Mercury Rising 鳯女

Politics, life, and other things that matter

Trial by innuendo in anthrax killings: update 4

Posted by Charles II on August 7, 2008

David Willman, LAT

A top government scientist who helped the FBI analyze samples from the 2001 anthrax attacks has died in Maryland from an apparent suicide, just as the Justice Department was about to file criminal charges against him for the attacks, the Los Angeles Times has learned.

Bruce E. Ivins, 62, who for the last 18 years worked at the government’s elite biodefense research laboratories at Ft. Detrick, Md., had been informed of his impending prosecution, said people familiar with Ivins, his suspicious death and the FBI investigation…

Ivins died Tuesday at Frederick Memorial Hospital after ingesting a massive dose of prescription Tylenol mixed with codeine, said a friend and colleague, who declined to be identified out of concern that he would be harassed by the FBI….

The scientist faced forced retirement, planned for September, said his longtime colleague, who described Ivins as emotionally fractured by the federal scrutiny.

“He didn’t have any more money to spend on legal fees. He was much more emotionally labile, in terms of sensitivity to things, than most scientists. . . . He was very thin-skinned.”

Is this the kind of legal system we want? One in which people, whether guilty or innocent, commit suicide because they can’t pay for legal defense.

There is no evidence in this article to connect Ivins to the anthrax killings. It’s all innuendo and ugly gossip.
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Update 4. James Rowley and Avram Goldstein, Bloomberg:

“Scientists and legal experts questioned the reliability of novel genetic tests that the FBI says link deadly anthrax letters to an Army bioweapons scientist who authorities allege carried out the 2001 killings by himself.

Because the FBI has never offered such tests in criminal cases, it’s uncertain the results would have been admitted in court as evidence…

Gene sequencing that linked the highly refined anthrax spores used in the anthrax letters to a flask in Ivins’s laboratory was a key piece of evidence cited by the Justice Department yesterday as proof Ivins acted alone. The government said it will close the case soon.

“Microbial forensics is still a nascent field, and, as far as I know, no one has ever been convicted in a U.S. court on the basis of microbial forensic evidence,” said Peter Hotez, a microbiologist at George Washington University.

According to Paul de Armond, cited in Update 3:

Anthrax is remarkably immune from mutation, thanks largely to an odd life-cycle that vacillates between long periods of dormancy and brief periods of volatile activity. It’s estimated that over 100,000 cell divisions can occur before a mutation of the chromosomal DNA takes place. Since anthrax spends most of its time as dormant spores, this can take a long time — so long that two samples collected decades apart can and often do have the same DNA fingerprint.

What makes me think that the “novel genetics tests” will turn out to be like the novel fiber tests of the past?


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Update 1: Thanks to PW for alerting me to the latest LAT article.

Misleadingly headlined “Anthrax scientist Bruce Ivins stood to benefit from a panic,” the article goes on and on about how Ivins stood to receive royalties on two patents. But when you read the fine print, a source is cited, saying that “Ivins would have stood to make tens of thousands of dollars, but not millions.” This is hardly a motive for murder.

Then we get this non sequitur:

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.”

Um? Earth to former senior official? The envelope had an addressee. The addressee would have opened the envelope. The addressee would have been infected.

No, whoever did this intended to kill people. He (or she) put great effort into making the anthrax so that it would aerosolize.

I want to elevate to attention a comment by Stormcrow: “For the love of god, let’s try to prevent this from degenerating into yet another Rorschach test. Which is what generally happens when popular culture gets fascinated by an incident they don’t know jack shit about.”

This is an important point. We, the chattering public, are part of the problem when we speak without carefully ascertaining the facts. While I don’t think discussion needs to be limited to biologists and biochemists, we need to read skeptically and post thoughtfully.
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Update 2. Glenn Greenwald:

“It is so vital to emphasize that not a shred of evidence has yet been presented that the now-deceased Bruce Ivins played any role in the anthrax attacks, let alone that he was the sole or even primary culprit. Nonetheless, just as they did with Steven Hatfill, the media (with some notable and important exceptions) are reporting this case as though the matter is resolved.”

I agree with this characterization.
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Update 3 (Via Curmudgeon at Cernig’s), Dave Neiwert has comments on the loose ends of the anthrax attacks. I don’t think Dave is right about the issue of whether the anthrax was produced in Fort Detrick necessarily implies a violation of treaties to which the US is a signatory. First, the production could have been unauthorized. Second, even if it was authorized, it could have been authorized for a purpose other than weapons production. Dave does link an interesting article on the technology for anthrax production.

11 Responses to “Trial by innuendo in anthrax killings: update 4”

  1. Cassandra said

    The Yahoo news article discussing Ivin’s death has been modified no less than three times in the past three hours.

    Every modification take out more flattering information and adds more innuendo and implication of guilt.

    The article I originally read is posted in my LJ here.

    This is what the article looks like now.

    Every twenty minutes or so, Bruce Ivins gets a little guiltier.

  2. MEC said

    I read that article and reached for my tin-foil hat. Where’s his motive?

  3. Charles II said

    Visualize the Magic Eight Ball, MEC.

    Sources Say: Wanted More Vaccine Research

    Ya know, it might be so, but if so, why the $%$#@ was someone that bat%$#& insane employed by Fort Detrick?

  4. TMiss said

    Go slow on this one. The FBI can’t say squat so the media’s just gassing out the usual speculation. The FBI sacked the hacks running the investigation about a year or two ago, and with new leadership Ivins immediately became a suspect. His was the lab that claimed Bentonite was in the anthrax mailed to Congress, and my guess would be his fingerprints were all over that false analysis. Evidence also suggests he was responsible for directing investigators towards Hatfill.

    His mental and emotional instability were also consistent with what you would expect from someone who, if guilty, had committed a terrorist act aimed at Democrats and news media, but instead took the lives of postal workers and other innocents. Read Glenn Greenwald’s excellent post on this.

  5. Charles II said

    Thanks for that information, Cassandra! For your attentive reading, you get blogrolled. It’s just that sort of news manipulation that needs to be brought out.

    The editing that you note makes this whole story even more improbable. If he wanted to test a vaccine, the targets that were chosen make no sense at all. The targets made it clear that there was a partisan political undercurrent to the attacks.

    The account you link does not include the slimy statement from his brother Thomas that “I was questioned by the feds, and I sung like a canary… He had in his mind that he was omnipotent.” That’s another bit of color that would fit right in at a show trial under Stalin.

  6. Charles II said

    TMiss, the only thing I am going fast on is pointing out the perversion of the justice system involved in leaking confidential information from the Grand Jury and similar sources. Ivins may well be the culprit. But just as he deserved a fair trial in life, he does not deserve in death to be convicted in a kangaroo court created by the press.

    In the article you link, Glenn Greenwald says, “No tests ever found or even suggested the presence of bentonite. The claim was just concocted from the start. It just never happened.” So, your theory would seem to have some serious problems.

    In fact, most of what you will find in the press is complete nonsense. If you want a serious summary, check here

  7. Charles II said

    The following was posted anonymously on Salon:

    I question you, as you question NBC & ABC
    I am suprised that this article, which both attacks and questions the legitimacy of ABC & NBC news’ reporting isn’t remotely interested in questioning the legitimacy of the media claims of Ivins’ supposed “guilt.”

    I have been reading news articles about the case and am disgusted by the inconsistencies and blind accusations that are being made about Ivins. Certainly there is cause for suspicion: the FBI investigating him. But has it been forgotten that the FBI falsely accused Steven Hatfill and Richard Jewell of crimes? The FBI ruined the reputations of innocent men in a rush to close a case…are you starting to see a pattern?

    Numerous articles quote Ivins’ estranged brother, but fail to quote other family-members who remained close to him throughout his life. Many of us who knew him, including Dr. W. Russell Byrne, a colleague who worked in the bacteriology division of the Fort Detrick research facility for 15 years, believe he is innocent. The same NPR article (and one of the only articles to do so) reports that “Ivins was “hounded” by aggressive FBI agents who raided his home twice… Ivins was forcefully removed from his job… [and] The investigation led to Ivins being hospitalized for depression earlier this month, Byrne said. He said he does not believe Ivins was behind the anthrax attacks.”

    Another article on the subject opens with the description: “Bruce Ivins was troubled by the dust, dirt and clutter on his officemate’s desk, and not just because it looked messy. He suspected the dust was laced with anthrax.” This introduction is certainly eye-catching and paints Ivins as having obsessive tendencies directed at clutter or, the media might like you to think, the investigation. While superficially sinister, the media fails to recognise the fact that these could simply be personal eccentricities of an extremely intelligent scientist. He certainly isn’t the only creative person to have exhibited quirks. The article later states: “One researcher described a common room in the lab area as a “rats’ nest.” And experts say the “sloppiness” documented in the report may complicate prosecution if the anthrax killer is ever caught, especially if defense lawyers can cast doubt on USAMRIID’S reliability.” In this light, shouldn’t Ivins’ cleanliness– even if slightly over the top– be seen as an asset in a dangerously disorganized office? If the disarray of the offices would have hindered the investigation, why is Ivins being criticised for his attempts to keep it clean? Numerous articles cite “bizarre” behavior such as conducting “unauthorized tests.” Most of these articles fail to mention that these tests were “triggered by a technician’s fears that she had been exposed” to anthrax. In fact, “Ivins found evidence of anthrax and decontaminated the woman’s desk, computer, keypad and monitor.” These tests, while portrayed to be mailicious, appear to me to have been conducted out of concern for a coworker’s safety. Yes it is slightly questionable why these tests weren’t reported to superiors, but people make unfortunate mistakes in judgement all the time. Doesn’t anyone find it just as questionable why there was anthrax all over a coworker’s desk? Shouldn’t the presence of anthrax on the coworker’s desk shift suspicion off Ivins as opposed to the clean-up of it being seen as implicating him?

    Another Associated Press article states: “The six-member team that worked in the lab equipped to handle anthrax had swollen to a staff of 85. Most had to learn how to handle the bacteria “on the fly,” says USAMRIID’s commander Col. Erik Henchal.” It seems entirely credible that someone less experienced would have caused contamintion throughout the office. Or that someone less dedicated to vaccine research– to helping people– would be responsible for the attacks.

    Most important– and disturbing– is the media’s eagerness to finger a man based on an investigation that has been fraught with lack of information and has been soiled by false accusations. It is hard to believe that 7 years of investigations and a change in FBI management miraculously caused the case to be “solved”. It seems more like the passage of 7 years and a change in management brought a sense of desperation and a willingness to identify a weaker target than Steven Hatfill proved to be. Not to mention how solving this case would reflect on the new managment who, it seems, felt a strong need to prove itself capable— but not culpable, as the FBI has yet to formally issue an apology to Mr. Hatfill for the havock their false accusations wreaked on his life.

    Those who personally know Mr. Ivins, as I myself do, believe in his innocence. It is very frustrating and disheartening to read articles that insinuate his guilt while simultaneously presenting information that contradicts those assertions. No one questions these news articles– like the NBC report is being questioned– for placing higher priority on information that suggests guilt as opposed to the information that suggests innocence. As has been demonstrated so many times through out history, the media is quick to serve as judge, jury and executioner when it makes for a good story. The greatest sadness in this story lies in the fact that Mr. Ivins couldn’t withstand the pressure, scrutiny, and cruelness of the media, FBI, and general public. Let me say that his suicide does not indicate his guilt, but illustrates the fragility of the human spirit. Mr. Ivins was a kind and extremely intelligent man. Those of us that know him well believe in his innocence.

    A link to the original article, written by Glenn Greenwald:

    http://www.salon.com/opinion/greenwald/2008/08/01/anthrax/index.html

    – anonymouswithquestions
    [Read anonymouswithquestions's other letters]Permalink Friday, August 1, 2008 09:54 AM

  8. Stormcrow said

    Thank you, TMiss, for linking to Greenwald’s piece.

    And thanks to Charles II for posting that Anthrax case summary. It substantiates a few things I recall reading half a decade ago, but have lost source links for.

    Such as the debunking of the bentonite story by no less a wight than Tom Ridge himself.

    For the love of god, let’s try to prevent this from degenerating into yet another Rorschach test.

    Which is what generally happens when popular culture gets fascinated by an incident they don’t know jack shit about.

  9. Stormcrow said

    This story is really heating up in the blogosphere.

    I wish I could say I was surprised that about 90% of the commentary is tinfoil hat stuff. But Black Helicopter fantasy-land and the “proof by plausibility” fallacy are not, alas, monopolies of the Right.

    And one of the more minor (but still maddening) consequences of running an offensive BW program for any length of time is that there’ll be rumors and innuendos and full-blown conspiracy theories for decades after you get a rush of brains to the head and finally shut the goddamned thing down.

    But Dave Neiwert and Emptywheel over at FDL, and Meryl Nass, have plenty to contribute to this discussion that is nowhere near tinfoil territory. They are all well-informed, all extremely diligent, and they’re all digging this story like they’re putting in the foundation of a highrise.

    They don’t always agree.

    For instance, they’re all over the map as to whether Ivins actually did the deed. I see zero consensus.

    But they do seem to agree, closely about one single important point of contention. To wit, that the FBI and the media are trying to make this embarrassing serial investigatory failure Just Go Away by trying to smear a dead man.

    Dave Neiwert’s latest: The Anthrax Case Might Be Cracked, But It Is Far From Closed. I don’t think Dave needs much introduction here.

    Emptywheel’s blog at FDL. There are at least three recent pieces she wrote on this topic, and every one of them’s gold. So I just cited the whole fracking blog.

    Meryl Nass’ blog. This lady is a physician who is seriously credible whenever she talks about anthrax. She was onto the anthrax vaccine scandal before most people knew it was a scandal. She’s all over this particular story, and everything she says is well worth reading.

  10. Charles said

    Thanks for mentioning emptywheel. The site has an update on Cobell that I will headline.

    The anthrax stuff is interesting, too.

  11. [...] by Phoenix Woman on August 11, 2008 Charles has been following the tragedy of errors and malfeasance that has been the FBI’s handling of the anthrax [...]

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