The FBI and Anthrax

The FBI documents indicate a near certainty that Ivins knew that the Anthrax attack came from his lab, and a likelihood that he was involved in the attacks. The FBI has much evidence and analysis that has not been released, and so it is not clear whether Ivins acted alone or even was the prime mover in the plot.

Let’s stipulate that the FBI completely screwed up the anthrax investigation with its early leak of its focus on Stephen Hatfill. Also, there is good reason to believe that Ft. Detrick sources have worked to point the finger in inaccurate directions in the past. (Shortly after the attack, there was a spurious report — bird-dogged by Glenn Greenwald at Salon, among others — saying that the presence of Bentonite (which wasn’t there) indicated the Anthrax came from Iraq, and others fingering an Arab American who had worked at Ft. Detrick in the 1990’s, and also a group of his tormenters.

This week it was announced that a Ft. Detrick Anthrax scientist, Bruce Ivins, committed suicide as the FBI investigation tightened around him. The FBI has now released some documents –search warrant applications, affidavits, and reports of what was taken in response, that shed some light on the FBI’s developing case. So far the results of environmental sampling and the analysis of what was seized during the searches have not been released.

For all its faults, the material has enough information directly related to Ivins’s involvement that I think it is very likely that he knew the anthrax came from his lab. Most damning: he initially gave samples to the FBI that were marked as from the vial that contained the source population of the substance used in the attack, but that were not from that vial. He later denied that there was any omission in his submission. This clearly suggests that he had knowledge of which vial of anthrax was the source of the material used in the attack. The FBI also has clear evidence of Ivins spending many night-time hours in the containment lab containing the source vial, with this night work peaking in September 2001. The FBI documents say that other lab personnel were not present in this way.

The New York Times reports an even more damning piece of evidence, that I did not find in the documents:

“In addition, searches of Dr. Ivins’s home in Frederick, Md., turned up “hundreds” of similar letters that had not yet been sent to media outlets and members of Congress, people who were briefed by the F.B.I. on Wednesday said. “

If this is true, it’s clear that Ivins at least plotted an attack of the sort that was carried out, as well as knowing which vial was used to prepare the agent.

Much of the reporting based on leaks has been overly specific, at least based on what is released in these documents. Press reports that the envelopes were bought at the Frederick MD Post Office turn out to be unsupported; The FBI argues that the printing defects were transient and typical of envelopes circulated in Maryland and Virginia. However, there is no evidence presented that similar defects were not delivered in other regions of the country. It’s possible that the New York Times has it wrong.

However, arguments presented by Ivins’s friends are also suspect. The FBI documents make clear that Ivins was in professional, marital, and mental health crisis already in 2000, not just the last year or so as a result of the FBI investigation.

Finally, the FBI has circumstantial information relating to Ivins’s right to life views and apparent support for a group involved in corporal-punishment litigation that help explain details of the case (the targeting of Senators Daschle and Leahy and the “4th grade Greendale School” return address). Also, earlier claims that dried Anthrax was not within the Ft. Detrick skill set are belied by the common use of dryers in vaccine preparation, in which Ivins was expert.

So what are the liklihoods at this point?

At a minimum, Ivins’ deception indicates that he must have known that the anthrax came from his lab, either because he was involved in the attack or had an extremely good idea who was. The late-night activity in the lab (for which he had no good explanation) and the personal details cited by the FBI suggest that he was involved, although it is remotely possible that circumstantial details were used by someone with detailed knowledge of his personal life to frame him. If there are indeed anthrax threat letters in the same handwriting that were found in his house, then his plotting and role in the attack is definitely confirmed–and one wonders why the FBI has not mentioned this.

But none of this indicates that he acted alone.

The FBI has much evidence and analysis that has not been released, and so judgment should be withheld for now.

Update: Brian Ross of ABC News now comes forward with a tick tock that pretty much disproves Glenn Greenwald’s conspiracy theory concerns about ABC News’s Bentonite reports.

Second Update Per the August 7 WP, there is no handwriting evidence linking Ivins to the block-lettered Anthrax envelopes and notes. Moreover, the 68 unsent letters to news media and members of Congress found in his house seem not to be threatening. They may show only that he knew how to address media and politicians. At this point it is a stretch on the public evidence to say that Ivins was the sole perpetrator or even that he was the prime mover in the plot. There is still a logical possibility, though not a strong likelihood, that he was not witting or even uninvolved. Experts who are skeptical about his involvement would like to see the aerosol powder duplicated with materials and equipment in Ivins’s laboratory, and they would like to see some evidence placing him in New Jersey for mailing the anthrax. However, it is striking to me that more than half of the news outlets, and almost all of the skeptics, ignore what is to me the most compelling element of the FBI’s case — that Ivins gave them a false sample of the contents of the vial that was identical to that used in the mailings.

Third Update: A reader’s question prompts me to clarify that, to my mind, Ivins’s “control” over the flask containing the sample that is a genetic match to the agent recovered from the envelopes would not be conclusive on its own; a population grown from a sample from that flask taken any time in the previous several years would likely also be identical. Ivins’s deception in providing false samples from the flask is clear evidence that he knew more than he told about the crime, and this deception is an indication of some sort of involvement — whether minimally in providing an anthrax sample to the real perpetrators, or in growing additional material that was used in the plot, or, as the FBI believes, preparing the powder and mailing it without the inolvement or knowledge of other parties.