On Friday, the Department of Justice ended its investigation of the 2001 Anthrax attack, which killed five, sickened 17, disrupted postal service, and caused the evacuation of a Senate building. In order to bring closure to what has been a much-questioned and controversial investigation, the Department issued an investigative summary, along with tons of additional documents, some requested by FOIA requests. The nearly 3000 pages of documents can be found at: http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2010/February/10-nsd-166.html.
According to a press release issued by the Department:
The Amerithrax Task Force, which was comprised of roughly 25 to 30 full-time investigators from the FBI, U.S. Postal Inspection Service and other law enforcement agencies, as well as federal prosecutors from the District of Columbia and the Justice Department’s Counterterrorism Section, expended hundreds of thousands of investigator work hours on this case. Their investigative efforts involved more than 10,000 witness interviews on six different continents, the execution of 80 searches and the recovery of more than 6,000 items of potential evidence during the course of the investigation. The case involved the issuance of more than 5,750 grand jury subpoenas and the collection of 5,730 environmental samples from 60 site locations.
The conclusion of the report: Dr. Bruce E. Ivins at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (“USAMRIID”) was the lone individual responsible for creating and mailing the “RMR-1029” anthrax-infected letters. Ivins committed suicide in July 2008.
The report includes two sections describing an early suspect, Dr. Steven Hatfill, who “became widely known in August 2002 as a person of investigative interest.” The report spends a page and a half explaining why Hatfill was an early suspect and how he was eliminated through scientific breakthroughs. The report contains no mention of the apology and $5.8 million settlement Hatfill received from the government for being wrongly exposed as a suspect.
The report lays out what would have been the government’s case against Ivins if he had lived. First, it discusses “opportunity, access, and ability,” noting that:
- RMR-1029 was the source of the weapon and originated from Ivin’s flask
- Ivins had suspicious lab hours just before the Anthrax was mailed
- Other suspects who could have accessed RMR-1029 have been ruled out
In terms of Motive, the report notes:
- Ivins life’s work appeared destined for failure, absent an unexpected event
- He was increasingly being criticized for his efforts
- He felt abandoned in his personal life
The report then assesses his mental health before proceeding to evidence that revealed that the envelopes used were sold at a post office in Maryland/Virginia and included language that was similar to the writings of Ivins. The report then said that Ivins acted suspiciously and took many actions that suggested he had a guilty conscious. It also noted that he had a habit of using false identities and ended with evidence showing the letters had been mailed from Princeton, NJ, across from a sorority for which Ivins had a “long-standing obsession…dating back 40 years.”
Not everyone appears satisified with the report. Congressman Rush Holt, who has introduced the Anthrax Attacks Investigation Act of 2009, stated that “Arbitrarily closing the case on a Friday afternoon should not mean the end of this investigation,” adding that the “evidence the FBI produced would not, I think, stand up in court.”
Holt has long been a critic of the investigation and his legislation, which had been introduced in previous years, would establish a Congressional commission to investigate the 2001 anthrax attacks and the federal government’s response to and investigation of the attacks.
While it is not clear that the legislation is needed to review a single investigation, especially nine years after the fact, it is clear that the government should have a systematic approach for dealing with a biological attack, whether committed by a sole actor or a terrorist organization. The report issued by Justice does not explain what has been done on the preparedness and response side to assure that U.S. officials are prepared. Its release, however, does give the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services opportunities to highlight their efforts on the biosecurity front. If those efforts are not enough and more needs to be done, then now is a good as time as ever to start pushing biopreparedness and response.