Friday, September 9, 2011

Anthrax lawsuit against the federal government gets a boost from DOJ gross incompetence

There are times when government agencies exhibit sheer idiocy and ineptness.  That happened this summer when Justice filed papers that, if true, undermines the entire FBI case against Fort Detrick scientist Bruce Ivins in order to win a lawsuit brought by the family of Bob Stevens, the first anthrax victim following 9/11.  Bob Stevens was the photo editor of The Sun, a subsidiary of American Media (AMI) located in Boca Raton, Florida.  He died after inhaling spores from a letter mailed to AMI containing powdered anthrax.  The family is suing the government claiming negligence in the way anthrax was handled at Fort Detrick, resulting in Steven’s death.  The case is now proceeding after the FBI closed its investigation last year declaring Ivins the sole culprit.

What DOJ is claiming is the now deceased Dr. Ivins did not have access to the specialized equipment used to dry the cultured spores in order to weaponize it (make into a fine powder), this to absolve the Fort Detrick command that employed Ivins.   Nice trick!  The problem is access to this specialized equipment was the linchpin in the case to prove Ivins was the sole perpetrator.  The government simply can’t have it both ways.  That was the reaction of the Stevens’ family lawyers and congressional critics.  Mercifully the federal judge handling the Stephens case has allowed it to be amended by Justice lawyers, though it totally undermines its case.  What is ironic is the unamended filing is probably accurate, but Justice is hoist in its own petard and doesn’t want anything to throw doubt on the FBI’s case against Ivins.

Bruce Ivins, a scientist at Fort Detrick, became the prime suspect after almost 7 years of massive FBI efforts to nail Dr. Stephen Hatfill, another scientist at the facility.  The FBI threw the kitchen sink at Hatfill, having him fired from his job, lifting his security clearance, blackballing him from other employment, releasing confidential information to the press and exerting relentless pressure on him.  Throughout his investigation, Hatfill was both cooperative (he voluntarily allowed the FBI to search his home and computers) and resilient (he consistently proclaimed his innocence, volunteered for polygraph tests and took his case to the public).   Eventually the FBI tired, and in late June 2008 settled a lawsuit that gave Hatfill a $5.8 million settlement.  In the meantime the FBI had begun pursuing Bruce Ivins with the same vicious treatment.  However Ivins did not have the fortitude of Hatfill to stand up to it.  He was emotionally fragile and ultimately committed suicide in late July, 2008 shortly after being told he would be indicted.  Now the FBI had their man and unlike Hatfill, he couldn’t fight back.  He was dead.

The FBI’s case against Ivins was weak.  It was based solely on circumstantial evidence.  It based its case on the similarity of the anthrax strain he was working with to the strain found in the letters mailed shortly after 9/11, a fact disputed by an independent National Academy of Sciences study.  The FBI claimed drying equipment used to weaponize anthrax was available to him, others said it wasn’t. Ivins was a vaccine specialist seeking methods to immunize populations against anthrax, not weaponize it.  His experience and expertise wasn’t there. But the FBI was desperate to close out the case.  It was an embarrassment.  It had cost over $100 million, the most expensive case in the Bureau’s history.  The lifeless Ivins was convenient fall guy.

In reality it is unlikely either Ivins or Hatfill were involved in the plot.  Far more likely it was the work of Islamist terrorists.  The text of the letters was anti Israel and anti US, consistent with the rhetoric of extreme Islamists.  Except for the letter to Boca Raton, all letters were addressed to the same two power centers that were the targets of the hijacked jets, New York and Washington.  The postmark dates on the letters suggests a preplanned, coordinated effort to extend the terror campaign.  They were mailed precisely one week after 9/11 (first batch to ABC, NBC, CBS, NY Post and AMI/Boca Raton postmarked 9/18) and the second batch precisely 4 weeks after (Senators Daschle and Leahy to Washington postmarked 10/ 9).

The Delray Beach, Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale area was the final staging area for the hijackers in the two months prior to 9/11.  There was contact between two of the hijackers and the wife an AMI editor (not the anthrax victim Stevens).  She rented an apartment to them.  The targeting of AMI may have been more about bad blood than an ideological target.

Both the Justice Department and FBI have not covered themselves in glory.  They have tried to manufacture facts to fit its preconceived notions.  They have been intellectually dishonest.  They have wasted money when the answer should have been, “we don’t know.”  The FBI has ruined the life of Steven Hatfill and was probably the major factor in the suicide of Bruce Ivins, both individuals likely innocent.  It is still living down the major scandal of its crime lab.  And it lives with the legacy of fingering and harassing an innocent man in the high profile Atlanta Olympics bombing case.  It is a shadow of the organization J. Edgar Hoover founded.  It should hang its head in shame.

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