NPR solves anthrax riddle

NbcanthraxletterIn the last few weeks, the FBI revealed that they considered government microbiologist Bruce Ivins to be the lone individual responsible for the mailing of weapons-grade anthrax to media and political targets. The allegation left many people scratching their heads. What could possibly be the motive? National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" ran a story using anonymous sources that solved the riddle. That's right, he did it because he was Catholic and his family vigorously supported the sanctity of life. Seems counterintuitive, sure, but let NPR explain:

Bruce Ivins may have targeted Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy with anthrax-laced letters in 2001 because he saw them as bad Catholics owing to their votes in favor of abortion rights, officials close to the investigation say. . . .

There was some speculation that Ivins had targeted Daschle and Leahy because he saw them as holding up funding that would have helped pay for his research into an anthrax vaccine. Now, officials close to the investigation say another possible motive could have been that Ivins saw the senators as bad Catholics because of their votes in favor of abortion rights. . . .

Ivins and his wife were both practicing Catholics, and their children had attended and graduated from a Catholic high school in Frederick, Md. His wife, Diane Ivins, according to an e-mail Ivins wrote in 2002, was president of the Frederick County Right to Life, and the couple had connections to many other anti-abortion groups. In a July 10, 2002, e-mail cited in the affidavit, Ivins wrote: "I'm not pro-abortion, I'm pro-life, but I want my position to be one consistent with a Christian."

The story says that unnamed, anonymous officials "close to the case" believe that Ivins' "right-to-life fervor" was why he targeted Daschle and Leahy. Nope. I'm not joking. The story, reported by eight NPR staffers, didn't bother to explain to listeners what the heck that motive had to do with mailing anthrax to the New York Post, or the National Enquirer, or the major broadcast news networks. What more evidence do you need to make this motive seem airtight?

For his part, Daschle thought an August 2001 letter he sent to the Pentagon questioning an anthrax vaccination Ivins developed, might "have provided a motive for the [October] attack on my office by someone with a personal investment in the future of the program." Or, you know, maybe it was what NPR reported using anonymous sources.

The weird thing is that the utterly bizarre NPR story ran the same day -- August 7 -- as many saner stories in other media outlets. Take, for instance, this piece by Amanda Ripley that ran in Time. She deftly paints a portrait of a tortured soul. She takes readers through documents that reveal a mentally unstable man who struggled with his personal demons. She quotes colleagues who praise Ivins and his work. She mentions he played keyboard at St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church and that he liked to write letters to the editors of local papers (which reveal his support for female and married clergy, among other things).

Ripley goes through the same affidavit that the eight NPR reporters did but finds a completely different and altogether much more complex story. He worked much later than usual in September and October of 2001. He sent disturbing emails about having two people inside of himself. Where NPR indicted the Catholic pro-life movement, here's Time describing a different motive angle that also has the benefit of at least making some sense:

The hundreds of pages of legal documents suggest that Ivins stood to gain from causing an anthrax scare. Before the anthrax letters, his life's work was in jeopardy because of questions about the effectiveness of anthrax vaccines in general. After the attacks, the Army's vaccine got back on track with Ivins' help. The lab also received a surge of resources and prestige as the deaths from the letters made anthrax a matter of national security. Ivins also gained financially as a co-inventor on two patents connected to his work, though it remains unclear how much money Ivins personally made from them. At the time of his death, according to the Army, he and his fellow inventors were collecting $2,000 a year each in royalties. In 2003, Ivins and his fellow scientists received the Decoration of Exceptional Civilian Service, the highest honor given to nonmilitary Defense Department employees.

That potential motive was revealed almost a week earlier by the Los Angeles Times that was all over this story. Here's a great example of how the Time article weaves Ivins' religious devotion in with the anthrax investigation: Daschle letter

Since Ivins' death, his attorney, Paul Kemp, has repeatedly said he was innocent. He says Ivins cooperated fully with the FBI during two dozen interviews and passed at least two lie-detector tests. Kemp claims the FBI harassed his client for months, driving him into a spiral of alcohol and depression. Certainly, Ivins' last months were tortured. He was twice hospitalized for depression, once after one of his counselors said he had threatened to kill his co-workers. By then law-enforcement officials had searched his home, his computers, his cars, his safe-deposit box, his office, his lab and all his e-mails. Agents had interviewed his children, showing his daughter pictures of the anthrax victims, according to Ivins' friends.

On July 6, three days before he allegedly threatened to murder his colleagues, he played the keyboard at Mass. "He looked bummed out," Byrne recalls, "but that was the norm for him these days." Byrne remembers Ivins doing one small thing that seemed out of character as he began to unplug his piano. "There was a folding table in his way. And he shoved that table about one foot away. It shocked me because he always does things right. That was the most violent act I ever saw him do."

Whether dealing with the completely contradictory portraits of Ivins painted by the government and his friends and colleagues, accounts about the ruined lives of previous targets in the anthrax case, or the growing questions about the government's case, the media have actually done a great job on this story. Restrained, well-reported, and thorough. But that NPR story is a notable exception.

Images via Wikipedia.

Please respect our Commenting Policy