Why the Anthrax Murders Are Re-Surfacing 10 Years Later

Illustration for article titled Why the Anthrax Murders Are Re-Surfacing 10 Years Later

A decade after the anthrax attacks killed five people and sent 17 to the hospital, and a year after the FBI officially closed the case, it's once again rearing its ugly head.


Sure, everyone loves a 10-year anniversary. But scientists are also posing serious questions about whether the FBI blamed the right guy. There are two main reasons why this is happening:

1. Bruce E. Ivins, the Fort Detrick scientist who the FBI believes mailed out packages of anthrax spores, committed suicide in 2008 before he could be tried for the crimes. Even though the FBI officially named Ivins the killer in 2010, his absence inevitably leaves the case vulnerable to conspiracy theories.

2. Tin. A handful of scientists are making a very big deal about a small amount of tin found in the anthrax samples used in the 2001 crimes. Three scientists who recently published their concerns in the Journal of Bioterrorism and Biodefense say that the trace amounts of tin may have been used as a coating to make the anthrax easier to inhale, and that Ivins didn't have the skill required for such a task.

But those reasons won't likely re-open the case, and they probably shouldn't. I love a good conspiracy theory as much as anyone, but Ivins sure looks guilty: He made majorly incriminating remarks regarding plots to murder a psychiatrist and a counselor, and a year before the 2001 attacks he wrote that he might do "terrible things." The image above is a page from Ivins' lab notebook. He also spent an inordinate amount of time burning the midnight oil in the lab around the time of the attacks. But let's not speak ill of the dead; maybe he was just loony.

But also consider the scientific argument, which is currently centered on traces of tin found in the samples. Specifically the scientists who published the Bioterrorism and Biodefense paper suggest that the anthrax spores were coated in a silicon-based compound with tin as the catalyst. But investigators say if tin was used as a coating, there would be more than trace amounts. Investigators also found the silicon was inside the spores, not on the surface as it would be if it were a coating.

The three scientists also say that the FBI tried to cover up the fact that they found tin in the samples. FBI investigators, not surprisingly, say they've done no such thing. And they seem to be able to back that up: FBI investigator Joseph Michael told the LA Times he published a paper in 2008 that discussed the anthrax. He also said he presented seven slides discussing the presence of tin at the American Society for Microbiology meeting on Feb. 24, 2009. The FBI also mentions tin in this 2009 press release.


Also consider the fact that Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, one of the authors of the Bioterrorism and Biodefence paper, pushed the FBI to investigate another researcher, Steven J. Hatfill, who ended up winning a $5.82 million settlement from the government and was formally exonerated. Lastly, the Frontline program uses Jenifer Smith as a source, saying she was concerned about hastiness in solving the case. But she told the LA Times that despite that she actually thinks the FBI got the right guy.

PBS' Frontline, McClatchy and ProPublica also aired a television program detailing their criticism of the FBI's anthrax investigation. Three days later, ProPublica published an article saying the case would likely not be reopened. Despite the attempts at surfacing new evidence, I'm convinced Ivins did it. [LA Times, New York Times, ProPublica; Image: FBI]


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So if the FBI didn't get the "right" guy why did the attacks stop? Did he or she get bored? Coincidentally died?