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  April 21, 2011

Did FBI Target Wrong Man as Anthrax Killer?

Investigative report by Greg Gordon finds important evidence not conclusively pursued by FBI
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Greg Gordon, an investigative reporter, has spent 33 years uncovering waste, fraud, abuse and misconduct in Washington. Since joining McClatchy's national staff in 2006, he has helped expose Wall Street's role in the 2008 financial crisis, partisanship in the Justice Department and gaps in US homeland security. In 2010, he and colleagues Kevin Hall and Chris Adams were honored as finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for their financial reporting, which included Gordon's four-part series detailing Goldman Sachs' selloff of tens of billions of dollars in securities backed by risky home mortgages while it secretly bet that a housing downturn would send the value of those securities plummeting.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Washington. Shortly after 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, envelopes started showing up in Congress, and sent to certain journalists, filled with anthrax. Eventually, five people died and 17 people became sick, and a massive manhunt began, looking for the perpetrator. Well, the Justice Department decided it was Army microbiologist Bruce Ivins. And in 2008, Bruce Ivins committed suicide. But did the Justice Department target the right man? Well, a recent piece of investigative journalism by Greg Gordon of McClatchy Newspapers suggests maybe they didn't. Now joining us is Greg Gordon. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So just so people know, over your shoulder here is one of the envelopes that was sent to Tom Brokaw. So tell us the story. Why do you think that Ivins may not have been the person?

GORDON: Well, this is an investigation that's been filled with mysteries. And part of the reason is part of the investigation was classified for a long time. This was a major national security investigation. And only recently a large cache of documents related to the investigation was released after a review of the science in the investigation by the National Academy of Sciences. And there is some new information that's really intriguing in these documents. My story revolves around a possible clue that the FBI may not have followed all the way to the point of determining whether it was going to really crack the case.

JAY: There was a contaminant, and in the--that they didn't follow all the way. So explain what was it. I mean, in your article you call it a fingerprint--we're talking, like, a scientific fingerprint.

GORDON: It's a scientific fingerprint. Exactly. And this particular contaminant is a bacteria that resembles anthrax so much that microbiologists at bioweapons facilities around the United States and in other countries typically use this substance to see how anthrax would behave, for example, if it were sprayed in the air like somebody might try to do if they were trying to kill a lot of people. So what happened is that the--as this investigation progressed, it was actually escalating the development of a brand-new field of microbial forensics. And this field involves tracing, you know, looking at the genomes of the substances under the glass and--.

JAY: And you point out in your report that Justice Department or FBI spent, like, $1 million just on this piece of the investigation.

GORDON: Well, no, they spent a lot more than that. They spent $1 million at the beginning on one sample, on looking at breaking down the genetic material in one sample. And then it got--that very same test today would cost $10. That's how far this field has come. But what happened is that two of the letters, including the one addressed to Tom Brokaw at NBC, contained a contaminant. The anthrax powder wasn't as fine as the powder that was sent to two US senators in Washington, and it really caused a tremendous amount of havoc.

JAY: So the question is: why don't they follow the track and find that contaminant, 'cause you might find out who made the anthrax?

GORDON: And they did at the beginning, but they pulled off, partly because they had zeroed in on a separate genetic trail that pointed to a flask that was in Dr. Ivins' laboratory at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland. And that flask had mutations in the anthrax, and those mutations matched letters that were sent by the perpetrator.

JAY: How unusual were those mutations?

GORDON: Those mutations were considered to be unique. So--but at the same time this was kind of developing, the lab scientists discovered this separate track, what was considered by an outside panel of scientists to be perhaps the best clue that had been developed in the lab to date. And this clue showed a particular strain of a contaminant called Bacillus subtilis. Anthrax is known as Bacillus anthracis. So here you have [incompr.] something that sounds very similar [crosstalk]

JAY: So when they checked where Ivins was working, did they find any of that trace of this contaminant?

GORDON: They searched Bruce Ivins. As they closed in on him in late 2007, they searched his lab. They took hundreds of samples from his lab, his office, his car, his home, and they did not find traces of anthrax or of this B. subtilis that I mentioned. They also checked a couple of other labs. The law enforcement officials spoke to me, and I was allowed to talk with four people involved with the investigation. They wouldn't say how many labs they checked for the B. subtilis, but it's clear that they pulled off once they zeroed in on Ivins. And the question is, and a lot of scientists who knew Dr. Ivins and insist that he is innocent, there was a clamor: why didn't they follow, why didn't they take this B. subtilis clue to ground?

JAY: Which means go to every lab that's making anthrax and see if they can find this [crosstalk]

GORDON: And the question is: you know, what was the security? Okay, there was a genetic trail leading to Bruce Ivins' flask. But was the security around the samples that were shared with other microbiologists at other weapons facilities in the United States, for example, the Dugway Proving Ground out in Utah, which is a big bioweapons lab, was the security adequate to ensure that somebody didn't take a tiny, microscopic drop of the anthrax and then grow it? 'Cause you can culture it.

JAY: So, in other words, you can't do a complete chain of possession of that flask and what's in that flask. Someone else might have had some opportunity to get at that [crosstalk] Ivins' flask.

GORDON: Before the FBI and the Justice Department declared flatly that Bruce Ivins was the killer after his suicide in 2008, which occurred after they told him they were going to charge him with capital murder, five capital murder counts, the question is--they say that they had eliminated all of the other suspects. There's a lot of doubt cast about that. And the question is: you know, if you had this clue and you didn't test everywhere [incompr.] among the labs and work areas of scores of microbiologists across the country and in Canada and in Europe that were using the same strain of anthrax that was in these envelopes, did you cover all the bases? You know, is it possible that one of those researchers somehow was able to get [incompr.] piece of the anthrax that Ivins was shipping around?

JAY: And the significance of all this is not just that Bruce Ivins committed suicide. If it turns out--and it's not clear that it wasn't Bruce Ivins, but it's also not completely clear that it was. If it turns out it wasn't, it means whoever did do it is still out there.

GORDON: That's absolutely correct. But bearing in mind, you know, the FBI didn't have to--and the Justice Department, when he died, it didn't have to say that this is the perpetrator. They could say he was our leading suspect and we have a huge amount--and they did have a load of circumstantial evidence that pointed at Bruce Ivins. But did they have it nailed?

JAY: For example?

GORDON: Well, for example, they allege that he gave them samples from his--that were purportedly from his flask but weren't really from his flask in 2002 when they first canvassed all of the microbiologists [crosstalk]

JAY: Which, if that's true, suggests he's trying to mislead him.

GORDON: That's what they believe--he tried to mislead them. They say that he had been working for a long time, really, for most of his 27-year career, on an anthrax vaccine that was in trouble because of clerks from Congress and elsewhere, and that he was, you know, motivated to seek revenge on those who were threatening the program that he was working on. They say he was a night owl, in the weeks before the attacks, in his lab, and that he liked to take nocturnal, long drives. And these envelopes were mailed from a mailbox in Princeton, New Jersey, they eventually discovered by taking huge numbers of samples at all the mailboxes near where they were postmarked. And so the FBI did some tremendous work, cutting-edge work on this investigation. They got--if they didn't get the right guy, they sure got close. But the question is: is this a big lead here that wasn't totally followed to the point where it was airtight, where the case was airtight?

JAY: And given what's at stake, it should have been airtight.

GORDON: And once he committed suicide, some people say that the FBI was really under a lot of pressure, because, you know, if it wasn't Bruce Ivins, then they've driven an innocent man to his death. And so we have this pronouncement, flat-out pronouncement that he's the guy and that's the end of it. But there is a lot of questions, there are a lot of questions that still persist.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Greg.

GORDON: Thank you very much.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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