DOJ, FBI Close Investigation into 2001 Anthrax Attacks

The Department of Justice, the FBI and the US Postal Inspection Service on Friday announced they have formally concluded a nine-year investigation into the Anthrax attacks that occurred shortly after 9/11 that killed five people and left 17 others seriously ill.

According to a news release issued earlier Friday by the Justice Department:

Representatives of the FBI and Justice Department provided a 92-page investigative summary along with attachments to victims of the attacks, relatives of the victims and appropriate committees of Congress. This document sets forth a summary of the evidence developed in the “Amerithrax” investigation, the largest investigation into a bio-weapons attack in U.S. history. As disclosed previously, the Amerithrax investigation found that the late Dr. Bruce Ivins acted alone in planning and executing these attacks.

The investigative summary and the attachments are now accessible to the public and have been posted to the Justice Department Web site… under the Freedom of Information Act. In addition, roughly 2,700 pages of FBI documents related to the Amerithrax case are now accessible to the public and have been posted to the FBI website …under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Amerithrax Task Force, which was comprised of roughly 25 to 30 full-time investigators from the FBI, U.S. Postal Inspection Service and other law enforcement agencies, as well as federal prosecutors from the District of Columbia and the Justice Department’s Counterterrorism Section, expended hundreds of thousands of investigator work hours on this case. Their investigative efforts involved more than 10,000 witness interviews on six different continents, the execution of 80 searches and the recovery of more than 6,000 items of potential evidence during the course of the investigation. The case involved the issuance of more than 5,750 grand jury subpoenas and the collection of 5,730 environmental samples from 60 site locations

Ivins, a biodefense scientist who spent more than two decades working on anthrax vaccines, apparently committed suicide just as federal prosecutors were set to arrest him in connection with the 2001 anthrax attacks.

Ivins, 62, reportedly overdosed on massive quantities of Tylenol mixed with codeine and was pronounced dead at Frederick Memorial Hospital in Maryland in July 2008.

Marcy Wheeler, who has written extensively on the anthrax attacks, says there are still unanswered questions that remain, despite the conclusion of the probe.

One of the early suspects in the case, Steven J. Hatfill, a bioweapons scientist, was formally eliminated as a suspect.

According to the report:

In August 2002, it became widely known that Dr. Steven J. Hatfill was a person of interest to the Task Force. Early in the investigation, numerous individuals who suspected that he might be involved in the letter attacks contacted the FBI. While working as a researcher at USAMRIID from 1997 to 1999, Dr. Hatfill had virtually unrestricted access to the Ames strain of anthrax, the same strain used in the 2001 mailings. Dr. Hatfill also appeared to know the intricacies of conducting a successful anthrax dissemination by mail, although it was not uncommon for those in the bio-defense community to develop such scenarios for training exercises. In addition, he had filled multiple prescriptions for the antibiotic Cipro® in 2001, which was the only drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of inhalational anthrax; however, its use also was consistent with treatment for a persistent infection from which Dr. Hatfill was suffering at the time.

Ultimately, the FBI’s genetic analysis of the organism used in the attacks led investigators to exclude him conclusively as a suspect. Early in the investigation, it was assumed that isolates of the Ames strain were accessible to any individual at USAMRIID with access to the biocontainment labs. Later in the investigation, when scientific breakthroughs led investigators to conclude that RMR-1029 was the parent material to the anthrax powder used in the mailings, it was determined that Dr. Hatfill could not have been the mailer because he never had access to the particular bio-containment suites at USAMRIID that held the RMR-1029. In other words, although Dr. Hatfill had access to Ames strain anthrax while at USAMRIID, he never had access to the particular spore-batch used in the mailings.

Former Attorney General John Ashcroft publicly named Hatfill as a “person of interest” in the case, despite the absence of evidence linking Hatfill to the attacks. Hatfill was subjected to round-the-clock surveillance. In 2002, he was fired from his job at Louisiana State University biomedical laboratory after the Department of Justice told university officials that grants provided to the university by the DOJ would be revoked if money was used to finance Hatfill’s research.

Hatfill sued the government in 2003 charging Justice Department and FBI officials with Privacy Act violations for leaking information about his alleged role in the anthrax attacks to reporters working for The New York Times and USA Today, who wrote news stories citing unnamed sources that identified Hatfill as a suspect. Hatfill, who also sued reporters in an attempt to force them to disclose the identity of their sources, settled the case for nearly $6 million less than a month before Ivins’ suicide. The government did not admit any wrongdoing.

In July 2008, the Los Angeles Times reported that the government’s settlement with Hatfill cleared the way for prosecutors to file criminal charges against Ivins.

“Federal investigators moved away from Hatfill — for years the only publicly identified ‘person of interest’ — and ultimately concluded that Ivins was the culprit after FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III changed leadership of the investigation in late 2006.

“The FBI’s new top investigators — Vincent B. Lisi and Edward W. Montooth — instructed agents to reexamine leads or potential suspects that may have received insufficient attention. Moreover, significant progress was made in analyzing genetic properties of the anthrax powder recovered from letters addressed to two senators. The renewed efforts led the FBI back to USAMRIID, where agents first questioned scientists in December 2001, a few weeks after the fatal mailings,” the Times reported.

Ivins worked as a microbiologist at the government’s prestigious Fort Detrick biodefense laboratories and assisted the FBI in 2001 by analyzing samples of anthrax recovered from envelopes mailed to the Washington, D.C. office of then U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle, Democrat of South Dakota, and to Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Democrat from Vermont.

The laboratory was allegedly the center of the government’s investigation into the attacks.

Ivins’ criminal defense attorney, Paul Kemp, said Ivins became increasingly depressed as federal investigators began closing in on him.

“The relentless pressure of accusation and innuendo takes its toll in different ways on different people, as has already been seen in this investigation,” Kemp said in a statement issued after Ivins’ suicide. “In Dr. Ivins’ case, it led to his untimely death.”

In July 2008, Kemp said Ivins had cooperated with the government probe into the anthrax attacks for six years.

“For more than a year, we have been privileged to represent Dr. Bruce Ivins during the investigation of the anthrax deaths of September and October of 2001,” Kemp said in a July 2008 statement. “For six years, Dr. Ivins fully cooperated with that investigation, assisting the government in every way that was asked of him. He was a world-renowned and highly decorated scientist who served his country for over 33 years with the Department of the Army. We are saddened by his death, and disappointed that we will not have the opportunity to defend his good name and reputation in a court of law.”

Ivins published numerous studies on anthrax. In July 2008, the journal Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, published a study Ivins prepared on the inhalation of anthrax.

Ivins’ extensive work on anthrax vaccines was documented in the book, Vaccine A: The Covert Government Experiment That’s Killing Our Soldiers And Why GI’s Are Only The First Victims by Gary Matsumoto.