WASHINGTON - As an FBI investigation increasingly focused on him as a suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks, Fort Detrick scientist Bruce E. Ivins enjoyed a security clearance that allowed him to work in the facility's most dangerous laboratories, to handle deadly biological agents, and to take part in broad discussions about the Pentagon's defenses against germ warfare.
On July 10, the day he was taken to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation, for example, Ivins spent part of the afternoon at a sensitive briefing on a new bubonic plague vaccine under development at the Army's elite biological weapons testing center, according to a former colleague who talked with him there.
Records that have surfaced since Ivins committed suicide last week show that Fort Detrick officials abruptly barred him from the Maryland base July 10, based on what a counselor called his deteriorating emotional condition. Until then, his security clearance gave him access to some of the most secure areas at the US Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases. Months earlier, Ivins had become one of a handful of scientists regarded by federal investigators as the lead suspects in the unsolved killing of five people by mailed letters containing anthrax.
Ivins's lawyer, Paul Kemp, repeatedly has professed his client's innocence and instead has characterized Ivins as a man who was hounded by the investigation into taking his own life. Co-workers and neighbors say they cannot conceive that Ivins would be responsible for anthrax attacks, but court records and testimony from his onetime therapist, Jean Duley, paint a more disturbing view of Ivins and his psychiatric state.
His freedom to move about Fort Detrick, even as the FBI closed in on him and threatened an indictment, adds another layer of mystery to the massive case, which law enforcement authorities now hope to close as early as today. As a world-renowned specialist in the study of anthrax bacteria, Ivins worked closely with the FBI in its "Amerithrax" probe while gradually becoming the principal suspect in the case. His scientific expertise was so recognized that he took part in broader discussions about a major government buildup of biological protections to guard against future attacks.
The July 10 plague briefing brought together experts to discuss the next stages in developing a vaccine to protect American troops, a project being handled by DynPort Vaccine, an outside contractor. Jeffrey Adamovicz, who formerly supervised Ivins as head of Fort Detrick's bacteriology division, saw him at the briefing and talked to him for about 10 minutes. "He seemed stressed but fairly normal," said Adamovicz, who helped develop the plague vaccine and later won a Bronze Star for his service in Iraq.
Colleagues question how Ivins could have maintained his security credentials if the FBI suspected him in the anthrax case. "Even back in the old days, there was a screening process for people who work in those laboratories," Adamovicz said.
Separately, one of the lawmakers targeted in the anthrax attacks, former senator Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, criticized law enforcement officials yesterday for their handling of the case, particularly for the failure to brief Congress about the investigation.
Daschle, who received handwritten notes containing powdered anthrax in October 2001, said on "Fox News Sunday" that he had "real concerns about the quality" of the investigation and that he was unprepared to say that the FBI had fingered the right suspect. "I don't know whether this is just another false track and . . . a real diversion from where they need to be," he said.