Despite history of mental troubles, anthrax scientist stayed at high-security laboratory
Friday, August 8, 2008
WASHINGTON -- What took so long?
Army scientist Bruce Ivins had a history of paranoia, obsession and delusional thinking. And newly unsealed court documents show he didn't keep them to himself.
Co-workers suspected. One complained he was a "manic basket case." Another recalled him openly weeping at his desk inside one of the military's top biological warfare facilities.
The Justice Department, too, had long focused on Ivins. Investigators discovered years ago that he worked late nights just before the 2001 anthrax attacks. And by 2005, government scientists had genetically linked anthrax in his lab to the toxin that killed five people.
Yet Ivins stayed on the job at the military lab at Fort Detrick in Maryland.
As the FBI closed in on its top suspect, Ivins grew more unstable. He killed himself last week, more than a year after the FBI had gathered the primary evidence held up Wednesday as proof of his guilt.
Privacy concerns, bureaucratic loopholes and the demands of a criminal investigation all combined to let Ivins keep his job and stay out of jail for years. And in the high-security lab until last November.
Or was it just that the government's evidence was too weak to act? That's what Ivins' attorney says.
"If it's such earth-shattering stuff, what's been going on since 2005?" Paul F. Kemp asked Wednesday after the government made its case with a news conference and a pile of documents. "Why is he on the street if they think it's that important?"
That question goes beyond the criminal investigation. It goes to the heart of how secure the nation's nearly 1,400 biological defense labs are and whether the estimated 14,000 scientists working with deadly toxins are being screened for the kind of mental illness Ivins exhibited.
The Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, known as USAMRIID, follows strict security measures meant to weed out troubled scientists. It has offered no explanation for why Ivins was allowed to work with some of the world's most dangerous toxins while taking antidepressants and receiving counseling to control his inner demons.
"The thinking now by the psychiatrist and counselor is that my symptoms may not be those of a depression or a bipolar disorder, they may be that of a 'Paranoid Personality Disorder,"' he wrote in a July 2000 e-mail included in government documents released Wednesday.
"I get incredible paranoid, delusional thoughts at times, and there's nothing I can do until they go away, either by themselves or with drugs," he wrote that August.
Investigators said that between 2000 and 2006 Ivins had been prescribed antidepressants, antipsychotics and anti-anxiety drugs. It wasn't until November 2007, after the FBI raided his home, that Fort Detrick revoked his laboratory access, effectively putting him on desk duty for the past year.
Late nights, odd behavior
"If he really was the guy and he acted alone, then that's pretty scary because that's a lot of damage that can be done by one person," said Gigi Kwik Gronvall of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
Anything Ivins discussed with his therapists, doctors or at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings would have been protected by privacy policies. But David Fidler, an Indiana University law professor and expert on bio┐security, said he didn't understand how a scientist spending late nights in a secure lab could go unnoticed.
Ivins' explanation -- that he wanted to escape a troubled home life -- should have also raised questions.
"Didn't his superiors notice this odd behavior?" Fidler said. "That ought to have set alarm bells ringing."
It's unclear from the documents whether those bells went off, and the military has not said how long it knew of Ivins' problems.
Lawmakers have pledged to investigate the anthrax case and lab security generally. Bills in the House and Senate would order a review of how scientists work with deadly toxins.
"If we don't have a good handle on this at USAMRIID, it's probably true we don't have a good handle on it across the board," Fidler said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy said Thursday he wants to know more about Ivins' motivation for mailing him a letter that contained deadly anthrax spores. Leahy suffered no infection, but two men died who worked at a Washington postal center that handled letters sent to Sen. Tom Daschle and to him.
Separately on Thursday, the FBI said in an affidavit that computers recently seized from a Frederick, Md., library may hold clues about Ivins and the mailings.
Ivins used the computers for about 90 minutes on July 24 to read e-mail and review a Web site dedicated to the anthrax investigation, Special Agent Marlo Arredondo wrote in the seven-page document. Ivins went to the library on the day he was released from a two-week psychiatric hospital stay that followed his counselor's petition for a protective order -- and just a few days before he took his own life.
At most labs, unless scientists have been committed to a mental hospital, psychiatric issues don't factor into the security process. That's a policy decision that balances security and privacy rights.
As for why the Justice Department didn't arrest Ivins in 2005 -- for lying to investigators, for instance -- U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Taylor said Wednesday that authorities were still building their primary anthrax case at that time.
"At that point, the investigation still had a long way to go," Taylor said, "because there's still a universe of people who might have access to that flask, or people with whom Dr. Ivins may have shared some portion of that anthrax."
An arrest for lying might have barred Ivins from the lab, but it almost certainly wouldn't have taken him off the street. And it could have torpedoed any chance to continue building the anthrax case.
Taylor was asked how such a troubled man could have gotten away with the attacks for so long.
"Well, I'm not going to speculate on how. I can't get into his mind," Taylor replied. "I think what you're asking, sir, answers the question itself. He had been this way for a number of years, going back for quite a number of years, and was still able to carry on his professional life at USAMRIID."