Oct 112011
Authors: Stephen Engelberg, Greg Gordon, Jim Gilmore and Mike Wiser

WASHINGTON — In December 2001, long before he became the prime suspect in the anthrax mailings that had terrorized the nation, Army biologist Bruce Ivins sent his superiors an email offering to help scientists trace the killer.

Ivins said he had several variants of Ames anthrax — the rare strain that an FBI science consultant concluded was used in the attack — that could be tested to find the origins of the powder that had killed five people.

Seven years later, as federal investigators prepared to charge him for the same crimes he had offered to help solve, Ivins committed suicide at age 62. Prosecutors voiced confidence that Ivins would have been found guilty, announcing that years of cutting-edge DNA analysis proved that his spores were “effectively the murder weapon.”

To many of Ivins’ former colleagues at the U.S. Army germ research center in Fort Detrick, Md., his invitation to test anthrax in his own inventory is among numerous indications that the FBI got the wrong man.

What kind of murderer, they wonder, would ask the cops to test his own gun for ballistics?

Ten years after the attack, an in-depth examination of the case against Ivins by PBS’ “Frontline,” McClatchy Newspapers and ProPublica raises fresh doubts about the government’s evidence and questions whether — despite a $100 million investigation — the real anthrax killer remains on the loose.

The news organizations conducted dozens of interviews and reviewed thousands of pages of FBI files over the past year. While not exonerating Ivins, a gifted but tortured scientist with a history of obsessive behavior, the documents and accounts are at odds with some of the science and circumstantial evidence that the government said would have led to his conviction for capital crimes:

Although prosecutors have said Ivins tried to hide his guilt by submitting a false sample of his anthrax that didn’t contain telltale genetic mutations found in the attack powder, records reveal publicly for the first time that Ivins made available at least three other samples for testing between 2002 and 2004. Those samples did match the anthrax in the attack letters, a discovery that Ivins’ lawyer said debunks charges that he was covering his tracks.

Prosecutors argued that Ivins was motivated by signals from the White House and Pentagon that the Fort Detrick lab’s anthrax vaccine projects could be curtailed, saying that his “life’s work appeared destined for failure, absent an unexpected event.” But Ivins’ former bosses say that he shouldn’t have had any worries about his future, because he knew that the Pentagon had approved a full year’s funding for his and others’ research on a new vaccine and was mapping out a five-year plan to invest well over $15 million.

As the FBI zeroed in on Ivins in March 2007, an elite group of outside scientists urged investigators to do more basic research — about how and when the genetic mutations arose — to make sure the results were unchallengeable. FBI officials rebuffed that recommendation, saying it addressed “an academic question with little probative value to the investigation.”

After collecting swabs from Ivins’ home, vehicles and office and finding not a single spore from the attack powder, prosecutors said that a microbiologist trained to handle dangerous germs would have been able to hide its traces. But Claire Fraser-Liggett, a genetics consultant who oversaw work that provided some of the most important evidence linking Ivins to the attack powder, found that dismissal troubling. She questioned how someone who perhaps had to work “haphazardly, quickly” could have avoided leaving behind tiny pieces of forensically traceable DNA.

“You think about all the efforts that had to go into decontaminating postal facilities, and the volatility of those spores and the fact that they were around for so long,” she said. “I think it represents a big hole, really gives me pause to think: How strong was this case against Dr. Ivins?”

Prosecutors continue to vehemently defend their case, arguing that the inconsistencies and unanswered questions are trumped by a long chain of evidence that they think would have convinced a jury that Ivins prepared the lethal powder that was mailed to news media outlets and two U.S. senators.

“You can get into the weeds, and you can take little shots of each of these aspects of our vast, you know, mosaic of evidence against Dr. Ivins,” lead federal prosecutor Rachel Lieber said in an interview. But in a trial, she said, prosecutors would urge jurors to see the big picture.

“And, ladies and gentlemen, the big picture is, you have, you know, brick upon brick upon brick upon brick upon brick of a wall of evidence that demonstrates that Dr. Ivins was guilty of this offense.”

Prosecutors cited genetics tests as conclusive evidence that Ivins’ spores — most grown for him at an Army base in Dugway, Utah — were the parent material to the powder. In January 2002, Ivins himself gave an FBI agent a detailed tutorial on how to spot the genetically distinct variants, known as morphs, that serve as a kind of microscopic fingerprint for anthrax spores.

Ivins first submitted a set of samples in February 2002 that was rejected for being in the wrong type of glass vessels, and the Justice Department later alleged that he then manipulated a second set of samples that April so they wouldn’t show the distinct variants matching the attack powder.

Records recently released under the Freedom of Information Act show that Ivins ultimately made available to investigators a total of four sets of samples from 2002 to 2004 — double the number the FBI has disclosed.

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