U.S. Missed Number of Warning Signs in Anthrax Attacks, Investigation, Panel Says
A panel of experts on the 2001 anthrax attacks that left five people dead and 17 others infected spoke Wednesday at the University of Virginia Law School about the ensuing multi-year investigation and a number of significant security gaps that were revealed.
David Willman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times journalist and author of "The Mirage Man," a book documenting the anthrax attacks and their aftermath, described how federal investigators initially focused their investigation on bioweapons expert Steven Hatfill. Yet Hatfill, a virologist, had no access to anthrax and no evidence ever linked him to the attacks.
"Steven Hatfill was essentially lynched by the press," Willman said. "This is a guy who just doesn't check out [as a credible suspect."
Hatfill ultimately sued a number of news organizations and the federal government for tarnishing his reputation, and the government settled for $5.8 million.
By 2005, the investigation began to shift its focus instead toward Bruce Ivins, a researcher at the U.S. Army's biodefense research labs at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md. Ivins had a history of mental illness and substance abuse.
Ivins' primary work was the development of a next-generation anthrax vaccine. Prior to the attacks, however, the Army had placed the project on "the back burner" and its future was uncertain, Willman said. Following the anthrax attacks, Ivins' research became a top priority for the government.
Ivins craved recognition and validation of his life's work, Willman said. In the aftermath of the anthrax attacks, he got his wish. "What happens is, Bruce Ivins starts getting the attention that he loves," he said.
Ivins not only had access to anthrax at the time leading up to the attacks, he had spent extensive and unexplained weekend and nighttime hours in the lab's hot suite in September and October of 2001.
Ivins committed suicide in 2008 after he learned that he would soon be charged in connection with the attacks.
It eventually emerged that Ivins also had a history of bizarre behavior, including a decades-long obsession with the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority that led him to break into a number of its sorority houses and to steal items from its members, Willman said.
In July 2009, Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia appointed a panel of experts to review the anthrax investigation, Ivins' medical and mental health records, and to make recommendations to prevent future bioterrorism attacks.
Dr. Greg Saathoff, a professor at UVA's School of Medicine and chairman of the Amerithrax Expert Behavioral Analysis Panel, described how the panel sought to better understand Ivins' mental state before and after the attacks, his possible motives and the connections between his mental state and his crimes. Dr. Christopher Holstege, another member of the anthrax panel and professor at UVA Medical School, described Ivins' history of substance abuse.
Dr. Ronald Schouten, one of the Amerithrax review panelists and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, described how the Army failed to detect Ivins' mental health and substance abuse problems.
With regards to nuclear weapons, he said, "the Department of Energy has very strict standards. Anybody handling nuclear weapons gets thoroughly screened," he said. "Everybody in that chain of command is carefully monitored. We have nothing like that on the bio side."
In order to handle material such as anthrax, researchers like Ivins had to pass a security-risk assessment, which tracked whether employees have been adjudicated as a "mental defective," been committed to a mental institution, convicted of a crime punishable of more than a year in jail, or uses illegal drugs.
"[Ivins] was not a restricted person, even if they had applied all the criteria, because he never was civilly committed, he never was adjudicated as a defective, he never had been caught in all of his burglaries of Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority houses," Schouten said. "In all of his stalking, and all of his murder plots he was thinking up, he was never arrested. So he never would have popped up as a security risk."
The Amerithrax panel concluded that a number of security gaps need to be addressed in how the government handles dangerous biological materials.
"Our charge from Judge Lamberth was, how do we keep this from happening again?" he said. "What we found in our work was that the system in place just didn't work."
The investigation also missed opportunities to identify Ivins much earlier, the panel said.
In February 2002, for example, the American Society for Microbiology asked its members to contact the FBI with the names of anyone who might have been responsible for the attacks. In response, the FBI received a single tip, which came from a female microbiologist who had worked with Ivins in the mid-1970s. Ivins, she said, was "somewhat mentally unstable and has the profile of someone who could be capable of such an act."
Willman was sharply critical of the federal investigation and its "tunnel vision" focus on Hatfill. "What went on here is something I think the FBI needs to come to terms with," he said.
He also said the federal government ought to focus on ensuring the security of dangerous material such as anthrax, given the increased size of the government's efforts under major programs such as Project Bioshield, which provides funding to develop medical countermeasures in the event of a biological attack.
"By now, we've spent approaching $70 billion to build new Bio Safety Level 3 and BSL 4 labs," he said. "We have to have people to conduct the work [so] we've brought in at least 11,000 scientists and technicians who now have daily access to some of these pathogens. It's possible that this research program and effort may someday yield medical countermeasures that make us safer. What is more immediately clear is that we have exponentially grown our insider-threat risk.