Outside editorial: Anthrax killer, dead or alive

Posted: Tuesday, September 23, 2008

In the weeks after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, another diabolical onslaught clawed at the frayed threads of our psyches. The second saga began with the mailing of envelopes from Trenton, N.J., to NBC News in New York and to the New York Post.

A woman who came in contact with one mailing noticed a blister on her finger - and tested positive for anthrax, a potentially lethal hemorrhagic disease. A maintenance worker at the Trenton regional postal facility in Hamlin, N.J., also visited a physician; what he wondered, were these lesions on his arm? A West Trenton postal carrier soon developed an arm lesion. Next stricken, an assistant to NBC anchor Tom Brokaw.

Panic swept America. By including a deadly bioagent in something we welcome into our homes and workplaces every day - the mundane U.S. mail - someone (or several someones) evoked the same sorts of fears provoked two decades earlier by the Tylenol poisonings in Chicago.

Anthrax mailings eventually killed five people and sickened 17 others.

Thus commenced a federal investigation that in one stretch wrongly focused for about five years on military bioresearcher Steven Hatfill-a man prosecutors now have formally cleared of any involvement in the killings. The feds instead are convinced that the culprit was Bruce Ivins, an Army scientist who killed himself in July after learning from the FBI that charges likely would be brought against him.

So: Was Bruce Ivins the one and only anthrax killer? Or is he a convenient scapegoat for embarrassed investigators who, having wrongly suspected Hatfill, don't deserve the public's confidence that they got this right?

Democratic leaders on the House Judiciary Committee recently told FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III that they don't think his agency has proved its case against Ivins. The Democrats wrote to Mueller that "... questions remain that are crucial for you to address, especially since there will never be a trial to examine the facts of the case."

Mueller told the committee Tuesday that the FBI will ask the National Academy of Sciences to organize an independent review of the evidence. He'll likely face more scrutiny Wednesday from a Senate committee.

The FBI really has no choice but to accept the challenge to publicly produce more of its evidence: There appears to be no fingerprint or other unquestionable link between Ivins and the mailings. The agency does, though, contend that the tremendous weight of its evidence points exclusively to Ivins. These are the suggestions we've all been reading for weeks: Ivins kept peculiar night hours, he apparently had access to the anthrax strain used in the killings, and - for reasons not yet innocently explained - he sometimes left his Maryland home to send mailings from faraway post offices. And so forth.

Over the next few months, the FBI intends to complete analyzing, and divulge, more of its details and conclusions. In the end, perhaps we'll all be convinced that Ivins is the killer, although even that wouldn't necessarily give us a motive: to murder innocents, to awaken lackadaisical Americans to the horrific dangers of biological weapons, to attract more federal funding for the assailant's research on bioagents - or some other reason entirely.

This case is extraordinary: The FBI is devoting significant resources to investigating a dead man as if it had to convince a federal grand jury to indict him - and then to help prosecutors prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Agents are continuing with interviews, plumbing computers to which Ivins had access, and will evaluate boxes of papers that he bequeathed to his attorney.

This is the sort of posthumous investigation that focused on the murdered Lee Harvey Oswald to establish his guilt in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. In this case such an elaborate effort is more than justified, though. It's necessary. Many of Ivins' former colleagues think he didn't send the mailings; in this view, he was an innocent hounded into the grave.

Maybe so, but we'd rather be convinced of that than leap to any conspiratorial conclusion. No one, not even Ivins' friends, denies that the feds' evidence points to him as a suspect. Was he an innocent hounded, then - or a criminal who ran for the exit? "It appears Ivins felt the noose tightening and committed suicide," says Northwestern University law professor Ronald Allen. "But people under investigation normally don't choose death over trial. Dr. Ivins did. Why?"

Closing this case may cause collateral damage: Those of us who follow it risk being buried alive in scientific minutiae. The core question: Did someone else - someone still alive - have the capability and the opportunity to make anthrax-by-mail the most feared substance in America.

The FBI's goal has to be convincingly closing a case that, as the House Democrats noted, can't be adjudicated in a court of law.

No, the true venue in FBI vs. Ivins is the court of public opinion.

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