Another FBI screwup

The FBI’s mishandling of the anthrax case and its rush to claim it solved not only have made it doubtful the truth of the matter ever will come out, but it has turned this nightmare into a conspiracy freak’s dream.

It is safe to predict that every nut case who believes in the New World Order already is preparing his contention that Dr. Bruce Ivins, the microbiologist tagged as the "real" culprit, a) didn’t act alone, b) was the fall guy for a plot devised by an official government either foreign or domestic, c) actually was President Bush’s plot to get rid of the then Senate Democratic Leader, Thomas Daschle, who was one of those sent the lethal bacteria, or d) all of the above.

It is not difficult to imagine a whole new multi-gazillion dollar cottage industry of theories in print, TV and movies will pop up to rival that of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Before it is over, one would not be surprised to find that this hideous biological attack on America could be directly linked not only to Kennedy’s death but also to that of Abraham Lincoln.

A more prudent approach would have spared us much of this speculation. But the FBI is nothing if not imprudent, as has been demonstrated time and again. From the start, the bureau seemed to believe the case was a test of its manhood and with every passing year that it failed to solve the mystery, it became more frantic and uneven in its efforts. Its profile culture led it down one wrong path after another, causing ruined careers, broken marriages, and ultimately the suicide of one of its targets.

Dr. Steven Hatfill, the renowned "person of interest" wouldn’t be intimidated, fought back and won a $5.8 million out-of-court settlement from the taxpayers while a pouting Justice Department refused to apologize for his enormous discomfort even though "investigators" presumably had decided on Ivins. Hatfill finally received a clearance letter to go along with the money and the years of harassment and the broken career.

Three Pakistan-born city officials in Chester, Pa., two of them doctors, weren’t so lucky. The FBI, acting on a tip that turned out to be from a disgruntled employee, began a barrage of interrogation and search and seizure that ended tragically for their targets, who had never worked with anthrax. Two of the brothers were forced to seek work outside the country because their visas ran out and the third, an American citizen, was embarrassingly on the watch list until a year ago. Another "suspect" was so publicly harassed that he drank himself to death. And still another, a doctor, lost his wife and much of his practice.

The bureau justifies its approach as necessary in such a high-profile threat. But in its heavy handedness, it appears literally to have hounded its most promising suspect to death, leaving us to accept — or not — the highly circumstantial evidence based on new technology that Ivins was the sociopath who murdered five people and sickened 17 others because of some vague unhappiness over his job. Everyone else can now breathe a sigh of relief. The FBI in peace and war has got its man finally after seven years.

There is no doubt that Ivins was in a deteriorating mental state, but how much of that could be attributed to the constant surveillance, interrogation, and obvious harassment — agents reportedly told his family and others in his presence that he was a murderer and even offered to pay his son cash and buy him a new car to rat on his father — and how much to conscience we never will know. He was drinking heavily and his addiction counselor — herself a longtime addict — wants us to believe she got so frightened of him she called the FBI and asked for their help. She claims their response was to tell her to file a restraining order, which she did, maybe tipping him over the edge.

So the day they were to arrest him, he swallowed enough pills to kill himself and left the world to wonder was he truly the madman of the Army’s bio-defense lab as the FBI contends? A number of his fellow scientists argue convincingly otherwise, pointing to holes in the technology used by the bureau. Without the public examination of the evidence in court and the opportunity for him to defend against the allegations, how can anyone say for certain? For the time being, at least, and perhaps forever, the answer unfortunately may be left up to those for whom conspiracy is a religion.



(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)