In the days and weeks after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, letters containing deadly anthrax bacteria were sent to congressional and media offices, killing five. Almost seven years later, a bioweapons researcher named Bruce Ivins committed suicide after learning the FBI might charge him in the case.
But beginning in 2011 and continuing through the end of 2014, reports from the National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. Government Accountability Office and a team of independent media researchers showed multiple deficiencies in the Bureau’s investigation.
Was Ivins innocent? And if so, why did he commit suicide?
Steven Hatfill. Steven Hatfill was the FBI’s first suspect in the anthrax investigation. Hatfill had previously worked as a bioweapons researcher at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRID).
Hatfill’s ordeal as a suspect began in 2002 when the FBI’s anthrax case investigators showed up to interview him. When the agents asked to search his home, Hatfill consented. He assumed anyone associated with USAMRID during the era was being questioned.
The home search became a spectacle with media helicopters circling over the residence. FBI sources were talking to the press (an offense that would eventually cost the taxpayers millions in a lawsuit settlement). From a nearby hotel, Hatfill watched helplessly as he became notorious on live national television.
The Bureau found nothing.
More than month later the FBI returned with bloodhounds supposedly trained to connect the scent on the anthrax letters to a suspect.
In February 1999, the magic dogs had been exposed by 60 Minutes for false accusations in rape and murder cases. Although inept, the pooches were friendly. Hatfill innocently petted one. The dog acted like a dog and returned the affection. The dog’s handler deemed this to be proof of a positive identification of Hatfill with the anthrax letters.
Hatfill became a “person of interest” in the criminal investigation. He lost his job when the Justice Department told the university he was working for that Hatfill could not be used on any project using federal grants. He endured two years of wiretaps, intrusive physical surveillance, and property searches that even targeted friends and family.
Affection from the dog remained the only “evidence” ever found.
One agent was skeptical, pointing out that pooches are best in bomb and drug cases, not so much scents off of letters. She derided the reliance on “dog technology” as surprising for “an organization where we don’t use psychics.”
The top man at the FBI thought otherwise.
David Willman, a Pulitzer Prize–awarded investigative journalist who wrote a book about the Hatfill case, reported that then-FBI Director Robert Mueller personally briefed U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) on the reliability of the hounds.
Willman also wrote that future FBI Director James Comey participated in the dog show:
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz prodded the Justice Department’s number two official, Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey: Was Hatfill another Richard Jewell—an innocent man wrongly implicated? Citing the evidence provided by the bloodhounds, Comey was “absolutely certain that it was Hatfill,” Wolfowitz recalled.
The negative media attention made Hatfill a recognizable celebrity for all the wrong reasons. Some friends stopped speaking to him. He didn’t go out and became depressed.
In 2010, Hatfill was asked if the abuse ever led him to consider suicide. He responded: “If I would’ve killed myself, I would’ve been automatically judged by the press and the FBI to be guilty.”
Bruce Ivins. Bruce Ivins, the next man up in the FBI’s accusatory crosshairs, had a history of mental illness. We will likely never know if he committed the anthrax murders. The FBI’s version of the story, the skepticism of same, and the presumption of innocence will never do battle in court. But it’s a safer bet that the emotionally unstable Ivins probably wasn’t ready to endure the white-hot public scrutiny he had just watched Hatfill and Jewell survive.
“I only wish we could have had a trial,” Ivins’s lawyer said to PBS in December 2014. “They never had any evidence he prepared the anthrax.”
Brandon Mayfield. In 2004, yet another innocent man wandered into the crosshairs of the Mueller-led FBI’s search for terrorists.
In March 2004, coordinated bombings of commuter trains in Madrid, Spain, killed 191 people. Spanish investigators lifted a fingerprint from a bag of detonators used in the attack and sent a digital copy to INTERPOL, which forward it to the FBI.
The Bureau supposedly found a match to an Oregon lawyer and honorably discharged former U.S. Army officer named Brandon Mayfield. FBI agents learned Mayfield was a convert to Islam, had married an Egyptian woman, and had represented a terrorism suspect in a child custody dispute as part of his law practice.
Within a week of the presumed fingerprint match, the Bureau convinced a FISA court to allow secret electronic and physical surveillance of Mayfield.
Soon afterward the Spanish told the FBI they were skeptical of the match to Mayfield. But the FBI kept this fact from interfering with the hunt, and in May 2004, Mayfield was arrested on a material witness warrant.
The Bureau also obtained a criminal search warrant for Mayfield’s home, office, and computers. These warrants were based on the FBI telling the court it had a “100% positive identification” of Mayfield. The Spanish weren’t even close to 100 percent sure, the FBI knew it, and the court was kept in the dark.
Two weeks later the Spanish tied the print to an Algerian man who was arrested while in possession of detonators similar to those identified with the attack. Mayfield was released following an ordeal in which he said he was “subject to lockdown, strip searches, sleep deprivation, unsanitary living conditions, shackles and chains, threats, physical pain and humiliation.”
The FBI has denied that religious bias played any part in its botching of the fingerprint evidence. Maybe so, but can we be “100 percent positive” that they would have ignored the Spanish fingerprint concerns if Mayfield had been just a Baptist pipe fitter from Nebraska?
In the next installment, the FBI has suffered from deficient leadership.