August 5, 2008
I bet the Red Cross is loving this photo
The weirdest story in the news is the unfolding drama of Dr. Bruce Ivins, the government scientist suspected of being behind the anthrax letters of 2001. The FBI's investigation for the last 7 years has mostly been a mess, and they still haven't released real evidence that links Dr. Ivins with the anthrax letters.
Ivins killed himself last week with an overdose of Tylenol with codeine, which is a really bizarre way for a scientist who deal with deadly chemicals all the time to opt to poison himself. It's a really slow, painful death, taking days to destroy your liver.
The case has already generated lots of negative publicity for every organization that Ivins had a connection to. Without any real evidence to point to, the media is reporting random bits of information about him that have nothing to do with the anthrax case. Among them:
- The Red Cross. Ivins was a volunteer with his local chapter, and the AP photo of him above has been all over the news for a couple of days now. Is there ever good press about the Red Cross? I don't think there is.
- Kappa Kappa Gamma. Ivins was allegedly obsessed with the sorority after dating a Kappa in college, and visited houses around the country in the 70's and 80's. The anthrax letters may have been posted from a mailbox near the Kappa office at Princeton. Of course, this has nothing to do with anything, and reports about Ivins' interest in Kappa seem to have been leaked by the FBI to make him look suspicious and creepy in a way that is not at all connected to anthrax.
- Tame-sounding porn. Ivins also rented a post office box, where he got pictures of blindfolded women mailed to him. Again, who cares.
And how about the details of the FBI's investigation? They interrogated his two kids using highly suspect methods. In the Times: "They had even coercively questioned his adopted children, Andrew and Amanda, now both 24, with the authorities telling his son that he might be able to collect the $2.5 million reward for solving the case and buy a sports car, and showing his daughter gruesome photographs of victims of the anthrax letters and telling her, 'Your father did this,' according to the account Dr. Ivins gave a close friend."
The FBI also searched his house last fall, and "bureau surveillance vehicles openly followed the scientist for about a year." He was escorted out of his lab last year, which a colleague said was "so humiliating. It's hard to believe."
Dr. Ivins was reportedly suicidal for the last month and was hospitalized for 2 weeks in July, claiming that the FBI was going to arrest him for 5 murders. Which, of course, they would have done, if they had gotten credible evidence against him. The FBI had already admitted botching their misguided 2002 investigation against another scientist in Ivins' facility, Dr. Steven Hatfill, who just got a $4 million settlement.
So he ended up killing himself. Ivins' suicide is probably going to become a part of the FBI's case against him, but look: I've seen The Long Goodbye. Just because a suspect kills himself doesn't mean he did it. In a way, his suicide is going to let the FBI off the hook for a sloppy investigation that never found convincing evidence of Ivins' guilt.
But if he actually did do it (and there's some evidence, mostly circumstantial), the best motivation for mailing those anthrax letters that I've seen is that he wanted to focus attention on the threat of biological warfare. In the Times' article from the weekend: "To some anthrax experts, while reserving judgment on Dr. Ivins’s case, his identification as a suspect fit a pattern they had suspected might explain the crime: an insider wanting to draw attention to biodefense." He also held patents for anthrax vaccines.
Pretty ironic that the US's only deadly biological attack ever might have come from one of our own government employees, who had been honored for exceptional civilian service in 2003 for his work in anthrax.
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