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Ivins’ lab deemed early on as contaminated

- The Washington Times - Friday, August 8, 2008

EXCLUSIVE:

Just seven months after the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five people, the U.S. Army laboratory in Maryland where the accused killer, microbiologist Bruce E. Ivins, worked was described in a government report as a "rat's nest" that was contaminated with anthrax bacteria.

The highly redacted report, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times, said Suite B-3 in Building 1425 at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick not only was contaminated with anthrax in three locations but the bacteria had escaped from secure areas in the building to those that were unprotected.

Written by the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, the report said that while the Fort Detrick facility where the FBI said Mr. Ivins spent an inordinate amount of time alone and at night had comprehensive procedures that would protect a "great number of personnel from exposure" if implemented, there was no requirement for routine surveillance to check for contamination inside or outside the containment laboratories.

The 361-page report said that safety procedures at the facility and in individual laboratories were lax and inadequately documented; that safety supervision sometimes was carried out by junior personnel with inadequate training or survey instruments; and that exposures of dangerous bacteria at the lab, including anthrax, had not been adequately reported.

During an inspection of the Fort Detrick lab where Mr. Ivins worked as a microbiologist and vaccinologist for 36 years and senior biodefense researcher for the past 18 years, investigators found substantial crowding; numerous instances of unlabeled or improperly labeled chemical bottles; inappropriate storage of chemicals; benchtop clutter; dirt and debris on the floor; supplies and equipment left in cluttered biosafety cabinets; and improperly handled biohazard waste.

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Army investigators, according to the report, said the scientists in B-3, known at Fort Detrick as Team Anthrax, were "generally kind of sloppy."

They said one supervisor, whose name was redacted, had ordered his people to wear gloves "since I can't be sure the lab isn't contaminated." Another supervisor, identified in the report only as the "chief of the special pathogens branch in one of five branches within the diagnostic systems division," had sent several letters to B-3 for analysis and when a final report was returned, he regarded it as "reflecting contamination in the laboratory."

"At this time, I went to B-3. It was like a rat's nest. The countertops were dirty, the floor was dirty and the area was disorganized," the supervisor is quoted as saying. "At that time, I made a decision not to process any more samples in B-3."

Officials at the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command did not return calls for comment on the report.

Mr. Ivins, 62, committed suicide July 29 after being identified by the FBI as the target of impending charges in the anthrax probe that could have resulted in the death penalty. Although he had assisted the bureau in analyzing the anthrax-tainted envelopes sent to Capitol Hill, the FBI said, Mr. Ivins possessed purified anthrax spores identical to the bacteria that killed the five, sickened 17 others and alarmed the nation in 2001 - in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks by al Qaeda terrorists.

It was advanced DNA testing by the FBI from samples taken from Mr. Ivins' lab of highly purified anthrax spores with "certain genetic mutations identical" to those used in the attacks that led investigators to the conclusion that he was their man.

Anthrax-laced letters sent to Capitol Hill and elsewhere killed Florida photo editor Robert Stevens, 63; U.S. postal workers Thomas Lee Morris, 55, and Joseph P. Curseen, 47, both of whom worked at the Brentwood facility in Northeast; Kathy Nguyen, a 61-year-old hospital stockroom employee in New York; and Ottilie W. Lundgren, a 94-year-old woman from Connecticut.

Mr. Ivins' death precluded the FBI from presenting its case in court, but FBI Assistant Director Joseph Persichini, who heads the bureau's Washington field office, said the Fort Detrick scientist "was responsible for the death, sickness and fear brought to our country by the 2001 anthrax mailings."

Known as the "Amerithrax" investigation, Mr. Persichini called the FBI probe one of the largest and most complex ever conducted by law enforcement. He said the DNA testing allowed investigators to pinpoint the origins of the anthrax to Mr. Ivins' lab.

The first concerns about contamination at Fort Detrick surfaced in December 2001, when "positive cultures" for the anthrax bacteria were found outside the biocontainment area of Building 1425, the report said.

According to the report, a microbiologist in the building, whose name was redacted, identified the cultures and decontaminated the area, although he did so "on his own initiative and without the direction of any supervisors." It said the microbiologist also did not notify any supervisors of his actions or of the contamination.

While the microbiologist's name is protected in the report's narrative on how and why the Army's investigation began, an accompanying index of the report's exhibits identifies him as Mr. Ivins. His name also appears two other times in the index in connection with redacted sworn statements he made.

In the report, Mr. Ivins' name appears to have been mistakenly listed on several occasions, suggesting he was a major player in the U.S. Army probe. In one reference, "Bruce" was redacted but "Ivins" was left in; a handwritten note on a totally redacted page says, "Bruce Ivins statement." In another handwritten note on a two-page sworn statement in which the source is protected, "Ivins" is listed in the margin.

According to the report, the Fort Detrick contamination first became known to lab supervisors on April 16, 2002, and was confirmed two days later as the anthrax bacteria. The report said evidence gathered by Army investigators suggested that "a single source" was responsible for the contamination although it neither identified a suspect nor ruled out the possibility that others could have been involved.

The report also said that "multiple contaminates" identified in an extensive search of the facility "suggest that multiple episodes of contamination may have occurred." The source of the decontamination was not discovered, the report said.

Mr. Ivins was working on finding vaccines for the anthrax bacteria. He and a colleague held two U.S. patents for anthrax vaccine technology, but law-enforcement officials have theorized that Mr. Ivins' decaying mental health and his desire to show people the importance of his vaccines could have motivated him to carry out the worst bioterrorism attack in the nation's history.

In October 2001, several letters contaminated with a virulent version of the anthrax virus were mailed to the offices of Democratic Sens. Tom Daschle of North Dakota and Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, as well as to the offices of ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, the New York Post and the National Enquirer.

Mr. Ivins was among three Fort Detrick scientists to receive in March 2003 the Decoration for Exceptional Civilian Service - the highest award given to Defense Department civilian employees - for helping solve technical problems in the manufacture of anthrax vaccine.

Although the FBI had initially settled on another Fort Detrick scientist, Steven Hatfill, as the major focus of its anthrax investigation, the target changed in 2006 when FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III named veteran agent Vincent B. Lisi and Edward W. Montooth to lead the probe. The director told them to re-examine leads in the case and re-evaluate others who might have been overlooked as potential suspects.

Federal law-enforcement authorities said that was when Mr. Ivins emerged as a major suspect.

Mr. Hatfill later collected $5.8 million from the government as part of a settlement in a lawsuit he filed against the Justice Department and others.