Nobody does investigative journalism on TV like Public Television's "Frontline" -- nobody, and that includes "60 Minutes."
And Tuesday night at 9, the venerable series revisits Ft. Detrick in Frederick, Maryland, and the case of anthrax researcher Bruce Ivins who killed himself in 2008 as the FBI zeroed in on him as its prime suspect in the case of deadly envelopes of anthrax sent through the mail.
According to this hard-edged report done in partnership with McClatchy Newspapers and Propublica, the FBI did more than zero in. Under tremendous pressure to solve the case that started in 2001 with anthrax mailed to U.S. senators and network anchors, the agency squeezed Ivins hard -- using every trick in the book to get a confession out of him even as he insisted on his innocence to the end.
Ivins was a troubled guy with some distinctive kinks, the report acknowledges, but even FBI consultants in the case now admit that the agency overstated its evidence and never found a smoking gun to prove the researcher's guilt. In fact, evidence was revealed last summer that shows Ivins did not have the equipment needed to make the powdery kind of anthrax sent through the mail. That didn't stop the FBI then -- or now -- in acting like it found its man.
"The Anthrax Files" is a chilling report on several fronts.
First, it is a reminder of what paranoid and scary times have been living though since 2001 when the envelopes first appeared -- and the horrible events we just commemorated took place on September 11. These are indeed dark times, and with the economy getting worse and worse, there seems to be no light anywhere in sight.
Second, the report shows how a federal agency can shred an individual's life -- with or without the proper evidence to convict. "The Anthrax Files" suggests that anyone with the psychological issues Ivins had might have cracked under the weight of the FBI invading his privacy, exposing his secrets and ultimately getting him kicked out of the community of researchers that he called home at Ft. Detrick.
And finally, this is a chilling report, because if Ivins was not the person who sent the anthrax, then that killer is still on the loose. And we are left with an FBI that not only failed to solve such a huge case, but overstated and maybe lied about what it did accomplish.
"The Anthrax Files' premieres at 9 p.m. Tuesday on MPT (Channel 22).
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