Pete Yost / Associated Press & David Willman / Los Angeles Times & – 2008-08-09 10:50:38
FBI Used Aggressive Tactics in Anthrax Probe
Pete Yost / Associated Press
WASHINGTON (Aug 5, 2008) — Before killing himself last week, Army scientist Bruce Ivins told friends that government agents had stalked him and his family for months, offered his son $2.5 million to rat him out and tried to turn his hospitalized daughter against him with photographs of dead anthrax victims.
The pressure on Ivins was extreme, a high-risk strategy that has failed the FBI before. The government was determined to find the villain in the 2001 anthrax attacks; it was too many years without a solution to the case that shocked and terrified a post-9/11 nation.
The last thing the FBI needed was another embarrassment. Overreaching damaged the FBI’s reputation in the high-profile investigations: the Centennial Olympic Park bombing probe that falsely accused Richard Jewell; the theft of nuclear secrets and botched prosecution of scientist Wen Ho Lee; and, in this same anthrax probe, the smearing of an innocent man – Ivins’ colleague Steven Hatfill.
In the current case, Ivins complained privately that FBI agents had offered his son, Andy, $2.5 million, plus “the sports car of his choice” late last year if he would turn over evidence implicating his father in the anthrax attacks, according to a former U.S. scientist who described himself as a friend of Ivins.
Ivins also said the FBI confronted Ivins’ daughter, Amanda, with photographs of victims of the anthrax attacks and told her, “This is what your father did,” according to the scientist, who spoke only on condition of anonymity because their conversation was confidential.
The scientist said Ivins was angered by the FBI’s alleged actions, which he said included following Ivins’ family on shopping trips.
Washington attorney Barry Coburn, who represents Amanda Ivins, declined to comment on the investigation. An attorney for Andy Ivins also declined to comment.
The FBI declined to describe its investigative techniques of Ivins.
FBI official John Miller said that “what we have seen over the past few days has been a mix of improper disclosures of partial information mixed with inaccurate information and then drawn into unfounded conclusions. None of that serves the victims, their families or the public.”
The FBI “always moves aggressively to get to the bottom of the facts, but that does not include mistreatment of anybody and I don’t know of any case where that’s happened,” said former FBI deputy director Weldon Kennedy, who was with the bureau for 34 years. “That doesn’t mean that from time to time people don’t make mistakes,” he added.
Dr. W. Russell Byrne, a friend and former supervisor of Ivins at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md., said he had heard from other Ivins associates that investigators were going after Ivins’ daughter. But Byrne said those conversations were always short because people were afraid to talk.
“The FBI had asked everybody to sign these nondisclosure things,” Byrne said. “They didn’t want to run afoul of the FBI.”
Byrne, who retired from the lab four years ago, said FBI agents interviewed him seven to 12 times since the investigation began – and he got off easy.
“I think I’m the only person at USAMRIID who didn’t get polygraphed,” he said.
Byrne said he was told by people who had recently worked with Ivins that the investigation had taken an emotional toll on the researcher. “One person said he’d sit at his desk and weep,” he said.
Questions about the FBI’s conduct come as the government takes steps that could signal an end to its investigation. On Wednesday, FBI officials plan to begin briefing family members of victims in the 2001 attacks.
The government is expected to declare the case solved but will keep it open for now, according to two U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation. Several legal and investigatory matters need to be wrapped up before the case can officially be closed, they said.
Some questions may be answered when documents related to the case are released, as soon as Wednesday. For others, the answers may be incomplete, even bizarre. Some may simply never be answered.
It is unclear how the FBI eliminated as suspects others in the lab who had access to the anthrax. It’s not clear what, if any, evidence bolsters the theory that the attacks may have been a twisted effort to test a cure for the toxin. Investigators also can’t place Ivins in Princeton, N.J., when the letters were mailed from a mailbox there.
Richard Schuler, attorney for anthrax victim Robert Stevens’ widow, Maureen Stevens, said his client will attend Wednesday’s FBI briefing with a list of questions.
“No. 1 is, ‘Did Bruce Ivins mail the anthrax that killed Robert Stevens?'” Schuler said, adding, “I’ve got healthy skepticism.”
Critics of the bureau in and out of government say that in major cases, like the anthrax investigation, it can be difficult for the bureau to stop once it embarks on a single-minded pursuit of a suspect, with any internal dissenters shut out as disloyal subordinates.
Before the FBI focused on Ivins, its sights were set on Hatfill, whose career as a bioscientist was ruined after then-Attorney General John Ashcroft named him a “person of interest” in the probe.
Hatfill sued the agency, which recently agreed to pay Hatfill nearly $6 million to settle the lawsuit.
Complaints that the FBI behaved too aggressively conflict with its straight-laced, crime-fighting image of starched agents hunting terrorists.
During its focus on Hatfill, the FBI conducted what became known as “bumper lock surveillance,” in which investigators trailed Hatfill so closely that he accused agents of running over his foot with their surveillance vehicle.
FBI agents showed up once to videotape Hatfill in a hotel hallway in Tyson’s Corner, Va., when Hatfill was meeting with a prospective employer, according to FBI depositions filed in Hatfill’s lawsuit against the government. He didn’t get the job.
One of the FBI agents who helped run the anthrax investigation, Robert Roth, said FBI Director Robert Mueller had expressed frustration with the pace of the investigation. He also acknowledged that, under FBI guidelines, targets of surveillance aren’t supposed to know they’re being followed.
“Generally, it’s supposed to be covert,” Roth told lawyers in Hatfill’s lawsuit.
In the 1996 Atlanta Olympic park bombing that dragged Jewell into the limelight, the security guard became the focus of the FBI probe for three months, after initially being hailed as a hero for moving people away from the bomb before it exploded.
The bomber turned out to be anti-government extremist Eric Rudolph, who also planted three other bombs in the Atlanta area and in Birmingham, Ala. Those explosives killed a police officer, maimed a nurse and injured several other people.
In another case, the FBI used as evidence the secrets that a person tells a therapist.
In the Wen Ho Lee case, Lee became the focus of a federal probe into how China may have obtained classified nuclear warhead blueprints. Prosecutors eventually charged him only with mishandling nuclear data, and held him for nine months. In what amounted to a collapse of the government’s case, prosecutors agreed to a plea bargain in which Lee pleaded guilty to one of 59 counts.
In 2004, the FBI wrongly arrested lawyer Brandon Mayfield after the Madrid terrorist bombings, due to a misidentified fingerprint. The Justice Department’s internal watchdog faulted the bureau for sloppy work. Spanish authorities had doubted the validity of the fingerprint match, but the U.S. government initiated a lengthy investigation, eventually settling with Mayfield for $2 million.
Associated Press writer David Dishneau contributed to this report from Hagerstown, Md.
Anthrax Scientist Bruce Ivins Stood to Benefit from a Panic
David Willman / Los Angeles Times
(August 2, 2008) — Bruce E. Ivins, the government biodefense scientist linked to the deadly anthrax mailings of 2001, stood to gain financially from massive federal spending in the fear-filled aftermath of those killings, the Los Angeles Times has learned.
Ivins is listed as a co-inventor on two patents for a genetically engineered anthrax vaccine, federal records show. Separately, Ivins also is listed as a co-inventor on an application to patent an additive for various biodefense vaccines.
Ivins, 62, died Tuesday in an apparent suicide in Maryland. Federal authorities had informed his lawyer that criminal charges related to the mailings would be filed.
As a co-inventor of a new anthrax vaccine, Ivins was among those in line to collect patent royalties if the product had come to market, according to an executive familiar with the matter.
The product had languished on laboratory shelves until the Sept. 11 attacks and the anthrax mailings, after which federal officials raced to stockpile vaccines and antidotes against potential biological terrorism.
A San Francisco-area biotechnology company, VaxGen, won a federal contract worth $877.5 million to provide batches of the new vaccine. The contract was the first awarded under legislation promoted by President Bush, called Project BioShield.
One executive who was familiar with the matter said that, as a condition of its purchasing the vaccine from the Army, VaxGen had agreed to share sales-related proceeds with the inventors.
“Some proportion would have been shared with the inventors,” said the executive, who spoke anonymously because of contractual confidentiality. “Ivins would have stood to make tens of thousands of dollars, but not millions.”
Two years after the contract was awarded to VaxGen, the pact was terminated when the company could not deliver its batches on schedule. The termination meant that VaxGen was not paid, nor were Ivins and his co-inventors.
Ivins also was listed as one of two inventors of another biodefense-related product that has won federal sponsorship.
According to their still-pending application for a U.S. patent, the inventors hoped the additive would bolster certain vaccines’ capacity to prevent infections “from bioterrorism agents.”
From December 2002 to December 2003, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency committed $12 million for additional testing of the experimental additive. That research money was designated for Coley Pharmaceutical Group, which was developing the additive. The company was acquired last fall by Pfizer Corp.
Samuel C. Miller, a Georgetown Law Center professor who is a patent-law expert, said that the extent to which Ivins stood to gain from the two issued patents or the one that remains pending hinges on the terms of the related contracts.
“It will depend on the business arrangements that are in place,” Miller said.
On Friday, colleagues and critics of Ivins pondered the mystery within the mystery: If Ivins did it, why?
One former senior official with Ivins’ employer, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, whom the FBI questioned at length about Ivins, said he believed his former colleague wanted more attention — and resources — shifted to biological defense.
“It had to have been a motive,” said the former official, who suspects that Ivins was the culprit. “I don’t think he ever intended to kill anybody. He just wanted to prove ‘Look, this is possible.’ He probably had no clue that it would aerosolize through those envelopes and kill those postal workers.”
Of the five people killed by the mailings, two worked for the U.S. Postal Service in the Washington, D.C., area; one was a photo editor in Palm Beach County, Fla.; another was a hospital supply provider in New York City; and the last known victim was a 94-year-old woman in Connecticut.
Several letters were addressed to prominent people — two U.S. senators and NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw, for example.
For nearly 30 years, Ivins served far from the limelight, a PhD microbiologist who drew a civil servant’s pay while handling some of the most deadly pathogens on Earth — live spores of anthrax.
The deadly mailings of anthrax-tainted envelopes transported Ivins from the backwater of government scientific research at Ft. Detrick, Md., to the center of the nation’s fledgling war on terrorism. It also spurred multibillion-dollar national security initiatives.
Ivins was thrust into the federal investigation of the mailings as well. He helped the FBI analyze anthrax recovered from a letter addressed to then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).
He also played a lead role in helping a private company, BioPort, win regulatory approval to continue making the vaccine required for U.S. service personnel deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and other regions.
From 2000 to early 2002, Ivins and two colleagues from USAMRIID helped BioPort resolve problems related to the potency of the vaccine. Because of those and other manufacturing difficulties, production had been suspended. The efforts of Ivins and his colleagues helped BioPort win FDA approval to resume production.
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.”
The Times sought earlier this year to obtain annual financial disclosure statements filed by Ivins with his employer. USAMRIID spokeswoman Caree Vander Linden said last month that Ivins had filed financial reports exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.
Ivins’ apparent suicide and the Justice Department’s decision to bring criminal charges against him were first reported Thursday night by The Times. On Friday, Ivins’ lawyer, Paul F. Kemp, defended his client and said that Ivins had cooperated fully with the FBI.
“We assert his innocence in these killings, and would have established that at trial,” Kemp said, implicitly confirming that Ivins had been about to be formally charged. “The relentless pressure of accusation and innuendo takes its toll in different ways on different people. . . . In Dr. Ivins’ case, it led to his untimely death.”
Kemp did not respond to telephone calls and e-mails for this article.
Times researcher Janet Lundblad contributed to this report.