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March 4, 2010

Derailing Justice Again

Norman M. Covert

(Editor’s Note: This is the first of two commentaries regarding the late Dr. Bruce Ivins of Fort Detrick, who was accused of being the notorious anthrax bomber.)


It is probable that the G-Men of the U. S. Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation are content, sleeping well tonight. One might observe that Mrs. Diane Ivins and her family have been denied such slumber. Dr. Bruce Ivins is surely in the care of his Father in Heaven.


After eight-plus years, the G-Men declare in the “Amerithrax Investigative Summary” released Friday Feb. 19, 2010:


“…Administrative and investigative steps taken in the past year toward closure of the investigation confirm the conclusion that Dr. Ivins perpetrated the (2001) anthrax letter attacks … (B)ased on the evidence set forth above, the investigation … has been concluded.”


Some may question if this bureaucratic theater has closed the curtain on the scenario’s final act. Naysayers believe the prologue is sure to come. The scenery may tumble from the catwalk and the spotlight will eventually shine on the actual terrorist.


This, too, will bring vindication and reinstatement of Dr. Ivins to the register of laureate scientists of Fort Detrick. It won’t dry the family’s tears or its disappointment in those sworn to protect their beloved country.


The media has taken up the clarion call of the Justice Department, portraying Dr. Ivins as a scientist suffering from irreparable social and mental ills.


Nothing new is evident in the report pointing the accusative finger at this Frederick church and family man. Someone killed five and sickened another 17 innocent persons in the attacks and we had better keep our guard up.


Significantly no B. anthracis spores were uncovered in Dr. Ivins home, garage, autos, van or other personal effects – a prima facie fact in his favor. Neither his handwriting nor fingerprints can be associated with the letters, another favorable defense fact. The report’s discussion of possible links to the post office box in Trenton, N.J., fail the test of reason and opportunity, plus the instances are more embarrassing for him than being supportive of a terrorist indictment.


The quest to indict Dr. Ivins appears based more on what happened from 2006 until 2008, a time when the FBI’s fleet of black Suburbans was a fixture blocking the Ivins driveway on Military Road in Frederick, a stone’s throw from the Fort Detrick main gate. The FBI gambit intimidated Dr. Ivins, whose life was made one of misery and fear, not to mention the need for a lawyer.


Past and present colleagues express skepticism of the FBI/Justice Department science in media interviews and letters to area newspapers. Dr. Henry Heine’s comments Feb. 23, 2010, on Bob Miller’s “Morning Express” show on WFMD (AM930) should have led the next morning’s Frederick News-Post. Instead the local daily published a bland rehash of the Justice Department’s investigation in its edition Sunday morning February 28. You may hear the interview at


The bio-defense veterans laud Dr. Ivins’ brilliant research the past 30 years. They point out, however, that his specialty did not include skill in preparing such massive quantities of the highly refined anthrax concoction served in the deadly letters.


The B. anthracis vaccine work at the U. S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) lacks the required equipment to brew the slurry in sufficient quantity. Dr. Ivins could not have conducted the sophisticated drying and other prep work in a few late night hours in the lab, away from the prying eyes of colleagues. He could not have contained the brilliantly active spores.


The Justice Department insists its DNA analysis of B. anthracis strain RMR1029, developed by Dr. Ivins from the earlier Ames sample to improve the existing vaccine, is the smoking gun tagging him as the lone perpetrator.


The FBI analysis was headed by Claire Fraser-Liggett of the University of Maryland Institute for Genome Science. Her work is being assessed by the National Academies of Science, which says it will not offer an opinion on the veracity of any supposed link between the genome science, Dr. Ivins and the attacks.


In November 2001, a skittery and vulnerable American public demanded former President George W. Bush find and prosecute the person or persons who developed the sophisticated, weapons grade B. anthracis found in envelopes mailed to Florida, New York City and Washington and environs.


President Bush assigned former Attorney General John Ashcroft to find the bomber, using all government resources. The Justice Department was already scrambling with the disparate U.S. foreign and domestic intelligence and law enforcement agencies to carve out their piece of the pie in the new war against terrorism.


Jeffrey Taylor, a Harvard-schooled lawyer, was an advisor to Mr. Ashcroft. One of Taylor’s first tasks was to write several acceptable provisions for the U.S. Patriot act.


The Patriot Act, a wartime necessity, ultimately provided martial law-like authority to domestic intelligence and federal law enforcement agencies. Agents would use the new authority to monitor terrorist suspects’ communications and wield virtually warrantless search and seizure.


Ultimately, Taylor’s work on the Patriot Act earned him appointment as Attorney General for the District of Columbia. He was assigned to lead the “Amerithrax Investigation” and undoubtedly ordered with Oval Office authority to find the perpetrator at all costs.


There is no doubting Taylor’s patriotic zeal, but he was thrust into uncharted territory and given the keys to the candy store. The opportunity for abuse of power was rampant in The Patriot Act. Such abuse occurred frequently as FBI agents rounded up anyone in their crosshairs, still learning the extent of their authority. They left a trail of ruined lives before coming to Frederick and Fort Detrick.


Luckless former Fort Detrick virologist Dr. Steven Hatfill was guilty of a couple amateurish personal and professional miscues that made him vulnerable. He had come to USAMRIID in 1998, moving across post to the National Cancer Institutes campus in late 1999. He possessed little knowledge of B. anthracis, a fact ignored as the FBI continued its “hot pursuit.”


Mr. Taylor came close to obtaining an indictment after two search warrants bared Dr. Hatfill’s flat in the Detrick Apartments on Frederick’s W. Seventh Street. The searches were media theater, yielding nothing of value. Consider, too, the explanations after a suspect farm pond produced virtually nothing.


Mr. Taylor’s team uncovered doubtful circumstantial evidence against Dr. Hatfill. He sued the government for its reckless media leaks of his probable guilt as a “person of interest.”


In June 2008, the U. S. District Court of Appeals in Washington negotiated an agreement foregoing further explanation and that the case against Hatfill would be dropped. He was awarded more than $2.5 million, plus and an annual allowance of $150,000.


Exonerated in August 2008, Dr. Hatfill is struggling to regain his name and career. The Justice Department retraction coincided with Mr. Taylor’s pronouncement that Dr. Ivins was the new for-sure “anthrax bomber.”


Such a financial settlement doesn’t seem probable in the Ivins family’s immediate future, but the Hon. Mr. Taylor’s Justice Department credentials include his having lost a $100 million communications fraud case because he prosecuted using the wrong statute.


Mr. Taylor resigned his post in August 2009, thus he was scarce when the report was issued without comment more than a fortnight ago. New Attorney General Eric Holder must be satisfied with the resolution, which declares, “We won!”


Silence from the current Oval Office may indicate the new administration isn’t much interested in truth, veracity, the welfare of Ivins’ family or Bruce’s legacy. It’s a shameful performance by all involved.


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