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August 13, 2008

Bruce Ivins: Just Another Psychopathic Loner in the Zeitgeist?

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Decoration of Exceptional Civilian Service

Credit the enduring demand for shows like The Twilight Zone, The X Files and the writings of Philip K. Dick to feelings of deep suspicion that many Americans share regarding the government's power to pull the strings of reality from beyond the shadowy pale. There is a toolbox for these black ops weapons of mass deception: cultural steganography, repeated leaked disinformation, innuendo, half truths and the cloak of a credible enough alternative or cover story.

In that light, consider another equal and enduring layer of the zeitgeist that succeeds in pinning the attribution of game changing events to the lone, "deeply disturbed" individual. Just as the X-Files Agent Fox Muldur could be expected to trip over "nonexistent" government installations, there is also a proven narrative for this lone actor, who having hidden in plain site, gets thrown headfirst into the churn of the news cycle and then, if the stakes are high enough, somehow eviscerated before he gets into a court of law.

Until not too long ago, Bruce Ivins, a scientist at the DOD's Fort Detrick lab, was mainly known, from what his colleagues and neighbors have to say, as a well respected and liked colleague, a family man, churchgoer, part time musician and amateur juggler. Officially, he was an award winning American who in 2003 received the highest military award given to a civilian for his work in developing a vaccine against anthrax. His memorial service at Fort Detrick, where he worked, was attended by more than a hundred colleagues and friends even as his persona was being retrofitted in the tossings of the media cauldron.

The LA Times:

At a Pentagon ceremony on March 14, 2003, Ivins and two colleagues from USAMRIID were bestowed the Decoration of Exceptional Civilian Service, the highest honor given to nonmilitary employees of the Defense Department. "Awards are nice",Ivins said in accepting the honor. "But the real satisfaction is knowing the vaccine is back on line".

Ivins, like his fellow scientists in highly secure government labs had been subjected to numerous regular background checks over the years including a post anthrax-letter attack evaluation in 2002. In a radio interview on NPR this week, Ivins' former boss at the time said he, as direct supervisor, had never been informed of what, through a steady stream of FBI leaks, has become a laundry list of Ivins' alleged aberrances.

Indeed, so much dirt was piled up against Ivins through a series of leaks and, finally, the formal presentation that it became nearly impossible to believe he would have held security clearance in a lab that was already ground zero for the largest bioterrorism in the country's history. At the time, a colleague there, Steven Hatfill was being publicly hounded as a "person of interest".

The fierceness of the FBI's character attack on Ivins seemed to have achieved its results despite the weak forensic case; on Diane Rehm's Friday roundup show, three well known and experienced MS journalists, Karen Tumulty, Ruth Marcus and Brian York, while expressing degrees of skepticism on the FBI's evidence presentation, had all clearly bought into the weirdo profile angle. None seemed to factor in that in the final year and a half --when Ivins does check in and out of various clinics and refuges-- he was being purposely put under the kind of FBI duress that few among us could withstand.

The Loner Story Trumps Evidence

It would be a very dark day for the FBI if in trying to hastily close the 7-year old bioterrorism case, it turned out, as now seems ever more likely as they move to unveil their full case, that after wrongfully persecuting Hatfill for years, they have managed to hound yet another possibly innocent man.... this time to his death.

For those watching closely, this has been yet another case where the blogosphere has played a decisive role in tackling the story head on almost from day one. You can just go over to Glen Greenwald's blog at Salon.Com for the kind of thorough, researched journalistic effort that the case deserves. Importantly, Greenwald has gone beyond casting a cold eye on the limited crime story line that is being reported in the media cycle: Greenwald has raised front and center a defining dimension left out of most stories by reminding his readers that the anthrax-letter terror campaign had far greater political impact than merely extending the horror of 9/11 to the mail slots of each and every American around the country.

Cui Bono?

The killing and terror campaign aimed at leading politicians, journalists and seeming random public --eventually it was postal workers who took the homicidal brunt-- was a major factor in heightening the public's insecurity and fear of terrorism. It was a meme that was handily leveraged by those who were bent on attacking Saddam Hussein and getting the Patriot Act passed. Curiously, it was not only a broad driver of public fear but there were overt attempts to link Saddam Hussein to the anthrax at around the same time that the Administration was beginning to publicly build its case for war; i.e, that Saddam Hussein had contacts with Al-Q'aeda and, more importantly, that he controlled a large arsenal of weapons of mass destruction; biological, chemical and nuclear that he might just be willing to hand over to them.

Greenwald reports that in one major network instance it was Brian Ross of ABC Nightly News who ran with a story based on "four government sources" that the anthrax used in the attack contained the substance, bentonite, and that this was purported to be a signature of the Iraqi biological weapons program. This story turned out to be a complete fabrication as it was later ascertained that silicon had been used rather than bentonite as a part of the process of weaponizing the powder containing the toxic bacterium.

Even though Ross and ABC News were fed a false story that clearly has the earmarks of someone trying to use the bioterrorism attack to stir up anti-Iraq sentiment, the network has never released who it was that planted the story. (For Ross's explanation go to here.)

The Lone Weirdo Story Gets Rolled Out

It was first reported (AP) that Ivins had committed suicide just days before a meeting with prosecutors for a "plea bargain". The plea bargain part, of course, makes this a loaded leak that, according to Ivins' lawyer, was, indeed, a distortion. Other stories reported that the government was gearing up for a dealth penalty case. Over time a litany of weird and suspicious behavior was attributed to Ivins, some of which we'll get to below.

But a mainstay of the new narrative --what we might characterize as the scientific or rational cover vs. the looney-did-it story-- was that new more sophisticated DNA evidence, discovered since the Hatfill fiasco-- had been used by the investigators to link Ivins to the precise anthrax used in the attack, or as the Justice Department would finally come, the day of their public accusation, to define as "the murder weapon" "solely controlled" by Ivins' lab since 1997. Unfortunately for the FBI case, it quickly emerged that Ivins' sample may have been circulated to other labs and, certainly, to other individuals. Further, the FBI is yet to say how they can even be sure they traced all distributions since anthrax inter-lab transfer records weren't formally kept back in 2001. Interestingly,in 2002, the FBI had also offered some very sophisticated scientific carbon dating evidence that the batch used in the attacks had not been developed before 1999.

In recent days since the FBI released their case, there have emerged a number of pieces authored by scientists in publications ranging from the NY Times to more specialized scientific journals raising a number of questions. For a rundown on some of those, please check here.

As for the psychopathic loner narrative, on day two of the media cycle word of a "psychologist" in fear for her life was headlined. This person, said to have charged in a court affidavit filed in Ivins' home town, Frederick, MD, that through her interaction with him as a counselor she feared Ivins whom she named as a "sociopath" ... "murderous killer" Further anonymous leaks to the media soon emerged relating that Ivins had a private P.O. box where, it was said, he received pornography featuring "bound women".

As the cycle churned, it was also revealed that he had once had a fixation for a young woman who was a soccer player and that he attended games she played and that he had once said that he would kill her if her team lost. Further, it was confirmed that Ivins had sought help for alcohol addiction and --going back to his college days-- that he had an obsession with a certain sorority, Kappa, Kappa Gamma, that could, it was stated, directly link him to the site of the mailbox in Princeton, New Jersey where anthrax letters were posted.

But by the time the FBI and the Justice Department moved into the formal revelation of their case on August 6th, reporters looking for something concrete, were raising all kinds of questions. For one thing, Paul Kemp the lawyer hired by the Ivins' family was speaking out. Even in the wake of Ivins' suicide he was beginning to counter the FBI leaks. Most importantly, he was able to point out that there was, as far as he knew, not a shred of physical evidence to link Ivins directly to the anthrax letter campaign; the FBI case was strictly circumstantial, according to Kemp.

The FBI has never been able to claim they hold any evidence placing Ivins in Princeton or even on the road at that time. As for timeliness, reporters also found that the links between Ivins and the national sorority went back to a woman he knew in his college days in Ohio and that there was nothing to connect him to any "odd" behavior regarding the organization since 1981, and absolutely nothing ever regarding its chapter's small, upstairs, office in Princeton, located some 60 yards from the mailbox.

Another leaked story that a first seemed somewhat significant appeared in the Washington Post on August 5 entitled Anthrax Dryer a Key To Probe: Suspect Borrowed Device From Lab. This story attempts to indicate that a key piece of evidence might lie in the fact that Ivins had "borrowed" a drying device called a lyophilizer that is used to produce powdered substances from the type of liquid brew in the flask in Ivins' lab. Lyins, it was reported, should not have needed such a device for his work. The next day Greenwald rejoined:

...... that appears to be completely false. Here is the abstract of a 1995 research report, for which Ivins was the lead scientist, reporting on discoveries made as part of their research into anthrax vaccines (h/t substantial). This is the method they described using:

The efficacy of several human anthrax vaccine candidates comprised of different adjuvants together with Bacillus anthracis protective antigen (PA) was evaluated in guinea pigs challenged by an aerosol of virulent B. anthracis spores. The most efficacious vaccines tested were formulated with PA plus monophosphoryl lipid A (MPL) in a squalenel lecithin/Tween 80 emulsion (SLT) and PA plus the saponin QS-21. The PA+MPL in SLT vaccine, which was lyophilized and then reconstituted before use, demonstrated strong protective immunogenicity, even after storage for 2 years at 4°C. The MPL component was required for maximum efficacy of the vaccine. Eliminating lyophilization of the vaccine did not diminish its protective efficacy. No significant alteration in efficacy was observed when PA was dialyzed against different buffers before preparation of vaccine. PA+MPL in SLT proved superior in efficacy to the licensed United States human anthrax vaccine in the guinea pig model.

The Post had failed to report that Ivins had obtained the lyophilizer through a proper requisition and that he had made no attempt to hide it from his coworkers in the lab, who, one would suspect, would have soon come to a heightened level of suspicion as the terror attack spread.

As for the so-called psychologist turned witness being reliable: Here's the August 6 account by the Washington Post:

The counselor he saw for group therapy and biweekly individual sessions, who would eventually tell a judge that he was a "sociopathic, homicidal killer," had a troubled past. Jean C. Duley, who worked until recent days for Comprehensive Counseling Associates in Frederick, is licensed as an entry-level drug counselor and was, according to one of her mentors, allowed to work with clients only under supervision of a more-seasoned professional.

Shortly before she sought a "peace order" against Ivins, Duley had completed 90 days of home detention after a drunken-driving arrest in December, and she has acknowledged drug use in her past.

In a 1999 interview with The Washington Post, Duley described her background as a motorcycle gang member and a drug user. "Heroin. Cocaine. PCP," said Duley, who then used the name Jean Wittman. "You name it, I did it."

It takes a specialized lab to weaponize anthrax powder. An opinion piece was placed in the Wall Street Journal by a biological war specialist who had been part of the UN team that investigated the Iraq program in the lead up to the war. The author, Richard Spertzel argues: Bruce Ivins Wasn't the Anthrax Culprit, pointing out the technology required to produce the attack powder was of a much greater difficulty than might be carried out by a single individual working in even the most sophisticated program. Ivins' lab, with its vaccine objective, was not set up for that.

Spertzel's piece seems to punch a gigantic hole in the FBI's case. The FBI claims that Ivins would have cooked up the powder while working late in his own lab alone and that his activities pulling off this very difficult feat had gone unnoticed somehow by his fellow lab workers. He might have had a drying machine but Sperzel's piece indicates that getting the toxic liquid into a solid was hardly the difficult part of the weaponization process. Other sophisticated instruments would have been needed to "mill" and treat --hence the silicon/bentonite-- the powder to get it into a volatile form that could get into a victim's lungs. Once in this very deadly state of volatility, there is an immense handling problem for the perpetrator(s) to overcome as the envelopes are packed, sealed, transported and deposited into the mail system.

On August 6th, targets and victims' families, including members of Congress were more fully briefed on the case as the prosecutors came before the microphones to announce that they are convinced that Ivins could be proved guilty and that he, a lone, estranged, psychologically disturbed perpetrator acted alone. Formal documents were presented to the public including papers submitted to the courts by the FBI as they sought warrants in the case. What many people following the case were watching for, was some concrete evidence linking the powder, handwriting, envelopes, movements, etc. to Ivins.

Would the FBI be able to show any trace of the anthrax mailings that also had Ivins' DNA on them or that he had made the trips to Princeton, or even minute traces of the powder in his home, automobile, etc or anything else, physical for that matter?

What emerged with great emphasis, instead, was a claim that Ivins in 2001, in the period between 9/11 and the anthrax attacks had sent an email to a colleague that talked of Bin Laden and seemed to use language somewhat reminiscent of that used on the notes that accompanied the poisonous powder. Ivins, it was said, had expressed fear that Bin Laden might have access to anthrax or sarin nerve gas and that he was an an enemy of the Jews and America.

As the investigation played out, the FBI is said to have put intense pressure on Ivins and his immediate family, according to a NYT August 5 article: Pressure Grows for F.B.I.’s Anthrax Evidence

They had even intensively questioned his adopted children, Andrew and Amanda, now both 24, with the authorities telling his son that he might be able to collect the $2.5 million reward for solving the case and buy a sports car, and showing his daughter gruesome photographs of victims of the anthrax letters and telling her, “Your father did this,” according to the account Dr. Ivins gave a close friend.

We're reminded that this is not just any criminal case where the prosecutors zero in on a weak link and try to bring a brute force case backed by character assassination (alcohol, porn, breakdowns, etc.) even while lacking any physical proofs tying the defendant to the crime. In this case we are talking about one of the most important chapters in our recent history that paved the way for an unprecedented assertion of Executive Branch power and the lead up to a war whose costs will be felt individually and collectively for decades. A weak case that might just get over the very low bar of just getting you to trial is hardly enough.

This case needs to be looked at by Congress and perhaps even by an as close as can be hoped for independent Commission. Even as it is hard to put too much stock in the end product of any of those processes, it's important to find out under oath who back in 2001 leaked to ABC and to others like John McCain, who went on Dave Letterman's show at the time and mentioned that Iraq just "may" have been the source of the anthrax powder. Others have reported that they were tipped off just before the anthrax attacks began that they should go to their doctors and request prescriptions for Cipro. Richard Cohen of the Washington Post is one person who reported such a tip from someone he knew in the government. Experts like Spertzel have to be called and records, including the complete FBI files showing the results of security checks, polygraph tests, Ivins' colleagues' testimony and other trails they pursued that didn't pan out, have to be subpoenaed.

As Agent Muldur would say: "the truth is out there!"

Posted by dymaxion at 03:49 PM


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