WASHINGTON — In early 2002, federal agents who were hunting the anthrax killer were trying to winnow a suspect list that numbered in the hundreds. They knew only that they were looking for someone with access to the rare Ames strain of anthrax used in research labs around the world. Profilers said the perpetrator probably was an American with "an agenda."
The powder-laced letters, which killed five people, contained no fingerprints, hair or human DNA but did offer one solid microscopic clue: The lethal spores in the powder were dotted with genetically distinct variants, known as morphs.
So agents set out on an arduous task: Collect samples from Ames anthrax cultures around the world, sort through them and find one with morphs that matched the attack powder. Then they'd have a line on where the murder weapon was made and, perhaps, the identity of the killer.
Bruce Ivins, an Army scientist at Fort Detrick, Md., had a good idea where the inquiry was headed. In the months after the attacks, he'd schooled federal agents in the intricacies of anthrax, explaining how the telltale morphs could arise from one generation to the next.
In April 2002, Ivins did something that investigators would highlight years later as a pillar in the capital murder case that was being prepared against him before he committed suicide in 2008: He turned over a set of samples from his flask of Ames anthrax that tested negative, showing no morphs. Later, investigators would take their own samples from the flask and find four morphs that matched those in the powder.
Rachel Lieber, the lead prosecutor in a case that will never go to trial, thinks that Ivins manipulated his sample to cover his tracks. "If you send something that is supposed to be from the murder weapon, but you send something that doesn't match, that's the ultimate act of deception. That's why it's so important," Lieber said.
However, a re-examination of the anthrax investigation by Frontline, McClatchy and ProPublica turned up new evidence that challenges the FBI's narrative of Ivins as a man with a guilty conscience who was desperately trying to avoid being discovered.
Records recently released under the Freedom of Information Act show that Ivins made available a total of four sets of samples from 2002 to 2004, double the number the FBI has disclosed. And in subsequent FBI tests, three of the four sets ultimately tested positive for the morphs.
Paul Kemp, Ivins' lawyer, said the existence of Ivins' additional submissions was significant because it discredits an important aspect of the FBI's case against his client. "I wish I'd known that at the time," he said.
The search for samples
To understand how investigators eventually came to see almost everything Ivins did or said as proof of his guilt, you have to return to the fall of 2001. The FBI wasn't equipped to handle deadly germs, so the attack powder was rushed to Fort Detrick, the home of the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.
From the beginning, Fort Detrick researchers played a prominent role in the inquiry. Ivins was among the most voluble, offering advice and a steady stream of tips about co-workers, foreign powers and former employees who might have carried out the attacks.
Investigators quickly recognized they were in an awkward situation. Any of the scientists could be the killer. Agents canvassed the tight-knit laboratory, inviting the researchers to finger their colleagues. "We were heroes in the morning and suspects in the afternoon," recalled Jeffrey Adamovicz, at the time the deputy chief of the bacteriology division, where Ivins worked.
At 8:45 a.m. Dec. 16, 2001, Ivins typed an email to colleagues offering to provide Ames strain "for genetic analysis or sequencing by whomever." He offered a sample of the original Ames anthrax taken in 1981 from a Texas cow and a collection of spores sent to Fort Detrick in 1997, mostly from the Army base in Dugway, Utah. Seven years later, prosecutors announced they were certain the attack powder had been grown with germs from the Dugway flask Ivins was offering for scrutiny.
John Ezzell, an Army Medical Research Institute scientist at the time who assisted the FBI, said in an interview that Ivins probably didn't think the technology could distinguish among Ames variants. But the record suggests otherwise.
On Jan. 23, 2002, Ivins gave an FBI agent a detailed tutorial on how to spot morphs in anthrax colonies. He also volunteered the names of two people who had the "knowledge and character" to have prepared and sent the letters while explaining that he'd never worked with powdered anthrax.
Ivins then showed the agent photos of anthrax morphs, explaining that "DNA sequencing should show the differences in genetics," which make morphs look different.
In March, investigators laid out their plans to scour laboratories in the United States and Europe for cultures with morphs that matched the attack powder. Ivins was at the meeting.
The next month, Ivins' lawyer said, Ivins plucked a single colony of anthrax from RMR-1029 by failing to stir the liquid as instructed by the FBI. Prosecutors call that an act of deceit intended to create a sample with no morphs, noting that the FBI subpoena for the samples called for him to sample broadly. Ivins told agents later that he had made an inadvertent mistake, following standard procedure for a microbiologist. Those samples tested negative.
A curious cleanup
In late April 2002, investigators confronted Ivins about reports that he'd been furtively testing for anthrax spores in his office and other areas outside the "hot suites," the sealed rooms where researchers worked with deadly pathogens.
Ivins said that was true and volunteered that he'd also conducted cleanups in the lab not once but twice — in December 2001, when he bleached over areas he'd found to be contaminated, and in mid-April, when he conducted a search for errant anthrax spores.
These acts violated the lab's standard procedure, which called for the safety office to investigate and clean up any contamination.
Ivins offered curious explanations. He said that in December he was trying to address the worries of a junior technician that sloppy handling of the attack powder had spread deadly spores through the lab. In April, against the advice of his supervisor, he launched his own tests after two researchers accidentally spilled a small amount of anthrax in the hot suite.
Asked why he didn't inform safety officials of the possible dangers, Ivins told investigators he didn't want to disrupt the FBI inquiry or alarm colleagues.
At the time, the anthrax inquiry was following another course and had zeroed in on a virologist named Steven Hatfill. A blunt character who boasted of his years in Rhodesia, Hatfill had a penchant for publicity, holes in his résumé and an unpublished novel that featured a Palestinian terrorist who attacks Washington with the bubonic plague. The evidence against him was entirely circumstantial.
Investigators remained on Hatfill's trail until late 2006. In spite of an exhaustive search of his home, no evidence of anthrax turned up. (Hatfill sued the government and received $5.8 million to settle the case).
A raid on Fort Detrick
In early April 2004, Ivins was asked to help the FBI collect a complete set of cultures from Fort Detrick. Earlier, FBI agents had found 22 vials of anthrax that hadn't been turned over. On April 6, a lab assistant found a test tube of material that appeared to have been removed from Ivins' flask.
The assistant gave the germs to Henry Heine, a colleague of Ivins' who happened to be in the building. Heine said he checked with Ivins, who told him without hesitation to send a sample from the tube to the FBI.
Heine views this moment as a sign of his colleague's innocence, pointing out that Ivins willingly turned over a sample he thought had originated from his flask.
A day later, investigators seized Ivins' flask, locking it in a safe double-sealed with evidence tape.
The Feds close in
In September 2006, the FBI assigned Edward Montooth to lead the anthrax inquiry. Montooth looked at the evidence through fresh eyes, and his attention quickly focused on the background and conduct of Ivins. By December, he told FBI Director Robert Mueller that Ivins had emerged as the prime suspect.
Investigators saw mounting evidence that the Fort Detrick scientist was hiding something.
They learned about his lifelong obsession with the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority and discovered that the Prince ton, N.J., mailbox into which the letters had been dropped was just yards from a sorority office. He mailed packages under assumed names, and his email messages expressed fears that he was paranoid, delusional or suffering from a split personality. "When I get all steamed up, I don't pout. I push Bruce aside, then I'm free to run about!" one read.
The genetic evidence seemed persuasive. Investigators had tested 1,059 Ames samples from U.S. and foreign labs and found only 10 with three or more of the morphs that genetically matched from the letter powder. All traced back to Ivins' flask.
The FBI identified 419 people at Fort Detrick and other labs who could have had access to the material. Each was investigated and cleared of possible involvement, investigators said.
All of Ivins' actions in the early days of the investigation were reinterpreted as signs of his guilt. Investigators recovered a portion of his first sample from RMR-1029 and found that it contained the incriminating morphs.
Asked about another sample from April 2004 — turned up by Frontline, McClatchy and ProPublica — that tested positive, prosecutor Lieber said it could be explained easily. Ivins had no choice: FBI agents were swarming through Fort Detrick looking for missing anthrax.
The unauthorized cleanup of the lab, the Justice Department said in its report last year, reflected a "guilty conscience."
Even Ivins' defenders had questioned his actions at the time. "I said, 'Bruce, do you realize how bad this looks?' And he was a little bit puzzled," Adamovicz said. "I said, 'This makes you look suspicious because it looks like you're trying to hide something.' Bruce, of course, denied that he was trying to hide anything. And again, in my view, I don't think he was trying to hide anything. I think he couldn't keep a secret if he had to."
Investigators executed a search warrant at Ivins' home and office. They found guns, a shooting range in his basement and Tasers. But swab after swab taken from every conceivable nook and cranny found not a single spore from the attack powder.
Claire Fraser-Liggett, a key genetics consultant for investigators, found that troubling.
"You think about all the efforts that had to go into decontaminating postal facilities, and the volatility of those spores and the fact that they were around for so long," she said. "I think it represents a big hole, really gives me pause to think: How strong was this case against Dr. Ivins?"