Bringing The World Home To You

© 2024 WUNC North Carolina Public Radio
120 Friday Center Dr
Chapel Hill, NC 27517
919.445.9150 | 800.962.9862
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Ivins' Lawyer Rebuts DOJ Anthrax Allegations

A metal fence surrounds the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Md., where Ivins worked.
Mark Wilson
Getty Images
A metal fence surrounds the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Md., where Ivins worked.
A letter addressed to Sen. Patrick Leahy in 2001 contained anthrax. A similar letter was sent to Tom Daschle, who was the Senate majority leader.
/ Getty Images
Getty Images
A letter addressed to Sen. Patrick Leahy in 2001 contained anthrax. A similar letter was sent to Tom Daschle, who was the Senate majority leader.

The Department of Justice says it is confident that Army scientist Bruce Ivins sent the letters containing powdered anthrax that killed five people in 2001. But because Ivins committed suicide, his guilt or innocence will never be determined in court.

In disclosing its evidence against Ivins, the government links the anthrax used in the attacks to a sample Ivins created. But Ivins' lawyer, Paul Kemp, says "dozens ... if not hundreds" of scientists, contractors and others used that same anthrax.

What follows is a detailed look at the main points of evidence drawn from court documents, public statements by senior Justice Department officials, and an interview with Kemp.

The Murder Weapon

ALLEGATION: Investigators say the spores used in the attacks genetically match a flask of spores that Bruce Ivins created and had custody of. They say they gathered more than 1,000 anthrax samples from various laboratories and that the spores from the attack only matched eight of those samples. Of those, Ivins' sample was the "parent" from which the others were derived. "No one received material from that flask without going through Dr. Ivins," said Jeff Taylor, U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C. "We thoroughly investigated every other person who could have had access to the flask and we were able to rule out all but Dr. Ivins." The flask, Taylor later said, was effectively "the murder weapon."

RESPONSE: "In this country we prosecute people, not beakers," says Paul Kemp who was Ivins' attorney. Kemp says the University of New Mexico and a Battelle lab in Ohio had received portions of the anthrax in the flask. "There are dozens ... if not hundreds, of scientists, contractors, students, professors, who used that same anthrax — the very anthrax that would have the same genetic component" as the flask Ivins had, Kemp says. He also questions why, if Ivins was guilty, he wouldn't have covered his tracks better, by altering the sample in the flask.

Attempts To Deceive Investigators

ALLEGATION: Investigators say that in 2002 Ivins submitted two samples of anthrax from the flask in question and that neither of those genetically matched the spores used in the attacks. Agents later seized the flask and found the anthrax in it did in fact match the spores used in the attacks. Taylor said Ivins did this "presumably to mislead investigators."

RESPONSE: Ivins' lawyer says there was confusion about what kind of sample the FBI had wanted — a "pure" sample or one that captured the mix of spores in the flask. Kemp says Ivins submitted a pure sample at first.

The Envelopes Used In The Attacks

ALLEGATION: Investigators say the envelopes used in the attacks had certain printing defects on them. They found envelopes with identical defects had been distributed to post offices supplied by the Dulles Stamp Distribution Office in Dulles, Va. According to an affidavit in the case filed by investigators, "It is reasonable to conclude that the federal eagle envelopes utilized in the attacks were purchased from a post office in Maryland or Virginia."

RESPONSE: These are "post offices that service the entire width of the state of Maryland and then the biggest post office in the state of Virginia," Kemp says. He says there is no evidence that Ivins ever purchased any of those envelopes.

Late Work Hours

ALLEGATION: Ivins worked long hours alone at night in the lab in the days leading up to the days investigators believed the letters containing the spores were mailed. In one case, records show he worked three consecutive nights for over two hours each time. "Dr. Ivins had not spent this many 'off hours' in the lab at any time before or after this period," Taylor says. Investigators say Ivins never gave a satisfactory explanation for his hours, except to say that he was escaping from his life at home. (A chart provided in court documents shows Ivins worked perhaps 10 night hours total in November and December — at about the level he had during the early parts of the year. In September and October, Ivins worked over 45 night hours combined.)

RESPONSE: Kemp says the hours were "characteristic of [Ivins'] long-term work patterns" and that Ivins continued to work long hours through the end of 2001.

The Mailing Of The Letters

ALLEGATION: Investigators believe the letters were sent from a mailbox in Princeton, N.J., where they found anthrax traces. They point out in court documents that Ivins had an obsession with a sorority that had an office 60 feet away from the mailbox. They say Ivins also had a history of mailing things with false return addresses. In one e-mail, Ivins writes, "I got your e-mail making me wonder if you thought that I was trying to get something from you by sending you care packages, Christmas or birthday gifts, etc. That had me rather worried, so I decided to send you the things, but from different places and with different names."

RESPONSE: "Where is a witness that can put him in New Jersey?" Kemp asks. Ivins' lawyer says his client never hid his interest in the sorority from investigators. Kemp adds that the office near the mailbox is not a sorority house where students actually live.


ALLEGATION: Investigators point out that Ivins was working to fix problems with the production of an anthrax vaccine that was in danger of being halted. After the anthrax attacks, the Food and Drug Administration reapproved the vaccine for human use. Court documents say Ivins told a co-worker he had "incredible paranoid, delusional thoughts at times" and worried about controlling his behavior. Ivins later wrote poems about feeling there were two people inside him.

RESPONSE: "There is no motive that has been suggested to me that makes any sense," Kemp says. He says Ivins had a history of mental health problems but had repeatedly gotten therapy.

Targets Of The Letters

ALLEGATION: Investigators say Ivins had a history of writing letters to both politicians and the media, the recipients of the letters in the actual attacks. According to court documents, agents found 68 unmailed letters at his house. Investigators also say Ivins opposed abortion and that Sens. Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy, who were targeted with anthrax-laced letters, had been criticized for their stands on abortion rights.

RESPONSE: "It is frightening to me, as a citizen, and certainly as a defense attorney, for people to characterize citizens who have trouble or questions or disputes with members of Congress, as having a dark side," Kemp says. "That's the only thing I can comment to that. That does not prove a thing."

The Strength Of The Case

ALLEGATION: Investigators say they believe Ivins sent the letters that killed five people and injured 17 others. "Based upon the totality of the evidence we had gathered against him," Taylor said, "we are confident that Dr. Ivins was the only person responsible for these attacks." Taylor said many cases are proved using circumstantial evidence. "Circumstantial evidence? Sure, some of it is. But it's compelling evidence and our view is we are confident it would have helped us prove this case against Dr. Ivins beyond a reasonable doubt."

RESPONSE: "It is nothing but speculation, the government's case," Kemp says. "We don't convict people on the idea that they demonstrate eccentric behavior, or that they had the opportunity to commit a crime, or the knowledge to commit a crime, and that's what the government's saying."

With Reporting By Laura Sullivan

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

David Kestenbaum is a correspondent for NPR, covering science, energy issues and, most recently, the global economy for NPR's multimedia project Planet Money. David has been a science correspondent for NPR since 1999. He came to journalism the usual way — by getting a Ph.D. in physics first.
More Stories