Americans are both terrified and intoxicated by the word “conspiracy.” The suggestion of a criminal system—rather than a constant supply of lone “nut jobs” flying off the handle—seems to unsettle us. Many of us tend to shy away from the lessons of our parents’ generation, the lens of Watergate. We seem to prefer to see the world as particles, not waves. We find comfort in the micro, stress in the macro. The devil is in the details, right? Well, if the classic American dilemma is viewing a political crime as the product of either a lone wolf or a grand conspiracy, then Bruce Ivins is a classic example of the American man of mystery. What happened at the end of September, 2001?
Seven letters were sent. Five people died. Mistakes were made. Steven Hatfill, an acclaimed physician and biological weapons expert, was one of the initial suspects. He was accused of murder and terrorism. His life was ruined. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy, two liberal senators, received letters from “the anthrax killer,” but they survived.
The anthrax letters were analyzed. “Experts” determined that they bore the bentonite stamp of Iraqi anthrax. Bruce Ivins, putative sole custodian of samples RMR-1029, helped analyze the very samples whose genetic mutations would later match RMR-1029. Yet at the time of the first analysis, there were discrepancies. Someone had held back a flask. When asked to submit his research to the FBI, it was noted that Ivins’ submissions were “incomplete.”
Who was Bruce Ivins?
“Bruce was many a thing,” said his brother.
“I’m a little dream-self, short and stout, I’m the other half of Bruce when he lets me out,” wrote Ivins in a little moment of poetry.
Bruce Ivins was one of the most talented and trusted microbiologists in America, if not the world. He worked at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, Fort Deitrich, Maryland. Ivins was born in Lebanon, Ohio, a year after World War II ended. His father was a pharmacist. It was Jean Duley, a counselor at a clinic for pharmaceutical addictions, who finally went to the FBI, saying her client was “homicidal, sociopathic, with clear intentions.”
Ivins spent the latter half of the 1960s at the University of Cincinnati where he studied microbiology, focusing on disease-causing bacteria. Anthrax is one such disease, often found in cattle and sheep. When it attacks humans, there is pain. There are lesions. Fatality is generally a given.
But the two liberal senators escaped.
When the investigation seemed liked it was over, in 2008, the tabloids focused on Ivins’ obsession with a particular sorority at Cincinnati, Kappa Kappa Gamma. They said Bruce Ivins was crazy, that he was “Lust in Space” over Sally Ride and Christa McCauliffe. A fellow alumni from UC, also a microbiologist, claimed Ivins stalked her for years and even went so far as to move his family, his wife of thirty-three years and their adopted children, just down the street from her house in the suburbs of Washington.
Maybe the tabloids were telling us something important about the scientist, the man. Serious research can lead to obsession, addiction. Drugs, women—pleasure—these are the universal addiction variables that a television audience can understand. But bacillus anthracis is a different order of business. For many it’s difficult to equate science with pleasure (that core ingredient of obsession), but Ivins was good at science, and for a long time science was good to Ivins.
Bruce Ivins was almost a celebrity. In the 1980s he tasted success. During the 70s his research focus had been cholera and legionella, but in 1979 there was an outbreak of anthrax after a release at a military facility in the Soviet Union. Sixty-four people died. There was mass publicity. Bruce Ivins heard the call and he responded.
He developed two patented vaccines for anthrax. He published a host of articles on the subject. He spoke at conferences. He climbed the ladder. But he was not without his critics. In addition to sending letters to liberal senators, the anthrax terrorist(s) also sent one to Tom Brokaw at NBC. If the anthrax terrorist(s) was in fact, our own Bruce Ivins, it is possible to understand a part of his hatred for Brokaw, for it was NBC who criticized Ivins’ anthrax vaccine program and the side effects our soldiers suffered as a result of it in the first Gulf War. NBC went as far as to connect problems in Ivins’ program with the medical mystery of that decade: Gulf War Syndrome.
“Bin Laden terrorists for sure have anthrax and sarin gas,” wrote Ivins in an email of 2001. “[They] have just decreed death to all Jews and all Americans.”
In the actual anthrax letters, the texts bear an eerie resemblance:
“We have this anthrax . . . Death to America . . . Death to Israel.”
These letters, whoever wrote them, were sent from a mailbox sixty feet away from a Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority house in Princeton, New Jersey. If they were sent by Bruce Ivins, they were sent by a rebuffed man with a mustache who was a fervent believer in Catholicism and had experienced severe depression in the months before and after September 11, a man who had logged more hours in his lab during September 2001 than at anytime before or after.
“I get incredible paranoid, delusional thoughts at times,” Ivins once wrote to a friend. “And there’s nothing I can do until they go away, either by themselves or with drugs.”
So Ivins took drugs. He must’ve thought about his father, the pharmacist, as the concoctions became more and more unwieldy. Perhaps he was thinking of his father the night he committed suicide, taking a lethal dose of Tylenol and codeine, leaving his life and the story of September, 2001, a mystery.
Thus our dilemma: do we trust the official version of the lone wolf or do we credit the suspicions of one of our own government investigators, a whistleblower? Just last month (April 2nd), Richard Lambert, the ex director of the FBI’s anthrax investigation unit, filed a suit against the agency, claiming that the FBI is concealing a “staggering” amount of evidence that suggests Ivins did not act alone in sending the letters. Acclaimed historian Gerald Posner, who is famous for debunking conspiracy theories, believes the official account of Ivins’ narrative is not yet complete. As far back as 2008, congressman Rush Holt of New Jersey said, “maybe there is still a murderer at large.”
Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. But one thing is certain. Just as we now know that many of the chemical weapons of Iraq—the WMDs—were originally ours (see C.J. Chivers reporting in The New York Times), we now know that the biological weapons—the anthrax—was also ours. The 2001 study that claimed the anthrax letters bore “the chemical signatures of Iraqi-made anthrax” has been withdrawn. There was no bentonite. There was no Iraqi stamp. That report, like so much intelligence leading up to the war, was a mysterious and costly fraud.
When will the United States start practicing what it preaches? When American scientists use biological weapons to frame other countries for using biological weapons, we obviously lose credibility in the international community and in the ongoing debate over WMDs. Right now, we are asking for transparency from Iran on their nuclear program, just as we asked for the same from Iraq before the disastrous invasion of 2003. Well, here’s a new opportunity to lead. Here’s a chance to show what transparency looks like. Let’s declassify the story of Bruce Ivins and hear the truth about our own WMDs.