The Bruce Ivins Case: Pros and Cons

To betray, you must first belong. –Harold “Kim” Philby

The words of Harold Philby, the highest ranking member of British Intelligence ever to betray Great Britain, are applicable in two ways to what is known as the “Amerithrax” investigation.  First, to possess sensitive information, a person must be trusted; but second, to find the source of a sensitive leak, investigators must always consider the possibility that “insiders” might have been involved in one way or another. 

The recent suicide of Dr. Bruce Ivins and the subsequent U.S. Department of Justice announcement that the 2001 Amerithrax investigation is over is an important case involving the betrayal of public trust – or, perhaps, of a government witch hunt gone awry.  In any event, it serves as a highly relevant case study in the investigation of bioterrorism. 

The Case Against Dr. Ivins

As of the second week of September, the government’s case against Ivins consisted primarily of the following facts, allegations, and suppositions:

  • Ivins had available to him (in his laboratory in Ft. Detrick, Maryland) a certain amount of the “Ames Strain” anthrax that was “identical” to the strain used in the 2001 anthrax attacks (which occurred shortly after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon).
  • Ivins had a history of mental illness – which was treated with at least an antidepressant, and perhaps other medications.  In a variety of accounts he was described as “manic,” “paranoid,” and/or “depressed.” 
  • In 2001 his vaccine project had been encountering difficulty and was at risk of being unfunded.
  • He was reported to have had several rather bizarre personal proclivities, including an apparent fixation with the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority.
  • He had written emails that seemed in certain particulars to echo some of the verbiage found in the anthrax letters.
  • Most important of all, perhaps: He committed suicide immediately prior to being arraigned on charges of murder stemming from the 2001 anthrax attacks.

Of all of these points, the degree to which the strain of anthrax possessed by Dr. Ivins can be linked – with complete certainty – to the anthrax used in 2001 would be the proverbial “smoking gun.” 

The Case for Dr. Ivins

Bioterrorism statutes specifically state that possession of a lethal agent must be coupled with an “intent” to use the agent to terrorize the public. Moreover, the term “intent” would have to encompass not only the willingness to use that agent but also a legitimate motive for using it.  To be considered a legitimate threat, the technical capability of Ivins to manufacture high-grade anthrax spores would be a relevant issue.  The defense of Dr. Ivins would include the following:

  • Ivins was legally entitled to possess a quantity of the Ames Strain anthrax because it was used in his legitimate government-authorized research at Ft. Detrick. Moreover, there were a number of other laboratory personnel who might have had access to the culture. Finally, the Ames Strain anthrax is a relatively common strain used in research projects. 
  • Ivins’s research work focused on the effectiveness of certain vaccines against anthrax.  The ability to manufacture the agent was not in his defined skill set. 
  • Ivins’s alleged mental disorder would be an inhibitor of the highly technical nature of manufacturing weaponized spores.  Intrusive thoughts, delusions, and the loss of contact with reality tend to make a person less effective, not more effective.  In addition, there is no physical evidence that Ivins worked clandestinely – on his own and/or outside of “normal” working hours – to manufacture the spores. 
  • His research project may not, as alleged, have been going well, but Ivins had worked on a relatively large number of projects during his career – and neither suicide nor homicide has ever been associated with any of his previous career changes. 
  • Ivins may indeed, and as also alleged, have had some rather bizarre personal habits, but that is not proof positive of murder. In fact, it also could be argued that his shame about the discovery of those personal habits might have been his real motivation for committing suicide. 
  • Ivins did send emails to friends that had a rather dark portent, but vague threats do not substitute for or legally qualify as an express “intent.” 
  • Ivins committed suicide, reportedly by taking an overdose of acetaminophen. But that would be an odd choice for a scientist who has access to lethal agents that would act much more quickly, and with much less pain.  Death by an acetaminophen overdose normally follows 4-7 days of vomiting, pains, seizure, and, finally, liver failure. To possess the skill needed to make weaponized anthrax and use it against others and then to choose a painful and prolonged death for oneself is incongruent on its face, and at least somewhat contradictory. 

Making Sense of It All

The government case is based in large part on: (a) Ivins’s possession of the agent; and (b) the allegedly declining mental faculties and/or emotional state of a scientist who for many years was a highly regarded researcher.  There are relatively few people in the United States, and in fact the world, who would have access to the Ames strain of anthrax. If in fact the strain of anthrax used in the 2001 attacks can be conclusively – i.e., beyond any shadow of a doubt – proved to be the same as that used by Ivins in his research work, it still must be determined that only Dr. Ivins could have manufactured the spores used in the 2001 attacks.

The seemingly plausible “mad scientist” theory discussed in some media accounts is inherently flawed in at least one respect – namely, because it postulates that Ivins was mentally disoriented (or worse), but at the same time capable of: (a) making a highly technical “weaponized” spore; and (b) successfully concealing all evidence of its manufacture at a high-sensitivity government laboratory.

The apparent suicide of Dr. Ivins could be, and has been, interpreted to be an “admission” of guilt. But for the executive branch of government to accept that view and/or to persuade the legislative and judicial branches of government – and the American people – to accept the same view, the scientific evidence linking the anthrax possessed by Ivins with the anthrax used in the 2001 anthrax attacks must be airtight. 

The defense of Dr. Ivins might start with the almost certain shame that this career professional must have felt upon the discovery of, and widespread publicity about, his bizarre secret life. The public shame that could be expected would of course be a threat to his marriage, his family, and his reputation. Considered in the context of his apparently declining mental faculties, particularly the depression, it seems entirely possible that Ivins committed suicide to avoid the ruination of his otherwise exemplary career. 

That theory may or may not be valid. Fortunately for the defense case, there are also a few substantive facts that also could and would be stressed – the most important of which is that Ivins was a vaccine researcher, not a particle scientist. In addition, the ability to weaponize spores might well have been beyond his expertise. Another factor worth considering is that, as a government employee in the latter stages of his career, Ivins could easily have retired if his own vaccine project had not resulted in success – or was cancelled for any number of other reasons.

Without casting any aspersions, it should be recognized that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had for almost seven years been under significant pressure to solve the Amerithrax case, but there is no evidence that Ivins himself was under any pressure to become a terrorist. If the scientific evidence and/or official records – the laboratory’s access log, for example – show that Ivins may have been only one of several potential sources of the 2001 anthrax, the case against him would be much less airtight than has been alleged.  

As the case continues to unfold, the key issue might well be the microbiology that links the 2001 anthrax to the strain to which Ivins had access. In the absence of airtight proof, though, at least some doubt will remain – and conspiracy theories will germinate.  Moreover, even if Ivins is proved to be the sole source of the anthrax used in the 2001 attacks, those investigating the case – and, again, the American people – may never actually know if Ivins was the sole actor, or a member of a larger conspiracy. Considering his lack of weaponization training and skills, and the alleged decline of Ivins’s mental faculties, there is clearly a gap, which may never be resolved, between his possible, or actual, possession of anthrax and the later delivery and use of weaponized spores. 

The relatively small number of Ft. Detrick employees with access to the Ames Strain anthrax – and with the capability to manufacture high-grade spores – considerably limits the field of further investigation. It would have to be a person within a very small group of highly specialized scientists.

To summarize: Ivins may in fact have been the sole anthrax terrorist, as the government contends. A plausible case might be made, though, that he may have been only the “weakest link” in a small group of Ft. Detrick employees who had direct access to the bacteria. Again without casting aspersions, his apparent mental illness and sudden suicide may easily have seemed convincing evidence to investigators eager to end what had already been an overlong, thus far fruitless, and always frustrating investigation. Unfortunately, no judge or jury will now have the opportunity to hear how Dr. Ivins himself would answer the still unresolved questions that remain. 

Michael Allswede

Dr. Allswede is the Director of the Strategic Medical Intelligence Project on forensic epidemiology. He is the creator of the RaPiD-T Program and of the Pittsburgh Matrix Program for hospital training and preparedness. He has served on a number of expert national and international groups on preparedness.



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