FBI's anthrax suspect is likely killer, panel concludes

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 23, 2011 

WASHINGTON — The late Army microbiologist Bruce Ivins engaged in a decades-long pattern of "concealment and deceit," pretending to be a comical juggler who played the organ in church on Sundays, while his dark side drove him to mail anthrax-laced letters that killed five people, according to an analysis of his psychiatric records.

The conclusion by a nine-member panel of psychiatric and forensic experts in an unusual 285-report released Wednesday lent support to the FBI's controversial finding that Ivins was the culprit in the infamous 2001 anthrax attacks made after Ivins' 2008 suicide.

"Dr. Ivins was psychologically disposed to undertake the mailings; his behavioral history demonstrated his potential for carrying them out, and he had the motivation and the means," the panel wrote.

They noted that Ivins confessed to mental health professionals that he'd committed "criminal break-ins" in years past, describing him as calculatingly careful in the way he "compartmentalized" information, even among his mental health therapists.

Information in Ivins' psychiatric records should have kept him from ever being hired by the U.S. Army's Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md., where he performed research for years on deadly anthrax spores, the behavioral analysis panel found. But managers who hired him didn't ask for them.

In addition to the deaths, the anthrax powder in letters sent to two U.S. senators and media outlets in New York and Washington sickened 17 people, disrupted the U.S. Postal Service, tainted the mail in agencies across Washington and shuttered Congress.

The 62-year-old scientist killed himself in July 2008 by taking an overdose of Tylenol and other drugs after federal prosecutors notified him that he'd face criminal prosecution, culminating a long investigation.

While titillating, the latest analysis also fails to fully close the books on the case, because no one has produced clear forensic evidence showing that Ivins dropped the letters into a mailbox in Princeton, N.J., in September and October 2001.

The behavioral analysis panel found that Ivins was motivated to send the anthrax letters by "a lifelong preoccupation" with seeking revenge against "various perceived enemies," by the need to elevate the significance his work to develop a new anthrax vaccine and by a desire to protect his assignment at Fort Detrick. Democratic U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Tom Daschle of South Dakota, whose offices got anthrax letters, "had directly incurred his wrath," the panel wrote.

Another anthrax letter was addressed to then-news anchor Tom Brokaw of NBC. The network had returned Ivins' proposed screenplay about Christa McAuliffe, the teacher who died in 1986 when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded after takeoff, with a note saying it hadn't been read, the panel said.

The panel traced Ivins' need for constant mental health care over the years to a traumatic childhood in which his mother stabbed and beat his father, threatening to kill him with a loaded gun. "It also appears that she physically abused Dr. Ivins as a boy, and that his father mocked him publicly," the panel said.

Psychiatric records are highly confidential, except in unusual circumstances such as a criminal defendant's innocent plea by reason of insanity. But months after Ivins died, the Justice Department got a court order to obtain Ivins' sealed records. The FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit asked a longtime consultant, Dr. Gregory Saathoff, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia, to review the records.

Saathoff, who apparently initiated the idea to delve into Ivins' records, told a news conference Wednesday that after receiving them, he felt the case was so significant that he sought and obtained authority from the Justice Department to perform a comprehensive analysis.

In early 2010, apparently after the expert panel secretly submitted its report to the court, the FBI formally closed one of the largest investigations in its history, electing to publicly declare Ivins' guilt based on circumstantial evidence.

The FBI's case has since been called into question by a National Academy of Sciences panel, which found that the scientific evidence didn't solely point to a flask in Ivins' laboratory, and by scientists who worked with him at Fort Detrick who insist he couldn't have done it. At the request of several members of Congress, the Government Accountability Office is conducting a separate inquiry.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth of the District of Columbia secretly authorized the psychiatric analysis in 2009, not to weigh Ivins' guilt, but to draw lessons that might prevent a future biological weapons attack, Saathoff said.

However, at the news conference, Dr. Ronald Schouten, a Harvard University faculty member and director of the Law and Psychiatry Service at Massachusetts General Hospital, said that "after spending all these hours and going over all these materials, we came to the conclusion that ... he was the perpetrator."

The panel urged a series of steps to ensure that mental health issues are more closely tracked in background checks in hiring and security clearance reviews.

Its report credited intervention by mental health professionals for "likely preventing a mass shooting" by Ivins, who had bought semi-automatic handguns and had talked of going on a shooting spree and dying in a hail of police gunfire. Absent action by therapists to hospitalize him, the panel concluded, "there is no reason to think he would not have carried out" this plan.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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