of the 2001 anthrax attacks ended as far as the public knew
on July 29, 2008, with the death of Bruce Ivins, a senior
biodefense researcher at the U.S. Army Medical Research
Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) in Fort Detrick,
Md. The cause of death was an overdose of the painkiller
Tylenol. No autopsy was performed, and there was no suicide
Less than a week after his apparent suicide, the FBI declared
Ivins to have been the sole perpetrator of the 2001 Anthrax
attacks, and the person who mailed deadly anthrax spores
to NBC, the New York Post and Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick
Leahy. These attacks killed five people, closed down a Senate
office building, caused a national panic, and nearly paralyzed
the postal system.
The FBI's six-year investigation was the largest inquest
in its history, involving 9,000 interviews, 6,000 subpoenas
and the examination of tens of thousands of photocopiers,
typewriters, computers, and mailboxes. Yet it failed to
find a shred of evidence that identified the anthrax killer-or
even a witness to the mailings. With the help of a task
force of scientists, it found a flask of anthrax that closely
matched-through its genetic markers-the anthrax used in
This flask had been in the custody of Ivins, a senior biological
warfare researcher, who had published no fewer than 44 scientific
papers over three decades and who was working on developing
vaccines against anthrax. As custodian, he provided samples
of it to other scientists at Fort Detrick, the Battelle
Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio, and other facilities
involved in anthrax research. According to the FBI's reckoning,
over 100 scientists had been given access to it. Any of
these scientists (or their co-workers) could have stolen
a minute quantity of this anthrax and, by mixing it into
a media of water and nutrients, used it to grow enough spores
to launch the anthrax attacks.
Consequently, Ivins, who was assisting the FBI with its
investigation, as well as all the scientists who had access
to it, became suspects in the investigation. They were intensely
questioned, given polygraph examinations, and played off
against one another in variations of the prisoner's dilemma
game. Their labs, computers, phones, homes and personal
effects were scrutinized for possible clues.
As the so-called Amerithrax investigation proceeded, the
FBI ran into frustrating dead ends, such as its relentless
five-year pursuit of Steven Hatfill, which ended with an
apology in 2007 and Mr. Hatfill receiving a $5.8 million
settlement from the U.S. government as compensation. Another
scientist, Perry Mikesell, became so stressed by the FBI's
games that he began to drink heavily and died of a heart
attack in October 2002.
Eventually, the FBI zeroed-in on Ivins. Not only did he
have access to the anthrax, but FBI agents suspected he
had subtly misled them into their Hatfill fiasco. A search
of his email turned up pornography and bizarre emails which,
though unrelated to anthrax, suggested that he was a deeply
The FBI turned the pressure up on him, isolating him at
work and forcing him to spend what little money he had on
lawyers to defend himself. He became increasingly stressed.
His therapist reported that Ivins seemed obsessed with the
notion of revenge and even homicide. Then came his suicide
(which, as Eric Nadler and Bob Coen show in their documentary
"The Anthrax War," was one of four suicides among
American and British biowarfare researchers in past years).
Since Ivins odd behavior closely fit the FBI's profile of
the mad scientist it had been hunting, his suicide provided
an opportunity to close the case. So it held a congressional
briefing in which it all but pronounced Ivins the anthrax
But there was still a vexing problem-silicon.
Silicon was used in the 1960s to weaponize anthrax. Through
an elaborate process, anthrax spores were coated with silicon
to prevent them from clinging together so as to create a
lethal aerosol. But since weaponization was banned by international
treaties, research anthrax no longer contains silicon, and
the flask at Fort Detrick contained none.
Yet the anthrax grown from it had silicon, according to
the U.S. Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. This silicon
explained why, when the letters to Sens. Leahy and Daschle
were opened, the anthrax vaporized into an aerosol. If so,
then somehow silicon was added to the anthrax. But Ivins,
no matter how weird he may have been, had neither the set
of skills nor the means to attach silicon to anthrax spores.
At a minimum, such a process would require highly specialized
equipment that did not exist in Ivins's lab-or, for that
matter, anywhere at the Fort Detrick facility. As Richard
Spertzel, a former biodefense scientist who worked with
Ivins, explained in a private briefing on Jan. 7, 2009,
the lab didn't even deal with anthrax in powdered form,
adding, "I don't think there's anyone there who would
have the foggiest idea how to do it." So while Ivins's
death provided a convenient fall guy, the silicon content
still needed to be explained.
The FBI's answer was that the anthrax contained only traces
of silicon and those, it theorized, could have been accidently
absorbed by the spores from the water and nutrient in which
they were grown. No such nutrients were ever found in Ivins's
lab, nor, for that matter, did anyone ever see Ivins attempt
to produce any unauthorized anthrax (a process which would
have involved him using scores of flasks.) But since no
one knew what nutrients had been used to grow the attack
anthrax, it was at least possible that they had traces of
silicon in them that accidently contaminated the anthrax.
Natural contamination was an elegant theory that ran into
problems after Congressman Jerry Nadler pressed FBI Director
Robert Mueller in September 2008 to provide the House Judiciary
Committee with a missing piece of data: the precise percentage
of silicon contained in the anthrax used in the attacks.
The answer came seven months later on April 17, 2009. According
to the FBI lab, 1.4% of the powder in the Leahy letter was
silicon. "This is a shockingly high proportion,"
explained Stuart Jacobson, an expert in small particle chemistry.
"It is a number one would expect from the deliberate
weaponization of anthrax, but not from any conceivable accidental
Nevertheless, in an attempt to back up its theory, the FBI
contracted scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National
Labs in California to conduct experiments in which anthrax
is accidently absorbed from a media heavily laced with silicon.
When the results were revealed to the National Academy Of
Science in September 2009, they effectively blew the FBI's
theory out of the water. The Livermore scientists had tried
56 times to replicate the high silicon content without any
success. Even though they added increasingly high amounts
of silicon to the media, they never even came close to the
1.4% in the attack anthrax. Most results were an order of
magnitude lower, with some as low as .001%.
What these tests inadvertently demonstrated is that the
anthrax spores could not have been accidently contaminated
by the nutrients in the media. "If there is that much
silicon, it had to have been added," Jeffrey Adamovicz,
who supervised Ivins work at Fort Detrick, wrote to me WHEN??
. He added that the silicon in the attack anthrax could
have been added via a large fermentor-which Battellle and
other labs use" but "we did not use a fermentor
to grow anthrax at USAMRIID . . . [and] We did not have
the capability to add silicon compounds to anthrax spores."
If Ivins had neither the equipment or skills to weaponize
anthrax with silicon, then some other party with access
to the anthrax must have done it. Even before these startling
results, Sen. Leahy had told Director Mueller, "I do
not believe in any way, shape, or manner that [Ivins] is
the only person involved in this attack on Congress."
When I asked a FBI spokesman this month about the Livermore
findings, he said the FBI was not commenting on any specifics
of the case, other than those discussed in the 2008 briefing
(which was about a year before Livermore disclosed its results).
He stated: "The Justice Department and the FBI continue
working to conclude the investigation into the 2001 anthrax
attacks. We anticipate closing the case in the near future."
So, even though the public may be under the impression that
the anthrax case had been closed in 2008, the FBI investigation
is still open-and, unless it can refute the Livermore findings
on the silicon, it is back to square one
Mr. Epstein is currently completing a book on the 9/11 Commission.[back