FBI: Ivins held identical anthrax strain

The scientist was the sole custodian of anthrax spores genetically identical to the powder used in 2001 attacks, say documents unsealed Wednesday.

By , Staff reporter

To the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the heart of the case against Army scientist Bruce Ivins is a flask of anthrax spores labeled "RMR-1029."

RMR-1029 has been stored in the B3 biocontainment suite of Building 1425 of Fort Detrick, Md., ever since it was cultivated over a decade ago.

Dr. Ivins had unrestricted access to that suite – and was RMR-1029's sole custodian.

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All of the powdered poison used in the anthrax attacks that shook the country in 2001 had four genetic mutations found only in RMR-1029, according to court documents unsealed Wednesday.

And around the time of the attacks, Dr. Ivins spent an unusual number of late nights in the lab for which FBI agents claimed he had no good explanation.

"His access to Suite B3 ... afforded all of the equipment and containment facilities which would have been needed to prepare the anthrax and letters used in the Fall 2001 attacks," according to one affidavit.

Ivins committed suicide last week as the Department of Justice readied charges against him. The microbiologist, who had worked on developing an anthrax vaccine, was respected by fellow scientists and received a top Defense Department award in 2003 for his research at Fort Detrick's US Army Medical Institute of Infectious Diseases.

Some of his neighbors and co-workers had criticized the heavy-handed tactics used against him by investigators and maintained that Ivins was a fragile person who cracked under the strain of being a suspect.

Documents released Aug. 6, however, portray a person that most of his colleagues may not recognize. The FBI's allegations include a decades-long obsession with college sorority Kappa Kappa Gamma and other mental health issues.

In e-mails to an unidentified friend released by the government, Ivins talked about feeling dizzy and having a strange metallic taste in his mouth.

"Other times, it's like I'm not only sitting at my desk doing work, I'm also a few feet away watching me do it," he wrote in an e-mail on April 3, 2000.

The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, appeared to affect him greatly. In December 2001, he sent a co-worker some poetry he had composed. "I'm a little dream-self, short and stout/ I'm the other half of Bruce – when he lets me out," one poem began.

The substantive aspect of the case against Ivins appears to be the product of the rapidly developing science of microbial forensics. Harnessing powerful computers and new genetic knowledge, this tool develops DNA fingerprints by looking for tiny mutations in the genetic makeup of otherwise-related strains of bacteria.

This new law enforcement tool received a large push from FBI efforts to solve the 2001 anthrax case. The government's years-long probe into the attacks has cost millions of dollars and been criticized both for its slow speed and for pointing wrongly toward another Ft. Detrick scientist, Steven Hatfill.

Hatfill was publicly named as a "person of interest" in the case, but has since won a judgemnt for millions of dollars from the government for false accusation.

The FBI now believes it has cracked the case with the aid of microbial forensics. But whether the genetic evidence would have stood up in a court of law will not now be tested.

"Microbial forensics has yet to be rigorously challenged in an adversarial setting," said Dr. Randall Murch, a former FBI agent and microbial forensic expert, at a January symposium on the subject sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

According to an affidavit, when the FBI first asked Ivins in 2002 for samples of anthrax drawn from RMR-1029, he submitted material drawn from other sources.

On the afternoon of April 7, 2004, an FBI agent accompanied Ivins into the Suite B3 and seized the RMR-1029 flask itself.

The documents contain some hints as to why the targets of anthrax letters might have chosen. They note, for instance, that Ivins was angry that an NBC television investigative reporter had filed a Freedom of Information Act request for certain information from his lab.

Tom Brokaw of NBC was among the letter recipients.

The envelopes used in the attacks could have been sold only at post offices in Maryland or Virginia, according to the FBI. The documents allege that from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s, Ivins sent hundreds of handwritten or typed letters to various members of society, including news organizations and US Senators.

Sen. Pat Leahy (D) of Vermont and former majority leader Sen. Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota also received anthrax-laced letters in 2001.

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