Unique anthrax mix led to Ivins
But others still say the evidence was largely circumstantial
Federal investigators cinched their case against alleged anthrax mailer Bruce Ivins after sophisticated genetic tests by a California company helped them trace a signature mixture of anthrax spores, according to people familiar with the evidence.
Well before the deadly 2001 anthrax mailings, Dr. Ivins, through his work as a government scientist, had combined anthrax spores obtained from at least one outside laboratory.
With the help of leading outside geneticists and a fresh look at the evidence by a new team of investigators, the FBI concluded in recent months that only Dr. Ivins could reasonably have perpetrated the crimes.
However, another person who had been briefed on the investigation told The New York Times that the evidence was largely circumstantial, and a grand jury in Washington was planning to hear several more weeks of testimony.
While genetic analysis had linked the anthrax to Dr. Ivins’ lab, at least 10 people had access to the flask containing
that anthrax, said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the investigation.
FBI agents also have no evidence proving that Dr. Ivins visited New Jersey on the dates in September and October 2001 when investigators believe the letters were sent from a Princeton mailbox, the source said.
Dr. Ivins, 62, a senior microbiologist at the government’s biodefense-research institute at Fort Detrick, Md., died last Tuesday in an apparent suicide as federal prosecutors prepared to bring murder charges against him.
Records reviewed by the Los Angeles Times and interviews with people knowledgeable about the investigation provide new details about the evidence. Since 1980, Dr. Ivins specialized in developing vaccines against anthrax and other biological weapons. He experimented with animals, including monkeys, rabbits and guinea pigs.
Dr. Ivins mixed the spores shipped to Fort Detrick from the Army’s Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, a facility operated by the Battelle Memorial Institute in Ohio, a private contractor performing top-secret work for the CIA and other agencies.
By cross-referencing the dates when those spores were received and handled at Fort Detrick, the FBI sharply narrowed the list of government employees with possible access to the material.
Instead of trying to trace anthrax that could have come from perhaps dozens of sources, investigators became convinced that it had to have originated at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), located within Fort Detrick, about 50 miles north of Washington.
“Now, all of a sudden, you can put a time frame on this material,” said one of those persons familiar with the evidence. “By mixing the material from the separate institutions, (Dr. Ivins) provided what became a signature.”
With new analyses showing that the anthrax could not have come from anywhere but Fort Detrick, FBI agents plunged deep into Dr. Ivins’ history.
It was a significant change of direction. Immediately after the 2001 mailings, FBI investigators turned to Dr. Ivins and his Fort Detrick colleagues to help them with initial analyses of the anthrax samples they had recovered.
As the investigation dragged on, authorities later enlisted J. Craig Venter, founder of a Rockville, Md., institute that had helped map the human genome. Based on analyses performed at The Institute for Genomic Research, Dr. Venter said “it almost had to be a government scientist.” The institute’s analysis was completed under contract to the FBI and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
He recalled federal investigators retrieving the anthrax evidence from the institute.
“FBI came in and took freez- ers and all the samples,” Dr. Venter said in an interview Sunday.
Ibis Biosciences, a company in Carlsbad, Calif., performed some of the most recent anthrax analysis. The company tells its clients, including the FBI, that its high-resolution anthrax genotyping kit provides analyses more advanced than any other technology worldwide.
In fact, the company’s test results buoyed FBI and Justice Department officials.
“Their capability is very sophisticated; it is faster and more elegant than what had been available,” said Randall Murch, a former FBI scientist who earlier served as an outside consultant for the anthrax investigation.
Dr. Ivins’ government work with the separate batches of dry powder anthrax was not widely known at USAMRIID. Two former officials noted that USAMRIID typically supplies live anthrax spores for use at the two outside facilities, not the other way around. As part of his government job, Dr. Ivins, a microbiologist, grew spores used for experiments, called “challenges,” on monkeys, rabbits and other animals at USAMRIID. The forensic analysis of the anthrax sent in the mailings had long posed a challenge to the FBI, whose in-house scientists were not equipped to decipher the potential origin of the material. Six years ago, Dr. Ivins acknowledged to an Army investigator his use of “Ames strain” anthrax spores obtained from Dugway.
The FBI on Sunday refused to comment on how it had focused on Dr. Ivins.
“As soon as the legal constraints barring disclosure are removed, we will make public as much information as possible,” said FBI assistant director John Miller.
Dr. Bruce Ivins, 62, an Army scientist, apparently committed suicide last week. He was likely to be charged in the 2001 anthrax attacks.