15, 2008|By David Willman | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • Steven J. Hatfill was exonerated and won a $5.8-million settlement against the government.
Steven J. Hatfill was exonerated and won a $5.8-million settlement against… (Mark Wilson, Getty Images )

Reporting from Washington — As federal authorities pursued the wrong suspect in the deadly anthrax mailings of 2001, they ignored or overlooked a series of early clues that pointed to Army scientist Bruce E. Ivins, a review of investigative records by the Los Angeles Times shows.

Law enforcement documents unsealed by a federal judge last week, along with other materials reviewed by The Times, show that within a few months of the mailings, FBI leaders were positioned to know important details spotlighting Ivins, who killed himself last month and has now been identified as the government's prime suspect.

The information available to investigators in those early months included:

* Security records generated by swipes of magnetized plastic access cards revealing that Ivins -- alone among the handful of anthrax researchers at Ft. Detrick, Md. -- had spent hours in a fortified "hot suite" during late nights and weekends leading up to and surrounding the mailings. The research suite is protected by a maze of controls designed to prevent the escape of deadly biological agents.

* Genetic analysis by outside scientists published in May 2002 reporting that anthrax powder recovered from the mailings most likely came from Ft. Detrick or was grown from a sample that originated there.

"I would have felt very confident at the time that the top place to look was at Ft. Detrick," said Jonathan A. Eisen, a UC Davis biologist and former colleague of the scientists at the Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, Md.

* Ivins, recruited to assist the FBI, had failed in February 2002 to provide an anthrax sample, known as RMR-1029, as requested by a bureau agent. The FBI did not obtain the RMR-1029 from within the Ft. Detrick laboratory complex where Ivins worked until two years later, when an agent took possession of a flask holding that material.

* An Army report revealing that Ivins had not told his Army superiors in December 2001 about a possible anthrax spill around his workstation that he had privately cleaned up. In sworn statements to an Army investigator in May 2002, Ivins conceded that he should have reported the matter immediately. His omission occurred when the FBI was beginning to question scientists who had worked at Ft. Detrick.

Yet even when Ivins told the Army that he had erred, FBI officials continued to rely on him for scientific assistance in their investigation of the mailings. And for several more years, FBI supervisors ordered agents to stay locked on a different target, Dr. Steven J. Hatfill, a former Army researcher who had never handled anthrax.

The long delay in focusing on Ivins and solving the case also left elected officials guessing about the origin of the threat that had traumatized the nation as they debated multibillion-dollar policies intended to counter bioterrorism. In the end, the FBI and the Justice Department concluded that the mailed anthrax came not from a foreign state or a terrorist group -- but from someone within the U.S. government.

The mailings -- which killed five people and injured 17 soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- crippled deliveries of U.S. mail and shut down a major Senate office building for cleanup. The mailings also prompted private companies nationwide to invest in costly preventive measures.

Ivins, employed by the Army since 1980 as a civilian microbiologist, had routine access to anthrax because his research focused on developing a better vaccine for troops who might face anthrax on the battlefield.

The discovery of anthrax spores outside restricted areas at Ft. Detrick prompted an Army investigation, ending with a 361-page report in May 2002 that described Ivins' earlier, undisclosed cleanup efforts. In sworn statements to the Army, Ivins suggested that a sloppy lab technician may have spread anthrax from a hot suite to other work spaces, including Ivins'.

An Army officer who had firsthand knowledge of the events told The Times last week that Ivins' sworn statements and all other investigative details gathered for the report were available at that time to the FBI.

Army officials had regarded the anthrax contamination at Ft. Detrick as accidental and non-life-threatening. They called for improvements in safety and lab practices but recommended no discipline against Ivins or anyone else.

Viewing the circumstances found by the Army report alongside the other evidence that was brought into public view last week, the Army officer concluded that Ivins' stealth bleaching of his work area was related to the anthrax mailings.

"Of course I think it was a coverup," said the officer, who did not want to be identified because external reviews are pending. "He was trying to clean up the material" that may have been used in the anthrax mailings.

Ivins, 62, died July 29 in what Maryland health officials have ruled a suicide. His lawyers have said that they believe Ivins would have been acquitted if he had lived to stand trial on murder charges.

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