The Anthrax Mystery Deepens

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Dr. Bruce Ivins, a bio-defense researcher at Fort Detrick, Md., in 2003.

Bruce E. Ivins, a respected government microbiologist, died of an apparent suicide on July 29, 2008, in a hospital in his hometown of Frederick, Md. Just before his death, federal authorities told his lawyer they were preparing to file criminal charges against him in connection to the 2001 anthrax attacks, according to the Los Angeles Times, which originally broke the story.

The FBI says it is briefing the families of the five people who died in the anthrax attacks before it releases further information to the public. So it may be days before we know what evidence the government actually has against Ivins.

For now, we do know that Bruce Ivins had a history of hiding relatively minor anthrax-related security breaches from his supervisors. He also was well positioned to access anthrax, and his lab benefited enormously in money and resources from the fallout of the anthrax attacks. Along with other scientists, he was listed as a co-inventor on two patents for an anthrax vaccine, and he could have stood to gain financially from the rise in vaccinations that followed the anthrax attacks. Days before his death, he was accused by a counselor of making violent threats.

But when it comes to the FBI and the anthrax investigation (or "Amerithrax," as the Feds so inelegantly call it), things are rarely as they first appear. Ivins had been cooperating with the FBI for six years, according to his attorney. In other cases, that's what happens when the FBI doesn't have a smoking gun but wants to wear a suspect down into confessing. But it's worth remembering that just one month ago, the Federal Government paid $5.8 million to Steven Hatfill, another scientist who worked at the very same research lab. Hatfill's name had been leaked to the media as a primary suspect during the years-long bioterrorism investigation. He was never arrested nor charged, and when he sued the government for ruining his career, a federal judge found "not a scintilla of evidence" linking Hatfill to the mailings. Hatfill's lawyer, Thomas Connolly, said neither he nor his client had any comment on Ivins.

The FBI had been watching Ivins' house for some time, according to neighbors' accounts, and it appears that the Los Angeles Times had also been investigating him long before he died.

Ivins' lawyer says his client was totally innocent and that he killed himself because of the FBI's harassment. He was receiving psychotherapy in the weeks before his death and was banned from the premises of his research lab. Yesterday, a spokesperson for Ivins' lab, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, at Fort Detrick in Frederick, said the agency "mourns the loss of Dr. Bruce Ivins, who served the institute for more than 35 years as a civilian microbiologist." That seems an unusual thing to say if you believe one of your employees had something to do with an anthrax attack.

It remains incumbent on the FBI to reveal what information it had linking Ivins to the attacks. Given the Federal Government's record on the anthrax investigation and the national security interests involved, Ivins' death should not be used as an excuse for the case to be closed without a full, public airing.