Anthrax: The Mad Scientist Did It
August 07, 2008, 04:58 PM
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The weight of evidence is rapidly approaching the threshold of "beyond a reasonable doubt" that government bioweapons defense researcher Bruce E. Ivins was the 2001 anthrax terrorist. As Greg Cochran pointed out to me during a long conversation Wednesday evening, Occam's Razor is pointing right at Ivins. He had the means (he was the custodian of the anthrax used in the attacks) and he had motives that, while they remain uncertain, appear explicable (he likely wanted to focus attention and funding on his field of expertise — anthrax vaccines).

What's indisputable is that Ivins, who killed himself on July 29, was a mad scientist.

Something I learned as I've gone through life that initially surprised me was what a high proportion of people suffer from mental problems at one point or another. The mind is very complicated and it can jump the rails more than you might think. For example, I'm about as even-keeled as anybody I know, yet I suffered panic attacks and depression for several weeks after I was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer a dozen years ago.

Ivins, though, didn't have run-of-the-mill mental health troubles. He was, during his worst years, bad crazy in a way that, fortunately, I've never come in contact with. Apparently, nine other people had access to Ivins' anthrax, but, as Greg pointed out, it's unlikely that any one of them was as crazy as Ivins.

From the New York Times:

In the summer of 2000, Ivins told a counselor that he was interested in a young woman who lived out of town and that he had "mixed poison" and taken it with him when he went to watch her play in a soccer match.

"If she lost, he was going to poison her," said the counselor, who treated Ivins at a Frederick, Md., clinic four or five times that summer. She said Ivins emphasized he was a skillful scientist who "knew how to do things without people finding out."

The counselor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Wednesday that she was so alarmed by her client's emotionless description of a specific, homicidal plan that she alerted the head of her clinic, a psychiatrist who had treated Ivins and the Frederick Police Department. She said the police told her nothing could be done because she did not have the woman's address or last name.

The account of the counselor, who was interviewed by the FBI early last week, is part of a dark portrait of Ivins that emerged Wednesday.

Besides these kind of terrible impulses, he suffered from delusional obsessions. His psychiatrist in 2000 suggested he had "paranoid personality disorder." He believed that the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority was waging a "fatwa" against him. The LA Times reported:

Long before, however, Ivins had acted oddly; for example, the documents released Wednesday said that he had used two post office boxes over 24 years to "pursue obsessions" — including an intense interest in the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority. One confidential witness said Ivins had admitted breaking into a Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority house to steal a secret handbook, apparently while he was pursuing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of North Carolina.

The documents also included a message board post by Ivins on a conspiracy theory website,  www.abovetopsecret.com . Asking for replies at the e-mail address goldenphoenix111@hotmail.com , he wrote that the sorority had labeled him as an enemy decades ago. "I can only abide their 'Fatwah' on me," he said.

He'd been on anti-depressant, anti-anxiety, and anti-psychotic medicines since 2000. The first two are used by tens of millions of people for problems that range from serious to mild. Anti-psychotic drugs, however, are very heavy, with nasty side-effects for many people.

So, let's try to put together a plausible picture of the man. He'd suffered mental health problems as far back as his youth. But much of the time he could keep it together — he earned his Ph.D., got married, had kids, volunteered at his church. He wrote letters to the editor of his local paper, espousing what appears to be an eclectic moderate to liberal viewpoint — pro-gay, anti-abortion, pro-Israel, anti-racist, anti-Religious Right. And he held a job for 28 years.

Unfortunately, that job, working at a government bioweapons lab on defenses against anthrax, was just about the worst job imaginable for a paranoiac. From the NYT:

�Paranoid man works with deadly anthrax!!!� he wrote in one e-mail message in July 2000, predicting what a National Enquirer headline might read if he agreed to participate in a study on his work.

�I wish I could control the thoughts in my mind,� he added a month later in another message to a colleague. �It’s hard enough sometimes controlling my behavior. When I am being eaten alive inside, I always try to put on a good front here at work and at home, so I don’t spread the pestilence.�

He continued, �I get incredible paranoid, delusional thoughts at times, and there’s nothing I can do until they go away.�

He'd devoted years of his life to trying to come up with a way to protect America from anthrax terror attacks, and the "professional deformation" that presumably went along with worrying about national catastrophes compounded his existing problems:

His anxiety could be traced, the documents suggest, at least in part to complications that cropped up with an anthrax vaccine project he was working on in the late 1990s, which drew complaints from some Defense Department personnel who claimed the vaccine, which was mandatory, made them severely ill.

�I think the **** is about to hit the fan bigtime,� one July 2000 e-mail message said. �The control vaccine isn’t working. It’s just a fine mess.�

The summer of 2000 was when he told his counselor about his plan to poison the soccer girl if she lost the match.

And he went on what he called "mindless drives" to mail gifts and letters anonymously, the document said, and then "set back the odometer in his car" to fool his wife.

The next year brought 9/11:

His state of mind seemed to worsen after the 2001 terror attacks.

Didn't everybody's?

When you consider how crazy Ivins had been in 2000, and how crazy the country as a whole was after 9/11, the anthrax mailings start seeming pretty rational, at least as sensible as responding to 9/11 by invading Iraq.

We don't have Ivins' explanation for the mailings, but a simple guess would be that he didn't particularly want to kill people (for example, he didn't rig the envelopes to spew spores around), he just wanted to wake America up to the danger posed by anthrax terrorism, and maybe get more funding and attention for his vaccine project.

"I'm the only scary one in the group," he wrote on Sept. 26 after a group therapy session eight days after the first anthrax-laced letters were mailed. On Oct. 16, as the first victims were dying or hospitalized, one of Ivins' co-workers observed in an e-mail message that "Bruce has been an absolute manic basket case the last few days." ...

To the FBI's credit, they figured out early on, at a time when the White House and the media wanted the anthrax terrorists to be Arabs, especially Iraqis, that it had to an American scientist. That's better than all the warbloggers did. Unfortunately, they settled on Stephen Hatfill due to a series of coincidences, along, presumably, with prejudice against a man who had lived in Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa. Worse, they didn't refocus their investigation until about a year and a half after early 2005, when the genome sequencing data absolved Hatfill and pointed toward Ivins.

The policy question that arises from all this is why didn't Ivins' employer do anything about him over the last 28 years? As Ivins himself noted,"Paranoid Man Works with Deadly Anthrax" is an inherently alarming sentence.

One reason might be the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, which includes mental as well as physical problems. That far-ranging law has proven relatively popular and uncontroversial, in part because it acts as a system of social insurance against the detriments of middle age. None of us would like to be fired from our jobs just because we eventually suffer a physical breakdown or, as in Ivins' case, go a little nuts at age 54, as he did in 2000. So, Americans institutions are often quite forgiving these days of the personal problems of long-time employees.

As Jerry Pournelle has pointed out, government agencies, because they lack the profit motive, tend to forget about whatever original purpose they had and come to exist for the perpetuation of institution and the well-being of the employees.