This was my presentation to the University of California Institute on Global Conflicts and Cooperation seminar on the anthrax letters, Nov. 29, 2010 in Washington, D.C.
DVDs with the full video recording of the anthrax seminar can be purchased at cost ($12) from
THE FBI’S ANTHRAX LETTERS INVESTIGATION: POINTS TO CONSIDER
MERYL NASS, MD
I was acquainted with Bruce Ivins from 1991 until his death. Yes, he had significant emotional problems and was socially awkward. However, his scientific work was of high quality and was relied on by those studying anthrax vaccines here and abroad.
Bruce sought neither money nor fame. He could have used his expertise to consult at a much higher salary, especially after the anthrax letters were sent, but chose not to. At work, he was invariably generous and helpful to others, myself included.
There was absolutely no risk of Bruce losing access to anthrax vaccine and thereby becoming unable to do his research, as FBI claims in its attempt to create a credible motive for the crime. USAMRIID, the Army research center where Bruce worked, holds dozens of unlicensed vaccine candidates, including those for anthrax, which researchers routinely use to vaccinate themselves. Researchers at USAMRIID always have vaccines available for their own use, licensed or not.
The FBI wrongly claimed that the work of myself and others -- “a chorus of critics” -- questioning the safety and efficacy of anthrax vaccine and its role in Gulf War Syndrome threatened Bruce, contributing to his disturbed state of mind at the time the letters were sent.
In fact, Bruce also questioned the quality of the licensed anthrax vaccine, and gave me a number of articles and abstracts over 10 years that raised questions about both the vaccine’s safety and efficacy.
In fact, the anthrax vaccine manufacturer had been shut down by FDA for two years when the letters were sent, due to repeated failures to meet good manufacturing practices. Had Bioport (now Emergent Biosolutions) remained shut down, Bruce’s vaccines might have been the next generation used to inoculate troops. The anthrax letters breathed new life into the Bioport vaccine, not into Bruce’s vaccines.
In fact, studies Bruce performed in 1991, in which vaccinated monkeys were later exposed to inhaled anthrax, resulted in the vaccinated monkeys coming down with anthrax despite their vaccinations, though the majority eventually recovered. (See page 41 of FBI’s 2/19/2010 report.) No one understood the serious inadequacies of the currently licensed vaccine better than Bruce.
Recall that FBI tried to close this case on August 1, 2008, 3 days after Bruce’s death. The FBI orchestrated a crescendo of leaks about Bruce over several days, full of lurid details that aimed to create a picture of a “lone nut” for the American public. Much of this material was inaccurate or exaggerated, and FBI officially apologized for the leaks later.
Apologies aside, this was a tawdry attempt to bury one of the most important cases the FBI has ever investigated, both because of its national policy implications and the huge effort, time and money consumed by the investigation. Remember that the anthrax letters helped pave the way for passage of the USA Patriot Act, for going to war with Iraq (although Iraq was not a credible suspect in the 9/11 attacks, everyone knew it had stockpiled anthrax) and for expansion of the federal biodefense budget to 50 billion dollars and counting.
Were aspects of Bruce’s death orchestrated as well? Although the anthrax letters case was one of the FBI’s biggest ever, Bruce’s death somehow didn’t warrant an autopsy or an inquest.
Bruce purchased two bottles of Tylenol PM, during 2 separate trips to the same store, on July 24, 2008. Tylenol PM is an over the counter sleep aid, consisting of Tylenol and Benadryl.
At 1 am on July 27 Bruce was reported to be in a coma due to liver failure. He was brought to the hospital by ambulance, and on July 29 he died.
It takes from 2 to several days for liver failure to occur after ingesting a large dose of Tylenol. A very effective antidote exists, which provides substrate so the body can detoxify the lethal substance formed as Tylenol is metabolized. This antidote, either N-acetyl cysteine or alternatively glutathione, will save the patient’s life if given within about 24 hours of an otherwise lethal Tylenol ingestion.
3d slide – Tylenol poisoning, Merck Manual
As you can see from the Merck Manual, mortality from a Tylenol overdose is extremely rare when this safe, easily available treatment is given in a timely manner.
Bruce was under intensive, 24/7 surveillance by the FBI near the end of his life. The FBI almost certainly knew Bruce purchased a large amount of Tylenol on July 24, and probably also knew when he ingested it, and when he developed symptoms and eventually coma.
I have seen no report or evidence that the FBI informed anyone, especially Bruce’s medical providers, of his Tylenol ingestion. Doing so in a timely manner would have almost certainly saved Bruce’s life and allowed the FBI to bring its case against him to its legal conclusion. Nor did FBI intervene to hasten Bruce receiving medical attention after his ingestion.
Was the FBI’s case against Bruce too weak to withstand a trial?
Was Bruce’s death a precondition for closing the case?
SOME FAILURES IN THE FBI’S CASE
Moving on, I’d like to mention some examples of how the 2/19/2010 FBI report misleads and overreaches. How can the FBI explain the following missteps?
1. FBI sent a letter to Bruce in April 2007, stating that he was not a target of the investigation.
2. Why was no DNA obtained from Bruce until the week before his death?
3. Why did Bruce retain his security clearance until 19 days before his death?
4. FBI has failed to find evidence placing Bruce in New Jersey where the letters were mailed.
5. FBI has failed to show how Bruce could have been at the mailbox during the window of time in which the letters were sent.
6. FBI failed to find any anthrax contamination in Bruce’s car, home or possessions, although the simple act of placing a letter in the mailbox would have led to massive spore contamination of everything in the area, including the mailer. (See paper by FBI’s Doug Beecher)
7. FBI’s February 2010 report tries to have it both ways. It claims that flask RMR1029 was under Bruce’s exclusive control between its 1997 creation and the anthrax letter attacks. The report claims that “only a very limited number of individuals had access” to the flask. Later it admits that approximately 400 people at USAMRIID and a Midwest contractor laboratory had access to the spores.
8. FBI claims Bruce had the know-how to produce the weaponized spores found in the Leahy-Daschle letters. But FBI itself has failed to reverse engineer the spore production method, does not know what that method entails, and therefore cannot possibly know if Bruce had either the knowledge or access to all the equipment needed to produce such spores.
9. FBI has failed to find any trace of the strain of Bacillus subtilis that contaminated the anthrax spores in the first set of letters, at USAMRIID or anywhere else. Had the contaminated batch of anthrax been made at USAMRIID, the Bacillus subtilis strain would have contaminated the work space and been identified.
10. FBI claims it ruled out 400 people who had access to the spores, but fails to explain anything about the processes used to rule these people out.
11. Bruce passed two FBI polygraph tests, but later FBI claimed he used “classic” countermeasures to thwart the polygraphs. Experts dispute this FBI claim.
12. FBI’s report claims Bruce had access to a photocopier, but fails to note it was not the copier used to produce the anthrax letters.
13. FBI initially reported that the water the spores were grown in came from the Frederick, Maryland area. FBI later backed off this claim.
14. FBI initially said that minor deviations in the pre-franked envelopes used for the anthrax letters showed they were purchased from the Frederick, Maryland post office. Later FBI acknowledged they were sold widely in Maryland and Virginia.
15. Nowhere in the February 2010 FBI report is there any acknowledgment that the crime could have involved more than one person. Yet in my opinion, the logistics are such that it is almost a certainty more than one person was involved.
16. The FBI obtained nearly all its 1,000 anthrax samples voluntarily from labs in the US and abroad. This assumed that the anthrax mailer fully complied with the FBI request, even though it might incriminate him. I’d call this a risky assumption, which undermines the foundation of the FBI’s entire case.
17. FBI’s report postulates that two one-week windows of opportunity existed in which each batch of anthrax letter spores could have been grown, processed and mailed. The time period for the first set of letters was September 11 through 18, 2001. The period for the second set was October 1 through 8, 2001 (see page 6 of the FBI report). FBI therefore reported focusing its investigation on individuals who had access to flask RMR 1029 and an anthrax “hot room” (a.k.a. BL 3 or 4 high containment laboratory) during these periods, in its attempt to identify and investigate all potential perpetrators.
However, there are several problems with this assumption. First, the US government did not know how many high containment labs existed in the US and abroad in 2001, as they did not have to be registered or inspected. Some may have belonged to private companies or individuals.
Second, although the anthrax letters were mailed during short windows of time, and the text included with the letters was probably written shortly before mailing, there is no reason to think that the spores had to be grown and processed during these periods.
Since the FBI was unable to duplicate the process used to produce the spores, it is uncertain whether production in a particular lab could be completed during a one-week period.
Spore production and processing could have taken place considerably earlier, and/or the spores might have been supplied to the mailer by another person.
Dealing with such considerations would have increased the complexity of the FBI’s case, and dramatically increased the universe of potential suspects. FBI decided not to investigate these likely scenarios.
Please remember that the FBI “owns” the narrative of this case. It has released piecemeal findings, contradictory facts, and withheld a large amount of information from the public record. Much of the material provided to the media has been given without attribution, so there is no one at FBI to query about the information.
Most important, the facts of this case (as opposed to what the FBI has released in a controlled fashion) have never been contested and established in a court of law.
MEANS, MOTIVE AND OPPORTUNITY
The FBI worked hard to develop a theory of this case that provides the needed justifications for Bruce to have committed this crime.
The FBI discussion of means, motive and opportunity sounds plausible at first look, but fails on more pointed inquiry. I have discussed much of this already, but would like to make clear that FBI has yet to demonstrate that Bruce Ivins had any of the elements required to commit this crime.
Did he have the means? He lacked the Bacillus subtilis contaminant found in the first letters. Since the spore preparation method remains unknown to the FBI, it is impossible to know if Bruce had access to the materials, equipment and knowledge to produce these spores.
Did he have a motive? None of the FBI’s purported motives is in conformance with the known facts of Bruce Ivins’ career.
Did he have the opportunity? The scenario initially floated by the FBI to claim that Bruce could have driven to New Jersey and back to mail the letters was shot down, and no new information has been provided by the FBI in support of Bruce’s ability to do so.
MICROBIAL FORENSICS and the National Academy of Science panel
The FBI reported working with over 60 scientists at 29 laboratories to develop new techniques that allowed it to identify the source from which the anthrax letter spores were grown. This shiny new science is what the FBI hopes to hang its case on.
FBI has further sought the imprimatur (“seal of approval”) of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) for its new scientific techniques.
The scientific minutiae of this body of work are so complex that FBI expects the public to get lost in the details, and fail to see the woods for the trees.
For scientific work to be accepted by the scientific community, it has to meet a number of criteria. The research much be:
a) conceptually valid
b) accurate in its execution
c) fully reproducible
d) published and accepted by other scientists in the field
The microbial forensics work commissioned by the FBI for this case has yet to demonstrate that it meets any of these criteria. We know very little about this research.
Despite the FBI’s Dr. Majidi saying in August 2008 that independent scientists would now publish their work on the case, a Pub Med (National Library of Medicine) search using the search terms ‘anthrax’ and ‘letters’ revealed not a single published paper describing the FBI studies since then.
The National Academy of Science panel will issue its report on the FBI’s microbial forensics soon. But given the lack of information available for evaluation in the open literature, the NAS panel is handicapped by its overwhelming reliance on briefings by the FBI and its contracted scientists. Until the standard procedures of peer review described above are completed, it will be very difficult to determine the validity and usefulness of the FBI’s research.
But in any event, the microbial forensics can play only a limited role in solving this crime. Even if the FBI’s scientific work is found to be entirely reliable, it can only identify the source spores from which the anthrax letter spores were grown. The studies are unable to implicate any one individual as the perpetrator.
In order to identify the person or persons involved, old-fashioned investigative techniques are needed, and hard evidence. But such techniques failed to find any direct evidence linking Bruce to the crime. Instead, we have been entertained with a colorful and varied pastiche of circumstantial evidence proving that Bruce had unusual habits, psychological problems, and was increasingly disturbed in the period leading to his death.