Journalism in the Public Interest

Colleague Says Anthrax Numbers Add Up to Unsolved Case

A colleague says Bruce Ivins, whom the FBI named as the person who mailed anthrax-laden letters in 2001, could not have grown enough spores for the attacks, calling that feat "impossible."

This 2003 photo provided by the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases shows Dr. Bruce E. Ivins, a bio-defense researcher at Fort Detrick, Md., participating in an awards ceremony.A microbiologist who supervised the work of accused anthrax killer Bruce E. Ivins explained to a National Academy of Sciences panel Thursday why the arithmetic of growing anthrax didn't add up to Ivins' mailing deadly spores in fall 2001.

"Impossible," said Dr. Henry S. Heine of a scenario in which Ivins, another civilian microbiologist working for the Army, allegedly prepared the anthrax spores at an Army lab at Fort Detrick. Heine told the 16-member panel that Ivins would have had to grow as many as 10 trillion spores, an astronomical amount that couldn't have gone unnoticed by his colleagues.

According to FBI calculations, Ivins accomplished this working after-hours in a special suite for handling lethal agents designated B3, for Biohazard Level 3. A bar chart released by the bureau (PDF) when it closed its nearly 9-year-old Amerithrax case in February showed that in August and September 2001, the months immediately before the first anthrax letters were mailed, Ivins logged 34 more hours in the B3 suite than his combined total for the previous seven months.

"That's more than 8,000 hours (close to a year) short of what he would have needed to grow the anthrax," Heine told ProPublica in an interview after his NAS presentation.

Bruce Ivins' Erlenmeyer flask of liquid anthrax culture, designated RMR 1029. Dr. Heine says it would've taken a flask filled to brimming to come close to producing all the spores mailed in 2001.Heine, one of the few scientists at the Army lab with the skills to grow large batches of anthrax, told ProPublica it would have taken around "100 liters of liquid anthrax culture," or more than 26 gallons, to grow all the dried spores that killed five Americans and infected 17 others.

"He couldn't have done that without us knowing it," said Heine.

Other biodefense scientists who didn't work with Ivins have done the same calculations and reached the same conclusion as Heine.

The FBI declined to comment on this latest challenge to its decision to end one of the most expensive manhunts in the bureau's 102-year history. In closing the case, the agency said Ivins alone was responsible for the anthrax letters. Ivins committed suicide in 2008.

Many of Ivins' colleagues and some federal lawmakers protested that the FBI was premature in closing the books on Ivins before the academy had completed its review of the science undergirding the bureau's case. "To this day, it is still far from clear that Mr. Ivins had either the know-how or access to the equipment needed to produce the material," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., in written remarks published in March.

The day Heine and his Fort Detrick colleagues learned of Ivins' suicide in July 2008, Heine said they conferred and feared the F.B.I. would then blame the attacks on someone who could no longer speak in his own defense. "And the very next day, the bureau named Bruce the mailer," Heine recalled.

Because of an FBI gag order, Heine said he was unable to discuss these details until he left his job at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, at Fort Detrick, where Ivins also worked developing anthrax vaccines. Heine left in February and is now senior scientist at the Ordway Research Institute, Inc. Center for Biodefense and Emerging Infections in Albany, N.Y.

Heine said his expertise in growing anthrax made him a suspect like Ivins. He said FBI agents gave him a polygraph exam and took statements from him several times between 2001 and 2003. The FBI was never far away, he said. A former scoutmaster, Heine said that on campouts his Boy Scout troop used to keep a "black Suburban watch," looking for the vehicles driven by the agents keeping Heine under surveillance.

"The FBI went after our weakest link," Heine said, referring to Ivins and other scientists at Fort Detrick, in Maryland. He called Ivins "fragile" and especially vulnerable to bureau attempts to extract a confession from him.

"If Bruce did it, we would've turned him in for a million dollars in a heartbeat," said Heine, referring to the government reward for information leading to the capture of the anthrax mailer. "Seriously, though, reward or no reward, we would've stopped him because that would've been the right thing to do."

The FBI linked Ivins to the crime, in part, because of a genetic match between the anthrax spores kept by Ivins and those in the letters. Documents released by the bureau said that samples of the same anthrax strain were shipped by Ivins to at least four different U.S. laboratories before the attacks.

That doesn't exonerate Ivins, Heine conceded, but he said Ivins' guilt is also far from certain. The spores in the anthrax letters were in a dry powder form that spread easily.

"When you dry spores, they fly everywhere and you can't see 'em," said Heine. "Had Bruce made it during all those late nights in the hot suite, we would've been his first victims."

Unless my memory serves me wrong, there was a university in the middle part of the U.S.A. that had received a sample for research purposes, of the Anthrax that was identified as being from the same batch used in the case. But before that sample could be tested, it was destroyed. Considering the recipients of the letters sent with the spores inside, along with the amateurish handling, the perpetrator[s] embarked upon the plot, while also avoiding getting caught. The story of why that angle wasn’t followed up on, I believe was because there wasn’t any of the sample left. It’s possible that was the reason why what ever evidence was left, if any, the story was fabricated to throw off the scent.

The way the FBI has handled this case is a HUGE scandal. There are way too many unanswered questions revolving around this case.

The FBI originally hounded Steven Hatfill for years accusing him of everything that they subsequently accused Ivins of. Hatfill eventually had the really amazing fortitude to persevere, prove himself innocent, sued the FBI and won a $5.8M verdict against them.

Then the FBI turned their attention to Ivins. They hounded him just as they had done Hatfill in the media, at his job, at his home and with his friends, tormenting and harassing him and ruining his reputation and marriage until he could take it no longer and committed suicide.

Then they closed the case.

There is also the issue of a completely bogus investigative story published by ABC News and Brian Ross right after the anthrax attacks. This story finally had to be retracted, but there were numerous dangling details that indicated the ABC had been duped by scientists at Ft. Detrick apparently attempting to divert attention in a cover up attempt. ABC never fully explained the many inconsistent details - that may have pointed to the actual perpetrator(s).

This is a story that really deserves more complete attention.

Speaking as a clinical lab tech—

Bacillus anthracis is just not that hard to culture. It can be devilishly hard to get to produce spores, however. It is in getting sufficient material to do the culture ON and then to purify out the spores that is so technically difficult. Just getting the organism itself to grow on the media is fairly straight forward. It’s what happens afterwards that is the problem.

Most of us who do know something about bacteria and how to propagate them have had a healthy degree of skepticism about the handling of the FBI’s case against Ivins from the start. It never made sense to us. This man was too emotionally unstable, the techniques and equipment involved were more than he could have handled alone, and the evidence is just blatantly lacking.

Quite frankly, if I were to sit on a jury and the prosecutor were to serve up this kind of evidence to me in a trial, I’d hand him his butt and dismissal with predudice for failure to prove his case.

Somebody at the FBI is bucking for an Incompetence award, IMHO.

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