Panel supports FBI's findings in anthrax letters case

WASHINGTON — An expert panel’s posthumous review of Army microbiologist Bruce Ivins’ psychiatric records lent new support Wednesday to the FBI’s controversial finding that Ivins mailed the anthrax-laced letters in 2001 that killed five people, sickened 17 others and paralyzed Congress.

“Dr. Ivins was psychologically disposed to undertake the mailings; his behavioral history demonstrated his potential for carrying them out, and he had the motivation and the means,” the nine-member panel concluded in an unusual 285-page mental profile of the chief suspect in the case.

The panel said that Ivins was motivated by “a lifelong preoccupation” of seeking revenge against “various perceived enemies,” by the need to elevate his own significance in searching for an anthrax vaccine and by a desire to protect his career against possible budget cuts. It said that Democratic U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Tom Daschle of South Dakota, whose offices received two of the five letters, “had directly incurred his wrath.”

Ivins committed suicide in July 2008 after federal prosecutors culminated one of the largest investigations in FBI history by notifying him that he would face criminal prosecution. The FBI formally closed its inquiry in early 2010, electing to publicly finger Ivins based on circumstantial evidence.

However, the bureau’s case has been called into question by a National Academy of Sciences panel and by scientists who worked with Ivins at Ft. Detrick.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth of the District of Columbia secretly requested the psychiatric analysis in 2009, not to weigh Ivins’ guilt, but to draw lessons that might prevent a future biological weapons attack. However, at a news conference to lay out the findings, Dr. Ronald Schouten, a Harvard University faculty member and director of the Law and Psychiatry Service at Massachusetts General Hospital, said that “after spending all these hours and going over all these materials, we came to the conclusion that these materials supported that conclusion — that he was the perpetrator.”

Creation of the panel was instigated by Dr. Gregory Saathoff, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia who has served as a consultant to the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit since the late 1990s. Saathoff said that the experts in clinical and forensic psychiatry donated their time, and the report was prepared independently of the FBI, though the bureau footed its $38,000 in costs.

The panel’s conclusion comes just weeks after a National Academy panel poked holes in the scientific evidence that the FBI relied on in concluding that the anthrax spores mailed to Daschle, who has since left Congress, Leahy and three media outlets in New York and Florida had to come from a flask in Ivins’ lab.

The behavioral analysis panel said that information in Ivins’ psychiatric records, including a reference to past criminal behavior that was not spelled out in the report, should have kept him from ever being hired by the U.S. Army’s Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Ft. Detrick, Md., where he performed research for years on deadly anthrax spores. It urged a series of steps to ensure that mental health issues are more closely tracked in background checks in hiring and security clearance reviews.

The panel credited intervention by mental health professionals for “likely preventing a mass shooting” by Ivins, who bought semi-automatic handguns and wrote of such a plan to die in a hail of police gunfire. Absent action by therapists to hospitalize him, the panel concluded, “there is no reason to think he would not have carried out” this plan.