The Anthrax Letters

Posted on by Laurie Garrett

THE ANTHRAX LETTERS              Laurie Garrett

FRONTLINE, the Public Broadcasting System’s premiere documentary program, aired “The Anthrax Letters” this week. It is a breakthrough piece of journalism, smashing myths about the 2001 anthrax bioterrorism incidents. But it ultimately hedges on the key question: If Bruce Ivins was not the terrorist, who was?

Ten years ago this week Grant Leslie, then an intern in the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, opened a letter supposedly sent from a 4th grade class in New Jersey, and watched in horror as white powder spilled out, covering her in what turned out to be anthrax spores.  Two letters intended to deliver deadly doses to powerful United States Senators (Daschle and Vermont’s Patrick Leahy) were posted in 2001. Putting aside the murders via spores of five people and the many nightmares spawned by the 2001 events, this was the largest deliberate attack on Capitol Hill since the 1954 Puerto Rican nationalists’ shootings inside the House of Representatives. In the War on Terrorism era it remains utterly astounding that the case isn’t satisfactorily unresolved.

And, as Dr. Clare Fraser-Liggett, one of the key scientists involved in genetically analyzing the lethal spores, concludes at the close of “The Anthrax Letters,” if Ivins didn’t do it, the terrorists are still out there, ten years later, free to wreck more havoc.

The must-view program is the result of a long investigative collaboration between FRONTLINE’s Jim Gilmore and Mike Wiser, the McClatchy newspaper chain’s Greg Gordon and the online reporting group ProPublica’s Stephen Engelberg – all seasoned and admired investigative reporters. Their primary take-home message: the FBI blew the Amerithrax investigation, and Dr. Bruce Ivins was most likely innocent of the crime of mailing anthrax to media and political figures in the fall of 2001.

I reached the same conclusions in my book, I HEARD THE SIRENS SCREAM, though I was unable to get the FBI investigators to speak with me on the record. The FRONTLINE program and companion articles provide a deeper layer of digging, including scrutiny of tens of thousands of pages of Justice Department and FBI documents. Among the most important findings were the truth about the notorious RMR-1029 flask, and Ivins’ work records. Because these represent the only non-circumstantial evidence in the case against Ivins, who never had a day in court and committed suicide in 2007, they merit serious scrutiny.

According to the FBI a flask of wet slurry containing anthrax bacteria was the source of all of the spores mailed in 2001. That flask, labeled RMR-1029, was filled with Ames strain anthracis used by Ivins and colleagues at the USAMRIID military lab to test the efficacy of anthrax vaccines. The FBI claimed that Ivins lied about the flask, deliberately deceived investigators by sending different anthrax samples for genetic analysis, and used these wet bacteria, through an elaborate set of drying and processing procedures, to produce the fatal spores. But FRONTLINE discovered that Ivins had, indeed, provided RMR-1029 samples properly on more than one occasion prior to his apparent error in giving the FBI a sample from a different flask. Moreover, the alleged killer concoction was for years post-2001 located in an accessible spot inside USAMRIID, where its contents were used, and potentially altered, by other scientists. At least one USAMRIID scientist tells FRONTLINE that he had samples drawn from the RMR-1029 flask in his lab, but didn’t turn them over to the FBI.

The FBI also used time cards to demonstrate that Ivins worked unusually long hours inside his lab on the very September 2001 dates when  the agency believes the wet slurry of bacteria were dried and converted to the toxic spore form, then stuffed into envelopes. The implication was that Ivins performed all these homicidal activities inside his USAMRID lab during those specific hours. But USAMRIID did not have the sort of drying equipment Ivins would need, not a single spore has ever been found on any of the lab equipment, and Ivins’ work habits that September were not in the least bit unusual. The revelation in the FRONTLINE program is that the FBI focused on time in/out logs for just one location inside USAMRIID: The reporting team obtained records for all the facilities Ivins worked in, demonstrating that such long nighttime work hours were his norm, and there was nothing unusual in his September 2001 schedule.

I was never convinced Ivins was a serial killer. Thanks to this brilliant reporting effort I am prepared to declare Dr. Bruce Ivins innocent of the 2001 anthrax mailings.

As the National Academy of Sciences concluded earlier this year in its analysis of the FBI investigation there is cause (and at least strong circumstantial evidence) to implicate al-Qaeda. I detail most of those circumstantial links to al-Qaeda in my book: I will not repeat the long list here. The primary reason given by FBI leadership for dropping the al-Qaeda side of the Amerithrax query was that Osama bin Laden’s followers always proudly claimed credit for their nasty deeds: They never did so with the anthrax mailings.

But there are two possible explanations for this lack of al-Qaeda boasting. First, three letters were recovered, spores inside. There were other lethal letters that sickened and killed people but were thrown away or lost in the mail system. The letters were mailed in at least two separate events. It is possible that a claim of credit was never found because it is in one of the lost letters, and the primary operatives responsible for producing the spores perished on 9/11 in their dastardly hijackings.

The second possibility is that al-Qaeda considered the mailings a failure. No Senator or famous news anchor died. The victims were all unintended – mail sorters, random individuals that opened their mail, unpaid interns. Rather than being an exalted moment of grand terror coming on the heels of the 9/11 attacks, killing the leader of the United States Senate, the Amerithrax mailings proved a tragic, frightening event that murdered the innocent. Far from providing al-Qaeda with bragging rights, the anthrax letters have been treated by political leaders and historians as a minor footnote to the more significant destruction of the World Trade Center. (Congressional investigators should ask the CIA whether the computers and documents seized from bin Laden’s Pakistani mansion contain any references to the anthrax mailings or pursuit of bioweapons.)

The FRONTLINE team deserves serious applause for their efforts. The surviving targets of the 2001 anthrax, Daschle, Leahy and news anchors Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather, should demand that the Congressional and executive branch scrutiny of the FBI’s Amerithrax effort now proceed with genuine urgency and transparency.  If al-Qaeda was responsible, it is a matter of national security to know how the terrorists obtained, processed, packaged and delivered the deadly caches lest other groups manage similar feats of bioterrorism in the future. If neither Bruce Ivins nor al-Qaeda were the killers the case remains open, and the homicidal maniacs are still at large. In either case America should not feel in 2011 that the serial killings of 2001 are mere history.