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Article Casting Doubt on 'Anthrax Killer' Scrubbed

Washington Post Scrubs Friday Article That Cast Doubt on Reported 'Anthrax Killer' Case

Then Returns to Similar Questions About Ivins' Lack of Acces to 'Dry, Powdered Anthrax' in Sunday Article

New WaPo Story Begs Additional New Questions in Feds' Purported Case...

Brad Friedman

We're glad it's the Washington Post, and not just us "bloggers," asking questions about this anthrax case. Had we been the ones pointing to the questions that WaPo is now pointing to, we'd have been accused of forwarding "just another conspiracy theory" and the notable questions raised might have been relegated to the trash-bin of history.

Since it's WaPo raising the questions, on the other hand, the trash-bin will take an extra day or two to fill up, but we suspect the results may eventually be the same: Legend will have it that the lone "Anthrax Killer," Bruce E. Ivins, killed himself just before he was to be indicted on capital murder charges. Case closed on the previously-unsolved deadly series of terrorist attacks that occurred on American soil since 9/11.

That said, it's certainly odd the way that WaPo has been covering this story. While their top story on page A1 today is headlined "Scientists Question FBI's Probe of Anthrax Attacks" and sub-titled "Ivins Could Not Have Been Attacker, Some Say," the paper nonetheless managed to scrub from their website --- or at least completely replace --- a story they ran originally on Friday afternoon questioning the same points (whether Ivins had the means, ability, or access to the dry, weaponized anthrax used in the attack letters against senior Democratic Senators and other perceived "liberals") with another that greatly softened concerns about those questions.

No retraction or correction notice --- unethically, in our opinion --- was given for WaPo's odd swaperoo. The Friday WaPo story we linked to that day --- which was dated "Friday, August 1, 2008; 5:46 PM" and reported that that the purported "Anthrax Killer," Bruce E. Ivins, "had no access to dry, powdered anthrax" at his U.S. Army bioweapons lab in Fort Detrick, MD --- was simply swapped out with a completely different story in its place on the matter, dated Saturday, August 2, 2008. The same URL was used for both stories, but the Saturday story didn't have the bulk of the reporting which quoted named experts and colleagues questioning Ivins' ability to even carry out such an attack.

After noticing the swap/excising of the original Friday story (hat-tip BRAD BLOG commenter Bruce Sims), we were set to run a story focusing on the spiked report, when we then checked today's paper to see that they were leading the Sunday edition with a story that raised many of those same questions from the Friday story again.

Fortunately, we cached the original Friday story here, before it was disappeared and replaced, and have done the same for today's story, should that one go missing as well. Comparisons between WaPo's (disappeared) Friday, Saturday, and Sunday coverage is curious enough, however, --- and offers some fresh, additional unanswered questions --- that it seems worth noting all of it, and the differences in each days' coverage, for the record...

Friday v. Saturday in WaPo

As we quoted in our quick Friday coverage of the WaPo's story posted late Friday afternoon (now cached here), doubts about Ivins' ability to have created the anthrax used in the attacks, as reported in their story, were substantive and prominently filled out most of the second half of their story.

Here's what we had quoted from that story in full on Friday [emphasis added, just as we did on Friday when we first quoted it]:

[H]is name never surfaced as a potential suspect in the mailings case. "He was not on my radar," said a Senate source whose office was briefed on the FBI's progress.

He also never raised the suspicions of coworkers, many of whom remained convinced that Ivins had nothing to do with the anthrax attack.

"Almost everybody at 'RIID believes that he has absolutely nothing to do with Amerithrax," said a USAMRIID employee, referring to the FBI code name for the investigation. "The FBI has been hounding him mercilessly."

The employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation, said the FBI had visited his lab on "numerous" occasions over the last several years, seizing lab samples, records and equipment.

The constant scrutiny "really pushed this poor guy to the edge," the employee said, and noted that his colleagues were upset at the way Ivins had been treated.
...
Several scientists who worked with Ivins also question whether he would have had the technical skills to create the sophisticated powder used in the anthrax attack. Creating the kind of highly lethal, easily dispersible powder used in the 2001 attacks requires unique skills not normally associated with vaccine specialists.

"He had no access to dry, powdered anthrax, according to Fort Detrick spokespersons, who said that only liquid anthrax was used at the Fort Detrick facility in animal aerosolization experiments," said Meryl Nass, a physician and bioterrorism expert. "If he had been making dry anthrax, it would have been detectable."

In comparison, the Saturday story which took its place, using the same URL, had softened the questions about Ivins' actually possessing the means to carry out the attacks, and led early with the following, seemingly contradictory point:

As a researcher for the Army's main lab for studying bioterror agents, Ivins had easy access to anthrax bacteria, including the specific strain of Bacillus anthracis used in the attacks on media outlets and congressional offices in the fall of 2001.

What the story doesn't note (unlike Friday's) is that while Ivins had access to liquid strains of the deadly bacteria, he reportedly had no access to the dry, powdered form, which apparently is difficult to create, particularly under the watchful eye of his colleagues and other protocol at the high-security lab.

A few questions about Ivins' ability to carry out the attacks remained in the Saturday story, but just a few. They were sprinkled throughout the story. In sum, here is all of the reportage to that end from the Saturday article:

Despite the allegations --- and even after Ivins's apparent plunge into mental illness --- longtime friends and colleagues say it is inconceivable that Ivins could have been a bioterrorist.
...
Added another co-worker: "Almost everybody . . . believes that he had absolutely nothing to do with Amerithrax [the code-name for the FBI investigation]."
...
John Ezzell, a former top scientist [at Fort Detrick]...said the experiments [Ivins was involved in] did not involve anthrax in its dried form, the type found in the letter to then-Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.)
...
"He was not on my radar," said a Senate source whose office was briefed on the FBI's progress.
...
[Former colleague W. Russell] Byrne said. "He is not Timothy McVeigh. He's not the Unabomber."

We're setting aside neighbor and co-worker accounts of Ivins, as found in all of the stories, describing him as a nice, caring guy who, they believe, wouldn't have been involved in anything as diabolical as the anthrax letters. Frequently, with serial killers in other such cases, co-workers and neighbors testify that they were caught unawares of the accused murderer's double-life as a psychopath. The oft-heard "he was a quiet guy who kept to himself, we never imagined he'd be capable of anything like that" sort of accounts. So we don't take away anything, in particular, from the passages describing Ivins as a swell guy by those who knew him in any of the stories to be particularly exculpatory.

Similarly, we've set aside the various reported accounts of his achievements in science and his works of good will, as described by neighbors and co-workers in both stories since, in and of themselves, we don't find those points to be particularly exculpatory either, even as they may be notable.

On the other hand, we do find it notable when we read statements from experts and co-workers making points such as "He had no access to dry, powdered anthrax" and "If he had been making dry anthrax, it would have been detectable," as the scrubbed Friday story noted.

One more point on the Friday story which, perhaps, offers a certain benefit of the doubt to WaPo. The passage we quoted in bold was an odd one. We had to read it a couple of times to make sure we had placed the quotation marks in the right place when using it in our report. Here is the passage in question again in full [sans bolding]:

"He had no access to dry, powdered anthrax, according to Fort Detrick spokespersons, who said that only liquid anthrax was used at the Fort Detrick facility in animal aerosolization experiments," said Meryl Nass, a physician and bioterrorism expert. "If he had been making dry anthrax, it would have been detectable."

In that passage, the physician/bioterrorism expert Nass is quoted as saying "He had no access to dry, powdered anthrax, according to Fort Detrick spokespersons..." which is an odd attribution, quoting someone quoting someone else. It had occurred to us that there might have been some typographical errors in the WaPo's reporting there at the time.

If that was the case, it might have made sense to either remove that passage or otherwise clear it up with a note about the correction. WaPo, however, made no such note on the story and, in fact, seem to have killed it completely and replaced it with another wholly different report at the same URL, making no note whatsoever for readers. Such a correction notice should have been a journalistic no-brainer when making such a change. Even if there is ultimately nothing nefarious in having scrubbed the original story (we don't know whether there is or isn't), that WaPo failed to note it somehow would seem to be in violation of its own editorial policies and certainly in violation of Journalistic Ethics and Transparency 101.

We have not been able to reach anybody at WaPo who can speak to that matter however, but will update (and note the update here!) if we do.

Sunday's WaPo Story

The Sunday WaPo story seems to restore many of the questions that the Friday report had originally made, however. The headline used on today's article --- "Scientists Question FBI Probe On Anthrax: Ivins Could Not Have Been Attacker, Some Say" --- begins again to cast doubt on the story that has been leaking out from "officials" since the news of Ivins' reported suicide first broke in Friday's LATimes.

Early in today's WaPo, perhaps for "balance," it's alleged, as it was on Saturday, that Ivins did possess the means to come up with dry, powdered anthrax:

In interviews yesterday, knowledgeable officials asserted that Ivins had the skills and access to equipment needed to turn anthrax bacteria into an ultra-fine powder that could be used as a lethal weapon.

While that makes things appear as if he coulda done it, what isn't declared is Ivins' actual lack of access to the dry form of anthrax used in the attacks.

Those "knowledgeable officials," mentioned, as in Saturday's story, are never named, of course --- unlike all of those whose names are on record, in all of the stories, speaking to Ivins' inability to have carried out this type of attack. Additionally, a close read of the details later in the story, expounding on the above, seem to quote only one unnamed official, as opposed to "officials" in plural:

One bioweapons expert familiar with the FBI investigation said Ivins indeed possessed the skills needed to create the dust-fine powder used in the attacks. At the Army lab where he worked, Ivins specialized in making sophisticated preparations of anthrax bacteria spores for use in animal tests, said the expert, who requested anonymity because the investigation remains active.

Ivins's daily routine included the use of processes and equipment the anthrax terrorist likely used in making his weapons. He also is known to have had ready access to the specific strain of Bacillus anthracis used in the attack --- a strain found to match samples found in Ivins's lab, he said.

"You could make it in a week," the expert said. "And you could leave USAMRIID with nothing more than a couple of vials. Bear in mind, they weren't exactly doing body searches of scientists back then."

Of course other such unnamed "knowledgeable officials" could have spoken to WaPo, but if so, none of them were directly quoted and thus, presumably spoke only on background.

On the other hand, the doubts about Ivins' ability to pull off the attacks, as originally averred in Friday's now-scrubbed story, are restored in large part in the Sunday story:

[C]olleagues and friends of the vaccine specialist remained convinced that Ivins was innocent: They contended that he had neither the motive nor the means to create the fine, lethal powder that was sent by mail to news outlets and congressional offices in the late summer and fall of 2001. Mindful of previous FBI mistakes in fingering others in the case, many are deeply skeptical that the bureau has gotten it right this time.

"I really don't think he's the guy. I say to the FBI, 'Show me your evidence,' " said Jeffrey J. Adamovicz, former director of the bacteriology division at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID, on the grounds of the sprawling Army fort in Frederick.
...
[O]thers, including former colleagues and scientists with backgrounds in biological weapons defense, disagreed that Ivins could have created the anthrax powder, even if he were motivated to do so.

"USAMRIID doesn't deal with powdered anthrax," said Richard O. Spertzel, a former biodefense scientist who worked with Ivins at the Army lab. "I don't think there's anyone there who would have the foggiest idea how to do it. You would need to have the opportunity, the capability and the motivation, and he didn't possess any of those."

Another scientist who worked with Ivins acknowledged it would have been technically possible to manufacture powdered anthrax at Fort Detrick, but unlikely that anyone could have done so without being detected.

"As well as we knew each other, and the way the labs were run, someone would discover what was going on," said the scientist, "especially since dry spores were not something that we prepared or worked with."

A Few More Questions Arise...

We don't have an opinion at this time, one way or another, as to whether Ivins is the "Anthrax Killer." We began on the anthrax beat last Friday morning after noticing that virtually all the major corporate media coverage of the story, unforgivably in our opinion, had failed to note that the majority of those targeted by the deadly letters --- such as Senators Daschle and Leahy and NBC's Tom Brokaw --- were powerful men, perceived by Rightwingers to be in opposition to the Republicanist political agenda following 9/11.

As we reported at the time, after our conversation with Ivins' oldest brother Thomas on Friday, "not one" of the many reporters who had spoken to him throughout the day even bothered to inquire into Bruce's political leanings or affiliations, as he told us when we were apparently the first to inquire.

It seemed to us at the time, and still does, that it's unlikely that any of the papers in question would have failed to note that "conservatives" had been targeted in the attacks, had the letters gone to folks like Tom Delay, Karl Rove, or Bill O'Reilly originally.

Given the recent under-reported story of a church shooter who opened fire last week at a Unitarian Church, reportedly because the shooter hated "liberals," and the coinciding story that the Bush DoJ had illegally screened out perceived "liberal Democrats" from non-political career jobs, and even fired appointees believed to be lesbians, it seems particularly egregious that the corporate media continues to overlook these series of Rightwing on "Liberal" crimes.

But the additional strange questions revealed by this case, and the odd handling of them by the media, have certainly caught our eye, at least for the moment. As it's happily the WaPo who is asking some of those questions (for a change) this time, we're happy to at least note them.

There were two more passages of note from today's front page story on what --- in lieu of hard evidence forthcoming, as reportedly promised by the feds --- seems, so far, to be little more than a circumstantial case against Ivins.

In the second graf, WaPo reports today:

In tactics that the [Fort Detrick] researchers considered heavy-handed and often threatening, they were interviewed and polygraphed as early as 2002, and reinterviewed numerous times. Their labs were searched, and their computers and equipment carted away.

If that's true, then we must presume that Ivins successfully passed that lie-detector test in 2002. Otherwise, why has it taken so long to focus on him? Particularly since the FBI had been known to have focused on Ivins' colleague Steven Hatfill for years. While he had always maintained his innocence, Hatfill sued the Justice Dept. which, only last month, finally agreed to settle with Hatfill for $5.8 million, thus exonerating him of suspicion.

According to the bulk of the reportage we've looked at, the feds' current case against Ivins seems to hinge largely on the testimony of Ivins' social worker Jean Duley. She has alleged that Ivins is a "revenge killer" who "As far back as the year 2000, has actually attempted to murder several other people, [including] through poisoning," as quoted by WaPo, apparently from testimony Duley recently offered to a judge during an attempt to receive a restraining order against Ivins.

Their story then ends this way [emphasis ours]:

She described a July 9 group therapy session in which Ivins allegedly talked of mass murder.

"He was extremely agitated, out of control," she said. Ivins told the group he had bought a gun, and proceeded to lay out a "long and detailed homicidal plan," she said.

"Because he was about to be indicted on capital murder charges, he was going to go out in a blaze of glory; that he was going to take everybody out with him," she said.

As highlighted, those claims, according to Duley, were made in group therapy. Therefore, there ought to be a number of others available to corroborate the testimony from Duley concerning Ivins' alleged statements about planned "revenge killings."

We'll wait patiently for those folks to step forward to back up Duley's allegations.

But in the meantime, Meryl Nass, who was initially quoted in the Friday story as claiming that Ivins "had no access to dry, powdered anthrax," and is described by WaPo as as a "a physician and bioterrorism expert" (her full CV is posted here), has her own blog that examines the anthrax case.

Today, in an item focusing on Duley's various reported statements, Nass writes (hat-tip BRAD BLOG commenter "Floridiot"):

She claimed, "As far back as the year 2000, the respondent has actually attempted to murder several other people, either through poisoning. He is a revenge killer. When he feels that he's been slighted or has had — especially toward women — he plots and actually tries to carry out revenge killings," Duley said. She added that Ivins "has been forensically diagnosed by several top psychiatrists as a sociopathic, homicidal killer. I have that in evidence. And through my working with him, I also believe that to be very true."

As a physician who is called to assess psychiatric patients presenting to the ER, I find her statements troubling: if any of these psychiatrists diagnosed Ivins as homicidal, that physician would be required to start immediate proceedings for psychiatric hospital commitment. Patients who are a danger to themselves or others must not be allowed to carry out such activities. That is the law.

Furthermore, if Duley believed Ivins had attempted serial murders, she would be required to consult with her supervising physician and immediately call in the police. Was this done? Who was poisoned? If, as reported, she had only been treating Ivins for six months, what evidence did she have of more remote attacks?

Finally, patients who are actually planning murders (or have attempted them) do not usually tell other patients and a therapist about it in group therapy sessions. Someone who talks about such thoughts is trying to explain how they feel and get help.

All very good questions, and very good points.

In a final note, she goes on to claim: "One media report said Duley was no longer employed at the mental health center where she treated Ivins. Was she let go for nonprofessional behavior? We need to know more about this woman, the basis for her claims, and whether she carried out her professional duties with regard to them."

Nass did not, however, offer a cite or a link to that "one media report." So we'll put that also in the remains-to-be-seen category. We've sent her an email inquiring about where that report was originally published, and asking a few other questions about her quote in Friday's WaPo in hopes of learning whether it was a typo or not. If we hear anything back, we'll update this story appropriately and (note again to WaPo!!!), we'll note that update transparently and ethically here!

[UPDATE: The "media report" comes from Bloomberg and is posted here, noting: "Duley was identified in a June 29 article in the Frederick newspaper as a program director for Comprehensive Counseling Associates, a local mental-health counseling center. A woman who answered the phone at the center said Duley no longer worked there." h/t again to "Floridiot"]

[UPDATE 8/4/08, 2pm PT: Glen Greenwald now details Duley's own criminal record, as does Larisa Alexandrovna.]

Addendum... We also noted on Friday, Glen Greenwald's must read coverage at Salon, which exhaustively detailed the crucial importance of ABC News' false reports on the anthrax ties to Iraq, prior to our going to war with them. On Saturday, New York Times' front-pager Eric Lichtblau, who has been reporting on the anthrax case, and other DoJ matters, for the paper, was on C-SPAN's Washington Journal.

Despite repeated queries from callers about the false ABC News reports and even John McCain's own tying of the anthrax attacks to Iraq on Late Night with David Letterman way back then, Lichtblau was oblivious to the concerns, and said that he was unaware of anything noteworthy in the false connections made by politicians, reporters, and columnists --- and thus, the public --- between the Iraq/anthrax ruse (which has never been retracted by ABC!) and the country's march to war. If this article gets pinged by your personal Google Alert, Mr. Lichtblau, please read Greenwald's article!

Yeesh.

With the pathetic practices exhibited by these MSM folks, it's little wonder they are having so much trouble staying afloat, even if it remains a mystery as to why folks like us have to resort to begging for donations just to stay alive, so that we can keep cleaning up their unending failures.

*************

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