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September 11, 2013 11:18 AM Did They Ever Figure Out Who Did That Whole Anthrax Attack Thing?

By Luke O'Neil

As we get ready to commemorate another passage around the sun since 9/11, the day that is said to have changed everything, it is customary, amidst the pontificating and rending of political garments that typically ensues, for us to take stock of what lessons we’ve actually learned along the way. Fortunately all of the paranoia and xenophobia that marked the ignominious period in our country’s history is a thing of the past, so we can look upon it with fresh perspective. A lesser marked, although intricately-connected anniversary also recently passed largely unmentioned. It’s been five years since the suicide of Bruce Edwards Ivins.

In the annual re-airing of VH1’s “Where Are They Now? 9/11”, an installment only somewhat more frightening and debauched than, say, the Motley Crue episode, Ivins’ sad fate would play out largely along the periphery, the bass player of 9/11 you might say. But his story has everything we love in a drama: intrigue, obsession, murder, terrorism, and massive bureaucratic incompetence. Set it it to a plodding jazz soundtrack and ratchet up the pedantry level 30 percent and it could be a script from David Simon. Strike that. Make it a much lesser respected writer, because the details of this case are far too melodramatic to be believable.

Like any good unearthed cultural artifact, Ivins’ tale, unless you’re among the handful of people who still frequent 9/11 was an inside job message boards, is likely to hit with a simultaneous pang of nostalgia and surprise. Wait, wait, I remember that guy, you’re probably thinking. What was his one hit again?

Ivins’ claim to fame, you’ll perhaps recall, was the one about the guy who was accused of using weapons of mass destruction against his own country.

As the official story goes, a series of anthrax-laced letters were mailed to the U.S. Capitol and media outlets in Florida in New York shortly after 9/11, resulting in five deaths and 17 infections. Naturally the identity of the perpetrator became a mystery that gripped the country, particularly because of the Islamic-sounding phrases written in the letters.

AnthraxLetter

The case underwent little progress until the summer of 2002, when Steven Hatfill, a contractor at the Virginia defense company SAIC, came to the attention of investigators, and Attorney General John Ashcroft announced Hatfill was as a “person of interest.” Finally, a breakthrough, we thought, albeit very briefly. Investigators later proved Hatfill had nothing to do with the attack whatsoever. Hatfill successfully sued the government for nearly $6 million.

No matter, though, because in 2006 another potential suspect was finally uncovered in Ivins, a scientist at the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.The FBI found genetic similarities between the anthrax used in the attacks and the kind Ivins was working with in his lab. Case closed part two. Except aside from some superficial similarities in the mutations, and a weird circumstantial theory about Ivins’ admittedly peculiar obsession with a Virginia sorority for the past few decades (from whose vicinity one of the letters was mailed) the FBI didn’t have any actual hard evidence. What it did have, was testimony from his colleagues and supervisors saying that, even had he wanted to, Ivins couldn’t have produced that much anthrax to carry out the attacks.

A funny thing happened next though, haha, the FBI decided it had enough to charge him anyway. A sad conclusion to the 9/11 era, but a much-needed one. Or, you know, it might have been as much had Ivins not killed himself in 2008 with an overdose of painkillers. The evil, America-hating scientist with a vast knowledge of weapons-grade poison at his disposal took his own life with Tylenol, incidentally. A cruel irony, or a hackneyed twist?

It was either a sad tale of a man hounded by the government cracking under the pressure, perhaps, or of a government agency doing its imperfect best to solve a complicated case, depending on how you look at it. In 2010, the feds finally closed the case for real this time, concluding that Ivins had acted alone.

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Luke O'Neil is a freelance writer in Boston. Follow him on Twitter at @lukeoneil47.
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