On an average day in the United States, seven young people are shot to death. A British journalist chooses a random day in 2013 and profiles each of the lives cut short.
Shortly after September 11, 2001, anonymous letters sprinkled with anthrax were sent through the mail. Five people died. Fear spread across the nation. No one seemed to know if it was a second wave of terrorism or the work of an individual psychopath. Confusion reigned. In a new book, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist unravels the mystery. And he argues that the Bush administration seized on dubious evidence to suggest the anthrax had been “weaponized.” The implication was Saddam Hussein was behind it. How the anthrax attacks helped justify a war and how the bio-terror investigation put the nation at risk today.
- David Willman Pulitzer-Prize-winning investigative journalist who writes for the Los Angeles Times.
Read an Excerpt
From “The Mirage Man” by David Willman. Copyright 2011 by David Willman. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. Bruce Ivins was an emotionally troubled scientist. For 20 years, he had unlimited access to the U.S. Army's store of anthrax. When letters laced with the deadly toxin killed five people, law enforcement agents focused their suspicions on another man.
MS. DIANE REHMIn a new book, an investigative reporter takes us back to the anthrax scare that shortly followed 9/11 and explains why the way the government handled the investigation is relevant even today. His new book is titled "The Mirage Man" and author David Willman joins me in the studio. You can join us as well, 800-433-8850, send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org, join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to you, David, thanks for being here.
MR. DAVID WILLMANGood morning, Diane. It's an honor.
REHMTake us back to those days shortly after 9/11 and what led up to the anthrax attacks.
WILLMANOkay. Correct. The 9/11 events, the most horrific terrorism this country's ever suffered, had this country reeling, certainly had Washington reeling as it's never reeled before. And right on the heels of that, we had the anthrax letter attacks. The first death was on October 5 of 2001.
REHMAnd who would that have been?
WILLMANThat was a fellow named Robert Stevens, who was a photo editor down at the parent offices of The National Enquirer in Lantana, Fla. The big event that, I think, really put the anthrax letter attacks on the map as what looked like the second wave of perhaps an Islamic terrorist event was the October 15, 2001 opening of a letter addressed to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle in the Senate Hart Office Building.
REHMAnd once that happened, what happened next?
WILLMANWell, once that happened, I mean, our government had been struck at its core and there was nothing short of panic. All of us who lived in Washington at that time, I think it's safe to say, many of us were scared to death, so the FBI immediately took over what had been an investigation that was controlled by health authorities, because what wasn't quite definite to all the authorities to whether the first event down there in Florida was terrorism or maybe a natural event.
WILLMANSo that letter that was addressed to Senator Daschle was immediately taken by the authorities not to the FBI laboratory, because they're not equipped to handle live agent, it was taken to Fort Detrick, Md., which is home of the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, which is the bio-warfare research center of the U.S. military.
REHMI can remember, even here at this station, feeling a certain amount of fear opening an ordinary envelope and that fear, that terror, spread throughout the country, not just Washington.
WILLMANIt certainly did. I mean, a benign portal of our daily lives, the mailbox, had become an instrument of death.
REHMAnd, as a matter of fact, two workers at a postal facility here in Washington, D.C. died as a result.
WILLMANRight. Five people ultimately died of inhalational anthrax, including two fellows who worked at the Brentwood Postal Facility in Northeast Washington. There were, of course, the editor, Robert Stevens, down in Florida and we had a woman in New York who was a hospital worker in Manhattan and a woman in Oxford, Conn., a rural town there, named Ottilie Lundgren.
REHMDavid Willman, as a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist for the Los Angeles Times, tell me why you decided to go back and look even more deeply and carefully at these incidents?
WILLMANWell, I had been looking at our spending to prevent and to react proactively to events of biological terrorism for several years and it was my experience leading through 2008 in actually doing the very first articles about the big break in the case that followed the tragic suicide of Bruce Ivins on July 29, 2008, that the most fundamental facts surrounding the anthrax letter attacks were greatly confused at best and even perhaps vandalized at worst.
WILLMANAnd that seemed very important to me and still does. It drove me to do this book because there are enormous lessons to be learned to apply going forward. We had tremendous national security policy implications that were a direct result of the anthrax letter attacks.
REHMTell me about Bruce Ivins.
WILLMANBruce Ivins was born in a small town called Lebanon, Ohio. He was a gifted scientific student from the beginning, but he -- although the town of Lebanon, I spent a lot of time in my research talking to Bruce Ivins' schoolmates, adults who knew him as a child and also family members, but reconstructing his early life and then on through all the way into his 60's.
WILLMANHe was gifted scientifically, had a really, I think you have to say, a just a horrific home life experience where his father, who was the pharmacist at the longtime family owned drug store established in 1893 in Lebanon, was routinely, you know, beaten by Bruce's mother and it was just a frightening atmosphere. Bruce was the youngest of three children and was his activities were micromanaged, I think you would say, by her. You know, a lot of us know people who come from tough experiences and overcome it. Bruce had a tough time doing that.
REHMNow, was he also beaten by his mother?
WILLMANNot to my knowledge, he was not.
REHMMm-hmm. None of the children, only the father?
WILLMANWell, I think the father bore the brunt of it and rather dramatically, I mean, if again, the research in the book, one of the most, I think, saddening things that I found was in sitting down with neighbors and hearing the story how early in the morning in the darkened hours, 2 a.m., a doctor who lived some 300 yards down the street on Orchard Avenue in Lebanon, Ohio got a phone call from Mary Ivins, who was Bruce's mother, Randall's wife saying, Randall -- I'm sorry, saying, please come down here, I've killed Randall.
WILLMANAnd he came to the door, the doctor did, and found to his great surprise that Randall Ivins answered the door, but his head caked in blood, he was holding a garment up next to his head. The doctor treated him on the spot and, in fact, sent him a bill for it.
REHMBut that incident was never reported to the police?
WILLMANTo my knowledge, it was not reported to the police. No, it was not. It was a -- it was a -- it was a poorly kept secret in Lebanon, Ohio, these incidents.
REHMNow, tell us about Steven Hatfill.
WILLMANSteven Hatfill was a virologist who had a sort of a wide ranging career, but he worked up at Fort Detrick from 1997 to September of 1999 studying viruses. And in the aftermath of the anthrax letter attacks, several of his present or former colleagues, he had obviously moved out of Fort Detrick by 1999, called the authorities, said, you know, you really ought to look hard at this fellow.
WILLMANAnd boy, did the FBI look hard at him. Steven Hatfill then became the subject of a torrent of leaks of highly prejudicial, often misleading or false investigative details.
REHMWhy do you think that was?
WILLMANWell, hard to know, Diane. I think the conclusion where I would come out in that is why the leaks of investigative details obviously from within the investigation is that the FBI, we remember, was under enormous pressure in the aftermath of September the 11th, let alone when the anthrax letters hit. Ample evidence that the FBI failed to interdict and to act on, I think you'd have to say actionable information that perhaps would have disrupted the 9/11 attacks.
WILLMANAnd so you have the anthrax attacks and just a frenzy in Washington, even the FBI's mission is being called into question on Capitol Hill, whether they're going to be stripped of a big part of their portfolio. And so I think there was a strong interest among certain people who were involved and had access to the investigative details to try and assure the public that, we're on top of this and we've got a guy who we think is a very solid prime suspect and look at these details we're giving you. We're on top of this situation, you can trust your FBI.
REHMDavid Willman, he's a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist who writes for the Los Angeles Times. His new book is titled "The Mirage Man: Bruce Ivins, the Anthrax Attacks and America's Rush to War." Tell me how being under such scrutiny and feeling the pressure from the FBI affected Steven Hatfill's life.
WILLMANWell, the FBI, when it came to Steven Hatfill, had him under overt, you can call it bumper lock surveillance, 24/7. Whenever he stepped out in public, he was being videotaped and followed overtly, so he lost the job that he had and it was very difficult, if not impossible, obviously, for him to get new jobs. Then he did land a job at Louisiana State University for $150,000 a year teaching first responders for in the area of preparedness in the case -- in the event of a biological attack.
WILLMANSeemed to be right within his area of expertise, but the Justice Department intervened, this was a Justice Department Grant-funded job. The Justice Department intervened and directly resulted in him being terminated from that job, so very tough, tough times for Steven Hatfill. He, as we all know, sued the FBI and the Justice Department, alleging violations of his rights to privacy and to get ahead of the story a little bit, ultimately in June of 2008 won a settlement from the government, a legal settlement, worth $5.82 million.
REHMWow. Incredible. What about the media? What kind of job did the media do?
WILLMANWell, this was far from the media's finest hour. And you know, Diane, you asked me at the beginning why I set out to do the book. In setting out to do the book, I decided that I was just going to let the chips fall where they may. And writing about colleagues who have had unfortunate turns on this story is not a pleasant thing, but it's obvious that we can't set the record straight about the anthrax letter attacks and then learn lessons from them that apply directly to our public safety without letting the chips fall where they may.
WILLMANAnd so there were it's almost innumerable leaks and misleading, if not inaccurate reports about Steven Hatfill. I mean, I spend time in the book talking about a particular New York Times columnist, Nick Kristof, who's had a distinguished career, but his body of work on Steven Hatfill and the anthrax case is anything but.
REHMWe're talking about a new book, "The Mirage Man," with author David Willman.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about the anthrax attacks that came on the heels of 9/11. A new book titled "The Mirage Man: Bruce Ivins, the Anthrax Attacks and America's Rush to War" is the book written by David Willman. He's a winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Do join us, 800-433-8850, send us your email to email@example.com. The phones are open now. You can join us also on Facebook or Twitter. David Willman, you think that the FBI badly botched the investigation?
WILLMANYeah, I don't think there's any question about that, Diane. I mean, for the better part of five years, the FBI had Steven Hatfill as the prime suspect in this case, was pushing the case all the way from the director's office through to the lead prosecutor on the case to try and bring it to indictment and actually, it was one of the prosecutors who ultimately resisted that very strongly.
WILLMANBut for the better part of five years, I think it needs to be said that the FBI was entirely, I think, within the grounds of reason to look very hard at Steven Hatfill initially, but the evidence just never matched up. I mean, he was a virologist. Again, anthrax is a bacterium. He had no documented access to this particular unique batch of anthrax that was used in the attacks or even the aim strain, for that matter. And no documented evidence that he ever handled anthrax, let alone knew how to purify it, to dry it and to handle it in this highly expert way.
REHMWhat about his colleagues. Did they sort of speak out surreptitiously against him?
WILLMANWell, as I tried to make clear, there were several of his present or former colleagues who called the authorities and said, you really need to look hard at this guy. And, you know, Steven Hatfill is a very swashbuckling figure, had fabricated parts of his resume...
REHMOh, I see.
WILLMAN...which does not inspire confidence.
WILLMANAnd the other thing that I think merited serious scrutiny was that he had several prescriptions for Cipro, original prescription and/or refills, in 2001. Turns out when that gets checked out, he had a deviated septum. In fact, on September the 11th of 2001, he was undergoing surgery for that deviated septum.
REHMBut why was the Cipro suspect?
WILLMANWell, because as we learned in the aftermath of the anthrax letter attacks, Cipro became sort of the recommended drug of choice as an antibiotic to treat an anthrax infection. However, it should also be said that thanks to some very good work at Fort Detrick in the aftermath of letter from Senator Daschle and other anthrax attack material taken there, no fewer than 10, 12, a dozen or more antibiotics prove to be very effective against all of this anthrax used in the letter attacks, including penicillin, including doxycycline, which are far cheaper and not with some of the potential powerful side effects as Cipro has.
REHMNow, Doug in D.C. has just sent us an email saying, "Luckily, the anthrax was rather easily killed with bleach, something cheap and common."
WILLMANWell, if you know that anthrax is on a particular surface, you have reasons to suspect that it's there, it can be killed and cleaned away with bleach. In fact, Bruce Ivins did a very good job of that in his own office area in the weeks or month following the letter attacks. But the key thing with the inhalation anthrax is if you suspect that you have anthrax, get treatment with an antibiotic right away.
REHMI see. Who is Nancy Haigwood and why did she alert authorities?
WILLMANNancy Haigwood is a microbiologist who first met Bruce Ivins when Bruce Ivins was a post-doctoral researcher at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in the mid-1970s. Nancy, at that time, was a doctoral student and was going about doing her business. Bruce Ivins immediately really focused in on her and wanted her, not only attention, but her constant approval and seemed very animated by the fact that Nancy Haigwood one day had worn a t-shirt that had the name Kappa Kappa Gamma on it, which was Nancy's college sorority. In fact, on campus there, she was well known as a mentor to undergrads who Kappas.
WILLMANShe becomes a through line in the Bruce Ivins story because he never really let loose of his obsession with her. He tormented her in various way over a period of decades. After he had left Chapel Hill as a post-doctoral researcher and moved up to Maryland, he made a surreptitious trip down there, broke into a laboratory office area, stole her lab notebook, upon which her doctoral degree hinged, and then sent her an anonymous note saying, if you want your lab notebook back, go look in this mailbox here in Chapel Hill, at this corner and you'll find it there.
WILLMANCourse, this is before flash drives, this is before backups. Nancy Haigwood's entire scientific future, as she could see it then, hinged on this notebook. All of her experiment, all of her data was in there. So with the help of the authorities, the notebook was recovered and she went on to get her doctorate. Bruce Ivins then would do things to her.
WILLMANWrite one a notorious anonymous letter that I'm thinking of in May of 1983 to the Frederick News Post here in Maryland claiming to be Nancy Haigwood, defending hazing practices by sororities. And then, I think, more diabolically, took that letter as published by the Frederick News Post and sent it to a woman whose son had died in a hazing incident, with the hopes of then getting that woman, who had become active in trying to prevent hazing abuses, to send him first-person antidotes, dirt if you will, about Kappa Kappa Gamma.
WILLMANTo tie off the story very quickly, Diane, Nancy Haigwood is crucial here because on September 21, 2001, which is three days after only the perpetrator knows, that the first round of anthrax letters had been postmarked up in New Jersey, Bruce Ivins contacts Nancy Haigwood out of the blue and predicts a big event, a big terrorist event that's going to put Fort Detrick front and center with 24/7 on-call emergency response. And again, if you look at Bruce Ivins' life, he lives for the attention, for the approval and this was almost a predictive event.
REHMNow, wasn't there an earlier obsession on his part with the sorority?
WILLMANYeah, the genesis of his obsession, as best as I can tell in my research for this book, came in the -- while he was an undergraduate at the University of Cincinnati in probably the late 1960s. He asked a woman out for a date and she said, no. She quickly forgot about it, he never did and he attributed the rejection of him to her membership in Kappa Kappa Gamma. So he began casing the Kappa house in Cincinnati and this became an obsession for him all the way into his 60's. He died at age 62.
REHMHe ultimately committed suicide?
WILLMANHe did. He died of a massive overdose of Tylenol PM and the packaging for the Tylenol PM was found in his trash a couple days after his death. One more thing on Nancy Haigwood, I'm sorry, Diane, just to get a little bit ahead of the story is...
WILLMAN...but in late January, I believe it was January 29 of 2002, which is, as you know, several months after the anthrax letter attacks, the FBI with the cooperation of the American Society for Microbiology sent a letter under the name of an FBI agent to, I think, all 30,000 United States based members of the Microbiology Association, saying, we need your help. One of you, perhaps more of you, knows who the perpetrator is. Please think about it. Here's a little profile of who we think this is.
WILLMANNancy Haigwood gets this letter in Seattle, Washington and puts it together with all of her life experience with Bruce Ivins, including the predictive September 21, 2001 email and email that he also sent her that had pictures of him handling the plates of anthrax as he was helping the quote "investigation" in the immediate aftermath of the Daschle letter going up there.
WILLMANHer reflexive reaction was, oh, my God, I think I know who did it. She called the FBI. Her tip essentially went unpursued for several years while the FBI had Steven Hatfill up in lights.
REHMIn effect, he was saying to her, I am doing this. He was wanting the attention that would come with having done this and yet he was doing it in such a way that he wouldn't be caught.
WILLMANWell, Nancy Haigwood, and I've spent a lot of time with her, obviously, is anything but a melodramatic person and she interpreted it pretty much as you say, Diane. She thought it was an example of Bruce showing, look how smart I am and cowboying it even. He was so far ahead of the authorities. I mean, he here is, he's handling the Daschle letter up there at Fort Detrick, which is another story that I break in this book of how he came to handle the Daschle letter. The FBI had a protocol for handling that evidence, but it was not handled by that protocol.
WILLMANA senior scientist at Fort Detrick saw to it that not just a sample of anthrax from the Daschle letter, but the entire envelope that was addressed to Senator Daschle, including the anthrax, was handed over to Bruce Ivins for analysis. Again, totally contrary to the protocol and this breaks the chain of custody on the evidence, this is really a horrible thing, as anybody who's in criminal investigation can attest. So there he was at the epicenter as he had predicted in the September 21 email.
REHMWhy do you suppose that the FBI went instead and persisted instead with Steven Hatfill?
WILLMANWell, they had what they thought was a very live suspect. This was the first anthrax murder that the FBI had ever investigated, so it's a very steep scientific hill to climb and they were trying as hard as they could. I think at the time of the anthrax letter attacks, the FBI had, I think, two microbiologists working the case within the bureau totally. Now, they quickly started ramping that up, but it was tough for them to get on top of it. They had a live suspect. The director was under enormous pressure and it's one of the things I bring out in this book, is that the director really was managing this case.
WILLMANHe put his handpicked inspector in charge of this case as of September, October of 2002 and he remained in that place for the better part of four years and there was every expectation that with that new leadership that the director had put in and was reporting directly to the director, I should say, that this case would be buttoned up for the indictment of Steven Hatfill very quickly.
REHMAnd you have a certain amount of disrespect for Robert Mueller?
WILLMANActually, I have supreme respect for Robert Mueller. I think he is a noble public servant. He -- throughout his entire career, he is clean as a hound's tooth, without a speck of corruption. He is a man who actually grew up in some privilege in Philadelphia, but yet he served in Vietnam, a war he could've avoided and he served with distinction.
WILLMANHe's devoted almost all of his career to public service. I just think that he obviously got this case dead wrong for way too long and there were huge opportunities costs and really, the Bureau, nor the country, has really come to reckon with this so we can learn the essential lessons.
REHMAnd what do you believe are the essential lessons?
WILLMANWell, clearly, we have a huge problem in this country with securing our anthrax and securing our crown jewel of bio-defense, which is at Fort Detrick, but yet the country's response to the anthrax letter attacks, first of all, the anthrax letter attacks helped push the Patriot Act immediately over the goal line for passage. And I went back and talked to members of the Senate, member of the House. There was no chance for further debate of the Patriot Act after the anthrax letter attacks.
WILLMANSecondly, the anthrax letter attacks were immediately seized upon by people who really wanted to take out Saddam Hussein, wildly inaccurate media reports helped amplify that hysteria and that lingers to this day, but the other part of this is that direct response to the anthrax letter attacks was this really mass proliferation of bio-containment laboratories for, again, a good well-intentioned purpose, which is develop new vaccines, antibiotics that can help protect us in the event of a biological attack, God forbid.
WILLMANHowever, we've gone through this massive expansion and I've recreated the record. I've attended really pivotal advisory committee meeting on this in which there was just mass denial that Bruce Ivins could have been the one, so there's no lesson to be learned about hardening up our personal reliability and our security at these labs, so we're proliferating the labs. We've brought in thousands of new scientists here in the United States to handle any of these long list of select agents be it anthrax, plague, tularemia, et cetera. Without, I think, a very serious consideration of new security restrictions that we need to have.
WILLMANThe other thing that happened in direct response to the anthrax letter attacks, Diane, was that Project Bio-Shield was passed, which provides billions of dollars for developing these new therapeutics and the first contract that was awarded under Project Bio-Shield was for $877.5 million for a next generation, genetically-engineered anthrax vaccine, upon which Bruce Ivins held two patents. That product was dead in the water before the anthrax letter attacks. Bruce Ivins was furious, frustrated about that and I think is a big part of what would have motivated him.
REHMDavid Willman and the book we're talking about is called "The Mirage Man." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We'll open the phones now, 800-433-8850. First to Dallas, Texas. Good morning, David, you're on the air.
DAVIDGood morning and thank you. In case there are any of your listeners who are having a difficult time with your subject this morning, I worked with an anti-terrorist team during the '80s and the early '90s based in the West. We often trained with FBI, drug enforcement agents and other branches of law enforcement, excuse me, and Hollywood often portrays these people in superhuman terms.
DAVIDThey are, in fact, human beings and capable of human flaws. And I just wanted to make clear that the people that I trained with, for the most part, was kind of disheartening because they acted big guys playing cowboys and Indians, but with real guns and real authority, so are they capable of this kind of incompetence? Yes, they are. And I just wanted to assure the people that they are listening to some real information here and thank you.
WILLMANWell, thank you, David. I think the caller makes a very valid point and it really ties into, Diane, your questions about how could the FBI could get on this long track with Steven Hatfill. What became the lynchpin of "evidence" against Steven Hatfill, and I put evidence in quotes, were the reactions of three bloodhounds that the FBI brought in from Southern California who were said to be able to trace the scent of Steven Hatfill and the material from the letters to Steven Hatfill's apartment to five separate ponds in forestland above Frederick and supposedly, where Steven Hatfill was loading anthrax into a plastic device, underwater or perhaps right on the shore and dragging it in.
WILLMANThis is really, I think, hocus-pocus. The sad thing is, and I think, the only fair evaluation of the FBI or any investigative authority is, what do they know in real time. And as I bring out in this book, I mean, I reconstructed two high-profile cases in California that were covered extensively by The Los Angeles Times. One of these cases ultimately was featured by "60 Minutes II. These bloodhounds were -- their credibility was absolutely repudiated and shredded in a murder case and a rape case. In the rape case, this one dog named Tinkerbell had traced the supposed perpetrator for two miles, better than two miles in a zigzag fashion, ultimately to this poor gentleman's apartment complex.
WILLMANHe was jailed for four months, awaiting trial on serial rape charges. There'd been some nine rapes in the Belmont Shore area of Long Beach. Fortunately, some much more solid evidence was recovered by the authorities there. Human DNA from one the victims that ultimately tied to the actual perpetrator, who is now serving a prison term, I believe, of over a 1,000 years.
WILLMANBut the poor gentleman who is falsely accused, he won a settlement from the authorities of over a $1 million. This was all very well documented ahead of time and that bloodhound, Tinkerbell, was the first bloodhound that quote "alerted" on Steven Hatfill at his apartment in Frederick, Md.
REHMAll of which says to me that if an assumption is there to begin with, you can go a long way toward supporting your assumption. The book is titled "The Mirage Man: Bruce Ivins, the Anthrax Attacks and America's Rush to War." Short break, we'll be right back.
REHMAnd we're back talking with David Willman about his new book "The Mirage Man: Bruce Ivins, the Anthrax Attacks and America's Rush to War." Here's an email from Shayna who says, "I worked at USAMRIID 1996 to 2000 and Bruce Ivins was always a strange, quiet guy. He seemed harmless, volunteered frequently with blood drives, et cetera. Steve Hatfill was a bragger and a bit of a blowhard. He also embellished his abilities, experience and military record.
REHMThese actions drew a lot of FBI suspicion and falsifying his military service on his resume is what eliminated Steve from his position here at Louisiana State University."
WILLMANWell, I have no verification of that at all. And if that is the case, I'd like to see that. I've put that question to the Justice Department and have never received such a response.
REHMHere's an email and apparently, several have sent this in. "The more your guest speaks and reveals, the more and more it sounds as if there is possible evidence of a conspiracy. Could this attack have been part of an attempt to create panic in defense of the Patriot Act which slipped beyond the control of its original mechanism?" That's from Daniel in St. Louis, Mo.
WILLMANThat type of question continues to arise and it's obviously hard to -- or if not impossible to disprove any number of theories. I look toward the evidence that I have reviewed in over two and a half, three years of research on this book and I think the totality of the evidence points toward the culpability of one individual and that is a highly skilled microbiologist whose career expertise was in handling growing, purifying anthrax, also with a demonstrated expertise in drying these types of materials.
WILLMANAnd he had again, a lifelong -- almost a lifelong track record of perpetrating anonymous acts of torment and revenge as a solo actor. In other words, he didn't confide in other people he was doing all these things. That is his pattern.
REHMBut you do argue that the Bush administration used the anthrax scare to gain support for invading Iraq.
WILLMANThere's no question about that. The anthrax letter attacks were really a gift that fell in the lap of those in the Bush administration who wanted to take out Saddam Hussein, many of them in very prominent positions, since the first Gulf War. And in fact, Don Rumsfeld, John Bolton and Paul Wolfowitz were among three people who signed a letter to then President Clinton in 1998 saying that the only acceptable resolution solution was to take out Saddam.
WILLMANSo they were gunning for him from the beginning and there was a big effort to try and pin 9/11 on Saddam, but then here you have the anthrax letter attacks written with a -- you know, an Islamic type of message, I think very clumsily so. Obviously, I think a careful reading of it shows that it's bogus. But people were only too happy to latch onto that. Secretary Rumsfeld continued to sort of throw palms up in the face of, I think, incontrovertible evidence that this material was not linkable to Iraq.
WILLMANThe Sandia National Laboratories proved it. Other people within the defense and intelligence establishment proved it conclusively, but yet he throws palms up and says, we just don't know. Paul Wolfowitz, whom I interviewed for this book, said as recently as October of last year, well, we just can't know. So these are very dramatic things.
WILLMANNone more dramatic than Colin Powell at the United Nations on February 5, 2003, immediately preceding the state of the Iraq War, holding up a tiny little vial of white powder and saying, just this much powder killed two of our postal workers here in Washington and set off all these, you know, closed down the buildings.
REHMSo somehow linking that.
WILLMANOh, definitely by implication. I mean, he left that implication. He did not say it directly that it was attributable, but he left the impression, did nothing to correct it.
REHMAll right. To Wichita, Kan. Good morning, Kendall.
KENDALLGood morning. Slightly after his suicide, the FBI contacted my sister and she discovered that she had been somewhat of a target of his, that he had been stalking her and collecting materials about her. She had been a contestant on a reality show, one of the first ones. It was hosted by Anderson Cooper, called "The Mole." And she learned that he had been trying to find correct emails from her and had been collecting information about her and so forth.
KENDALLI was wondering if you could speak to anything you know about that and if there were other subjects of his that were discovered after his death.
WILLMANYes. Well, Kendall, indeed, Bruce Ivins targeted Kathryn Price, who was a star of...
KENDALLYeah, that's my sister.
WILLMANWow, this is amazing. She obviously was a star of "The Mole," and Bruce Ivins was posting anonymously on internet boards and trying to find out what her travel schedule would be. He was posing as a quote unquote "fan" of hers and had thoroughly reconstructed what her career was. As you know, she graduated from Stanford Law School, was a very impressive young woman.
WILLMANAnd Bruce Ivins, in fact, actually wrote on one of the board that he was criticizing how one of the segments of the reality show turned out. He said that someone on the show should have used an ice pick and taken out her eyes and then...
WILLMAN...chopped her jugular and really finish the job. Absolutely shocking and I think showed the -- again, the hidden side rage that Bruce Ivins had. I mean, to his -- to many of his colleagues who, I think in good faith saw him as he presented himself, he was sort of a jester. He was the quirky guy, but not unlike a magician who is showing you quirky with one hand, it's the other hand where he's doing some really very nasty and I think societally unhinged things.
REHMKendall, I hope your sister is well.
KENDALLShe's doing great.
KENDALLShe's doing great, thank you.
REHMI'm glad. Thanks for calling.
KENDALLThank you. Bye-bye.
REHMAll right. To Scott in Oklahoma City. Good morning, you're on the air.
SCOTTGood morning, Diane.
SCOTTAs I told your screener, I'm a retired FBI agent and I wanted to make just a general comment about investigations in particular. I didn't work on anything as exciting as the anthrax case, but your term assumption, I think, is in the right ballpark. Sometimes you get focused on something to such an extent that you don't give other possibilities the attention they deserve.
SCOTTEarlier today on NPR, there was a story about what happens with a Boston police officer chasing a subject and he got sent to prison because no one believed he couldn't see, just on the -- just as he ran by, other officers beating up an undercover agent, so I -- I think it's a very human failing which we need to try to overcome and sometimes I think when someone's ruled out, you don't necessarily review things and go back over it as you should.
SCOTTLaw enforcement officers need to be confident and sometimes overconfidence leads to those kind of mistakes where you -- once someone's ruled out, you just keep focusing on the prize, as it were, without truly stepping back and taking a look at everything.
REHMI appreciate your call, Scott.
WILLMANWell, I think Scott makes a -- really an essential point and this goes to really I think more of a heroic side of the FBI investigation that also needs to be recognized by people and in my view, has not been adequately noticed, including by the FBI director. There were two new people put in charge of this case as of October of 2006 and to the FBI director's credit, he actually installed them.
WILLMANHis hand-picked inspector, who had been leading the case, had transferred down to Knoxville, Tenn. But these two individuals, Edward Montooth and Vincent Lisi, told everyone on the Amerithrax Task Force that, time out, we're going to reassess all assumptions about leads and suspects that have occurred in this case and we're going to follow the evidence where it takes us.
WILLMANAnd that reassessment very -- pretty quickly led to the decoupling of Steven Hatfill as a serious suspect in this case and focused on those people who had verifiable documented access to this highly rare batch of anthrax that Bruce Ivins, in fact, had created in 1997 at Fort Detrick.
WILLMANAnd so the investigation narrowed down from this field of people and that -- that whole -- in reconstructing that effort for my book, you know, Scott's conclusion really rings so true because the opportunity cost of all of the hullabaloo over Steven Hatfill was, even among investigators, an assumption that well, why should I go the extra mile here and there, because we've got our guy. They wouldn't be leaking all this stuff to the media and burying Steven Hatfield if there wasn't a lot to it.
REHMInteresting. All right. To Purdue University. Good morning, David.
DAVIDHello. I want to thank you for the discussion today. The -- I am a biodefense researcher and I've seen a lot from the inside and I think the most important point which you've partially touched on, but I think it needs to be really made strong, is that Bruce Ivins achieved everything he wanted to achieve and that is, he wanted people to be focused on biodefense as a real threat.
DAVIDHe wanted people to focus specifically on anthrax. Now, anthrax is barely -- I know this sounds counterintuitive, but it's barely a biological weapon because you have to be exposed to it directly. It cannot be passed person to person, as opposed to something like smallpox or ebola, which is what I work on. And so the -- a lot of the money has gone specifically focused on anthrax because of Bruce Ivins and so I think this is one of the most important messages, is that we let terrorists get what they want. They want to make us afraid, they want us to focus on their particular issues and I think that's one of the -- the largest messages.
REHMHowever, David, it seems to me that Bruce Ivins could have done that without killing people. David.
WILLMANWell, Bruce Ivins was a -- was definitely a student of what it takes to move bureaucracy in this country and I think one of the -- I hope contributions that this book makes is I reconstruct Bruce Ivins' animation, his excitement during the Persian Gulf War. He was called in to be one of very few people at Fort Detrick to help see what preparations needed to be made in the way of counter measures and in the event of a biological attack on our troops by Saddam in the first Persian Gulf War.
WILLMANSo he saw how all the -- all the supposed impediments can be swept away with crisis and he -- these letters are addressed to a very discreet list of institutions and people that guaranteed maximum shock and awe. He achieved it. As I said earlier, the first contract under Project Bioshield, which I'm sure the caller may have on his mind, David, is -- was for $877.5 million for the development of the baby -- Bruce Ivins' baby, as I call it in the book, which was the next generation of the genetically engineered anthrax vaccine.
WILLMANBruce Ivins knew from his personal meetings down at the Pentagon -- he was being sent down there by Fort Detrick personnel officials to talk to the Pentagon folks about the status of the anthrax vaccine program that his product was absolutely dead in the water. In the words of the supervising Major General who is quoted for the first time in time in this book, the anthrax next generation vaccine was quote "beyond the backburner." It wasn't going to happen without crisis. Here we are.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." You call him the Mirage Man. Why?
WILLMANWell, because I think Bruce Ivins presents a mirage. He seems to be one thing to most of the people he runs into, but he's not that glass of water. I mean, he's something else, so, you know, not unlike if you've ever driven across the desert and you look on the horizon and you think maybe something lifesaving and good is up there. No, it's not. So I think -- and I think that's the key to his -- really, you have to say his effectiveness in what he was doing here.
WILLMANI mean, no one knew that he was harassing and tormenting these women over this period of years, no one knew that he was saying these horrendous things about Kathryn Price. No one knew that he had confided to a psychiatrist in 1979 that, in fact, he had a plot to kill Nancy Haigwood. In the United States Army, one of the real outrages here and the shock -- one of the most shocking things in my research for the book, Diane, is that the United States Army never took a single step to evaluate Dr. Ivins' mental fitness for handling anthrax. This was revealed to me in response to a Freedom of Information Act request that I had originally made while I was on staff for the Los Angeles Times.
REHMWhy would they not do that?
WILLMANThe atmosphere up there, unlike, I -- we should make clear, if you're handling chemical handling warfare material or nuclear material, live fissile material for the United States government and if there's any hint of instability, you're immediately taken out of sensitive work and there's a concerted effort to get on top of the issue.
WILLMANRight. There's no delay. You're pulled out immediately.
WILLMANWith Bruce Ivins, not the case. What happened was there was this deference to him as a respected scientist, a Ph.D. scientist, and an overtilting toward his rights of privacy and this was just cockeyed.
REHMDid the FBI ever apologize to Steven Hatfill?
WILLMANYes. Of course, the FBI and the Justice Department parties to the $5.82 million legal settlement in June.
WILLMANBut there was no apology there. In the aftermath of the first FBI/Justice press conference announcing that Bruce Ivins in their -- what they were saying was the sole perpetrator, the lawyer for Steven Hatfill wrote rather pointedly to the Justice Department saying, hey, wait a minute. You were asked at this press conference about Steven Hatfill. You won't even say his name, which was true. And what happened was that then a letter was sent to Steven Hatfill's lawyer explicitly apologizing, it was signed by the then United States attorney in Washington, D.C., Jeffrey Taylor.
REHMBut Robert Muller?
WILLMANWell, Robert Mueller, I was -- this really surprised me. I mean, the FBI held a big press conference on August 6, 2008, several days after Bruce Ivins had died of suicide, and this was the moment to preside over what the American people were being told was the conclusion of the most significant most complicated case that certainly came out of our 9/11 trauma. And I believe one of the most consequential series of crimes in American history and the FBI director did not attend. He was in Washington, he was right across the street. He chose not to attend.
WILLMANWell, only he can answer that, but I -- based on some other responses that I've seen given impromptu, I don't think Director Mueller wants to answer public questions about his direct role in pushing the investigation toward the indictment of Steven Hatfill.
REHMAnd you believe he had a direct role in that?
WILLMANIn the words of former senior FBI official Michael Mason, who became the agent in charge of the Washington field office, and I quote him saying this for the first time in his book, "There was only one person in charge of the anthrax investigation and that was Director Mueller."
REHMDavid Willman, his new book is titled "The Mirage Man: Bruce Ivins, the Anthrax Attacks and America's Rush to War." Congratulation on your book.
WILLMANThank you so much, Diane.
REHMThanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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