Bungled pursuit of a killer

Heroes are few in the aftermath of the '01 anthrax attacks. The ultimate suspect committed suicide.

Posted: July 17, 2011

Bruce Ivins, the Anthrax Attacks

and America's Rush to War

By David Willman

Bantam Books. 448 pp. $27

Reviewed by Paul Jablow
Mirage Man is something of an odd title for this book, but then again some of the best ones were taken. Like Ship of Fools or The Perfect Storm.

It's a daunting task for a writer: Spin a captivating detective yarn where the outcome is known but unsatisfying, the villains are abundant and the heroes scarce. Willman, a prodigious researcher who covered this sordid tale for the Los Angeles Times, is definitely up to the task even if one conclusion seems a bit of a stretch.

First, the facts: In October 2001, weeks after the terrorist attacks that leveled the World Trade Center, letters containing deadly anthrax bacteria and the crudely lettered message "Death to America, Death to Israel, Allah is great" were sent to the National Enquirer tabloid, NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, and the "Editor" of the New York Post.

National Enquirer photo editor Robert Stevens and four others - postal workers or people handling cross-contaminated mail - died from the disease. Seventeen others were stricken, but survived.

"Based on the science alone," Willman writes, "the anthrax attacks posed perhaps the most complicated challenge ever tackled by federal law enforcement." They failed with flying colors.

Operating on scant evidence and rumor, the Bush administration hinted that the letters were the work of Iraq or al-Qaeda. Washington officialdom and the media accepted much of this speculation uncritically, and fears of biological warfare attacks from the Mideast became part of the rhetoric leading up to the passage of the Patriot Act and, in 2003, the invasion of Iraq.

By that time, however, authorities at least realized that the attack had likely come from the United States and thought they had their man: Steven Hatfill, a somewhat loudmouthed physician-researcher with the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) who had puffed up his resume. His name was leaked to the media, which ignored the fact that his work was with viruses and not bacteria and that he lacked the means or expertise to have staged the attacks.

Hatfill was never charged and eventually sued the FBI and collected a $5.82 million settlement. It wasn't until 2006 that the government turned its attention to Bruce Ivins, a USAMRIID expert in bacteria who did have the required means and expertise.

Willman starts the story with Ivins' childhood in small-town Ohio, deftly drawing the portrait of a disaster waiting to happen: Brilliant, awkward, given to strange obsessions, his passive father terrorized and even beaten by Ivins' tyrannical mother, trying too hard to fit in and succeeding only when his chameleonlike personality convinced others that he was someone other than who he was.

Even until the end - Ivins committed suicide in July 2008 as the government was preparing to indict him - some of his friends and colleagues still had trouble believing that he had sent the letters, calling his strange behavior just a case of "Bruce being Bruce."

Other characters in the charade are harder to forgive. There was, of course, never any credible evidence that the anthrax attacks were launched from Iraq. The deadly letters were laced with a strain of the bacteria found only in the United States. Despite rumors to the contrary, spread largely through the journalistic "enterprise" of ABC News, the anthrax spores had not been "weaponized," impregnated with a substance designed to make them disperse more easily.

And of course there was the call to an FBI tip line in 2002 naming Ivins as a likely suspect. "I know it's him," Nancy Haigwood recalls thinking. Both were researchers in 1979 at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill when Ivins, peeved at her refusal to accept his social (not sexual) advances, stole her lab notebook.

"Ivins was settling into a recognizable pattern," Willman writes. "One-on-one he was the smiling, devout colleague who exuded sympathy. Behind people's backs he was prone to bizarre, secretive acts of vengeance for the most obscure of slights."

When the stakes were higher - huge federal appropriations for the biological warfare research that provided his livelihood - he may have been prone to far more.

If Ivins is the perfect villain for a story like this (think Norman Bates with lab privileges), the only ones resembling heroes are the handful of FBI agents who slowly turned the bureau's attention away from Hatfill. It was like turning a bureaucratic ocean liner, and they never got any real recognition. FBI director Robert S. Mueller III steadfastly failed to publicly praise the agents or to apologize for the fiasco the investigation had turned into.

Ivins, ironically, had in 2003 received the Decoration for Exceptional Civil Service, the highest award given to Defense Department civilian employees, for his work on an improved anthrax vaccine.

The thrust of the book's main argument is compelling, but Willman may get on thin ice by overstating the importance of the attacks in "America's rush to war." They may have contributed to the bellicose atmosphere and panic in Washington, but it is hard to believe that the Bush administration would have been less eager to invade Iraq had they not occurred.

Paul Jablow is a former Inquirer reporter and editor who lives in Bryn Mawr. He can be reached at pjablow@comcast.net.