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Report faults Army in 2001 anthrax mailings

Officials missed signs of alarming mental problems in Dr. Bruce Ivins, the scientist suspected in the deadly bioterrorism attacks.

March 22, 2011|By David Willman, Special to The Times
  • Army scientist Bruce Ivins, shown working in his lab, committed suicide in 2008 as federal prosecutors prepared to seek his indictment in the 2001 anthrax attacks.
Army scientist Bruce Ivins, shown working in his lab, committed suicide…

Reporting from Bethesda, Md. — The Army scientist believed responsible for the 2001 anthrax letter attacks that killed five people and crippled mail delivery in parts of the country had exhibited alarming mental problems that military officials should have noticed and acted on long before he had a chance to strike, a panel of behavioral analysts has found.

The anthrax attacks, the nation's worst bioterrorism event, "could have been anticipated — and prevented," the panel said.

The analysts also concluded that confidential records documenting Bruce E. Ivins' psychiatric history offered "considerable additional circumstantial evidence" that he was indeed the anthrax killer. A copy of the panel's 285-page report was obtained by The Times.

Ivins "was psychologically disposed to undertake the mailings; his behavioral history demonstrated his potential for carrying them out; and he had the motivation and means," the Expert Behavioral Analysis Panel said.

The anonymous, anthrax-laced letters, sent to news organizations and two U.S. senators in October and November 2001, raised fears of a second wave of terrorism after the Sept. 11 hijackings. Anthrax that leaked from one of the letters forced the closure of a Senate office building for three months. Fear of further contamination prompted a six-day shutdown of the House of Representatives and disrupted operations of the Supreme Court.

Ivins, 62, a microbiologist with expertise in cultivating anthrax, died July 29, 2008. He had taken an overdose of Tylenol PM as federal prosecutors prepared to seek his indictment for murder.

Ivins was a civilian employee at Ft. Detrick, Md., working in the Army's Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, known as USAMRIID, one of the nation's premier biowarfare research facilities.

If Army officials had investigated signs of Ivins' instability, the panel said, he would have been denied a security clearance, which he needed to handle anthrax or other potential biowarfare agents.

The panel faulted Army officials for making no effort to debrief any of the psychiatrists or counselors who met with Ivins before the fall of 2001 or thereafter. Nor did the Army pursue questions raised by Ivins' annual disclosures of aspects of his medical treatment.

For instance, on a government form he completed in 1987, he placed question marks next to these items regarding his psychiatric history: "Memory Change," "Trouble With Decisions," "Hallucinations," "Improbable Beliefs" and "Anxiety."

"Information regarding his disqualifying behaviors was readily available in the medical record and accessible to personnel had it been pursued under mechanisms that existed prior to and after 2001," according to the nine-member panel, headed by Dr. Gregory Saathoff, a University of Virginia psychiatrist who served as an FBI consultant during the anthrax investigation.

The report is sure to stoke the debate over whether Ivins was, as the FBI has concluded, the sole perpetrator of the letter attacks. Investigators determined that Ivins spent a string of late nights in his specially equipped lab at USAMRIID preceding the attacks, and that he created and controlled a highly purified batch of anthrax that was matched through DNA tests to the material in the letters.

Among the circumstantial evidence against Ivins was his eagerness to bring to market a new anthrax vaccine, of which he was a co-inventor, and his decades-long fixation with the college sorority Kappa Kappa Gamma, whose office in Princeton, N.J., was adjacent to a mailbox where Ivins is believed to have deposited anthrax-laced letters. The mailbox was the only one where investigators found anthrax spores that matched the attack material.

Some critics, including Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who was an intended recipient of one of the letters, have said they do not accept the FBI's version of events. As an example of the FBI's fallibility, Ivins' defenders point to the government's $5.82-million legal settlement in 2008 with Dr. Steven J. Hatfill, a virologist who had worked at USAMRIID and was the investigation's main suspect before the focus shifted to Ivins.

Last month, a committee appointed by the National Academy of Sciences at the FBI's request concluded that the scientific evidence implicating Ivins was not definitive but "is consistent with and supports" the bureau's finding of a genetic match between his batch of anthrax and the material in the letters.

A spokeswoman for USAMRIID, Caree Vander Linden, said the institute, for privacy law reasons, would not comment on its hiring or supervision of Ivins.

The behavioral panel was formed in late 2009 at the suggestion of Saathoff, people familiar with the matter said. Saathoff appointed the remaining panelists: five other psychiatrists, two officials from the American Red Cross and a physician-toxicologist.

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