Holes in anthrax case not novel

In case I ever turn up dead while being investigated by the Feds, and they release all the suspicious stuff they've uncovered about me, let me explain right now why I recently Googled "novel kill scientist poisoned strawberry."

I was not trying to find a novel way to kill a scientist with a poisoned strawberry, OK?

I was trying to remember a book I had read, in which several seemingly unrelated characters mysteriously start dying - including, I thought, a scientist who grew strawberries as a hobby, ate one and died - and it turned out they had all been involved in some secret scheme.

Maybe I've read too many spy novels in my time, or maybe I'm just a sucker for plot lines in which nothing is as it initially seems and the good guys sometimes turn out to be bad guys. But the real-life death of the real-life Fort Detrick scientist Bruce Ivins seems to me like something out of LeCarre, and it gives me the same kind of chills.

Ivins turned up dead in Frederick just as federal investigators were preparing to indict him for the post- 9/11 anthrax deaths. This week, they released some of their evidence against Ivins - pages upon pages of e-mails, lab logs and forensic analyses - and declared themselves satisfied that they could have prosecuted and convicted him in court.

Except, of course, now they don't have to because Ivins has killed himself.

You don't have to be a nut-job conspiracy theorist to raise an eyebrow at this tidy package. I'm someone who is inclined to think, for example, that Lee Harvey Oswald probably did act alone - although courtesy of Jack Ruby, we similarly were denied a trial that might have given us more confidence in such a conclusion.

So now we have our lone terrorist. Or, rather, the lone terrorist to replace the other one, Steven Hatfill, another Fort Detrick scientist whom the Feds previously suspected in the anthrax attacks. They were wrong, or at least felt they were wrong enough to pay him nearly $6 million to settle a lawsuit over being publicly identified as "a person of interest" in the anthrax case and seeing his career ruined as a result.

To be fair, just because the Feds were wrong about Hatfill doesn't mean they're also wrong about Ivins. Yet it's hard to read through this week's document dump with an entirely unjaundiced eye. Much of it seems quite convincing - the lab logs that showed Ivins working odd, night-time hours just before the letters would have been mailed, the genetic analysis that linked the anthrax in the mailings to a flask at Fort Detrick.

And yet: Off-hour work is hardly unusual, and others at the lab had access to that flask. For all the evidence gathered on Ivins, perhaps what is as telling is what wasn't found - where, as a reporter at the Justice Department news conference Wednesday asked, is anything like a gas station receipt from somewhere between Fort Detrick and Princeton, N.J., where the letters were postmarked, that would support the notion that Ivins drove there?

"We don't have that piece of direct evidence," Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeff Taylor said.

What they do have, at least in the documents they released, are some leaps of the imagination, some stretches that seem to me to go beyond Lycra and into LAZR Racer territory.

Agents quote an e-mail that Ivins wrote to a friend on Sept. 26, 2001, in which he refers to Osama bin Laden as having "just decreed death to all Jews and all Americans" - and noting how "similar" that language is to the anthrax letters sent two weeks later, warning "DEATH TO AMERICA" and "DEATH TO ISRAEL."

As those Grey's Anatomy residents are always saying, "Seriously?" Yeah, and that language also is similar to those overdubbed bin Laden tapes that David Letterman airs on his show every once in a while, in which the al-Qaida leader is made to say in conclusion and almost as an afterthought, "Oh, and death to America." Meaning, it's such a commonly known sentiment that it hardly can link anyone to anything at this point.

Another stretch comes with the attempt to explain the return address on the anthrax mailings, "4th GRADE, GREENDALE SCHOOL." Apparently, agents discovered that Ivins and his wife donated money in 1993 to the American Family Association one month after an article ran in the group's journal about a lawsuit AFA had filed related to an incident involving a fourth-grade student at Greendale Baptist Academy.

Interesting, I suppose, but no more so than the link that investigators had made between "Greendale" and their previous anthrax suspect, Hatfill: there is a neighborhood in Harare, Zimbabwe, near where Hatfill once lived, that is known as - you guessed it - Greendale.

So, case closed? Hardly.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com
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