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Gaps in system kept Ivins at high-security lab

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MATT APUZZO
August 8, 2008
— Army scientist Bruce Ivins didn't keep his problems to himself.

Therapists knew he had a history of paranoia, obsession and delusional thinking. Doctors put him on powerful medications.


One colleague complained he was a "manic basket case." Another recalled him openly weeping at his desk inside one of the military's top biological warfare facilities.


The Justice Department, too, had its suspicions. Investigators discovered years ago that he worked late nights just before the 2001 anthrax attacks. And by 2005, government scientists had genetically matched anthrax in his lab to the toxin that killed five people.


Yet Ivins stayed on the job at the military lab at Fort Detrick, Md.


As the FBI closed in on its top suspect, Ivins grew more unstable. He killed himself last week, more than a year after the FBI had gathered the primary evidence held up Wednesday as proof of his guilt.


Privacy concerns, bureaucratic loopholes, the demands of a criminal investigation all combined to let Ivins keep his job and stay out of jail for years. And in the high-security lab until last November.


Or was it just that the government's evidence was too weak to act? That's what Ivins' attorney says.


"If it's such earth-shattering stuff, what's been going on since 2005?" Paul F. Kemp asked Wednesday after the government made its case with a news conference and a pile of documents. "Why is he on the street if they think it's that important?"


That question goes beyond the criminal investigation. It goes to the heart of how secure the nation's nearly 1,400 biological defense labs are and whether the estimated 14,000 scientists working with deadly toxins are being screened for the kind of mental illness Ivins exhibited.


The Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, known as USAMRIID, follows strict security measures meant to weed out troubled scientists. It has offered no explanation for why Ivins was allowed to work with some of the world's most dangerous toxins while taking antidepressants and receiving counseling to control his inner demons.


"The thinking now by the psychiatrist and counselor is that my symptoms may not be those of a depression or a bipolar disorder, they may be that of a 'Paranoid Personality Disorder,'" he wrote in a July 2000 e-mail included in government documents released Wednesday.


"I get incredible paranoid, delusional thoughts at times, and there's nothing I can do until they go away, either by themselves or with drugs," he wrote that August.


Investigators said that between 2000 and 2006, Ivins had been prescribed antidepressants, antipsychotics and anti-anxiety drugs. It wasn't until November 2007, after the FBI raided his home, that Fort Detrick revoked his laboratory access, effectively putting him on desk duty for the past year.


"If he really was the guy and he acted alone, then that's pretty scary because that's a lot of damage that can be done by one person," said Gigi Kwik Gronvall of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "USAMRIID is not like being in a shack in the wilderness. It's interacting with people in a pretty secure place."


Anything Ivins discussed with his therapists, doctors or at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings would have been protected by privacy policies. But David Fidler, an Indiana University law professor and expert on biosecurity, said he didn't understand how a scientist spending late nights in a secure lab could go unnoticed.


Ivins' explanation that he wanted to escape a troubled home life should have also raised questions.


"Didn't his superiors notice this odd behavior?" Fidler said. "That ought to have set alarm bells ringing."


It's unclear from the documents whether those bells went off, and the military has not said how long it knew of Ivins' problems. Mental health reviews are a key part of the military's security program, but at least one former colleague at Fort Detrick has said it's usually up to scientists themselves to report their problems.


Lawmakers have pledged to investigate the anthrax case and lab security generally. Bills in the House and Senate would order a review of how scientists work with deadly toxins.


"If we don't have a good handle on this at USAMRIID, it's probably true we don't have a good handle on it across the board," Fidler said.


Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Thursday he wants to know more about Ivins' motivation for mailing him a letter that contained deadly anthrax spores. Leahy suffered no infection, but two men died who worked at a Washington postal center that handled letters sent to him and then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.


At most labs, unless scientists have been committed to a mental hospital, psychiatric issues don't factor into the security process. That's a policy decision that balances security and privacy rights.


As for why the Justice Department didn't arrest Ivins in 2005 for lying to investigators, for instance U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Taylor said Wednesday that authorities were still building their primary anthrax case at that time.


"At that point, the investigation still had a long way to go," Taylor said.


An arrest for lying might have barred Ivins from the lab, but it almost certainly wouldn't have taken him off the street. And it could have torpedoed any chance to continue building the anthrax case.


Taylor was asked how such a troubled man could have gotten away with the attacks for so long.


"I think what you're asking, sir, answers the question itself," Taylor replied. "He had been this way for a number of years, going back for quite a number of years and was still able to carry on his professional life at USAMRIID."



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