The unprecedented publicity and public outcry over the execution of Troy Davis last month shined a spotlight on an issue that dedicated activists, legal experts, and investigative reporters have been covering for years: the epidemic of wrongful convictions in this country. It’s an issue that Frontline has covered extensively in the past, from the execution of (the almost certainly innocent) Cameron Todd Willingham, to the misuse of forensic science in unexplained child deaths. Now, in a joint investigation with ProPublica and McClatchy Newspapers, they’re taking this work into slightly murkier territory. “The Anthrax Files” casts serious doubts on the FBI’s investigation of the 2001 anthrax attacks that briefly terrorized an already shaken country. Though Bruce Ivins, the man the FBI ultimately pinned for the attacks, was never actually convicted of a crime, he paid the ultimate price: In 2008, under intense pressure from the FBI, he died after swallowing a bottle of Tylenol PM.
The story begins, naturally, in the tense days of September 2001. Just a week after the 9/11 attacks, Grant Leslie, then an intern in Senator Tom Daschle’s congressional office, was dutifully opening the senator's mail, when a fine vapor of white powder escaped from one of the envelopes. After this cursory recap, Frontline plunges right into the ensuing FBI investigation. Oddly, the filmmakers don’t recount the basic stats of the anthrax attacks: five deaths, 17 infections, letters sent to major media outlets. It’s not a critical oversight, but given the long shadow cast by 9/11, a brief refresher might have been useful.
In the wake of the attacks, the Bush administration applied intense, “almost daily” pressure on FBI director Robert Mueller to find the culprit, pressure that sent desperate investigators up a blind alley for several years. The anthrax used in the attacks was traced to the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease (known mercifully as AMRIID), FBI investigators determined that it must have been an inside job. After New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof ran a series of columns on the subject, suspicion centered on Steven Hatfill, a bio-weapons researcher at the lab. The FBI waged a campaign of intimidation, keeping Hatfill under “bumperlock” surveillance for months on end, and Attorney General John Ashcroft publicly named Hatfill as a person of interest, despite the lack of any physical evidence in the case.
At the cost of $250,000 the FBI drained a pond near Hatfill’s Maryland home, based on the patently ludicrous idea that he was operating from an underwater laboratory. The process of dredging the lake took weeks and turned up a single piece of potential evidence: a plastic box with a hole in it that turned out to be a turtle trap. The bungled FBI investigation is a reminder of how easily the “War on Terror” fuels exactly the kind of government waste that conservatives claim to despise and how the demand for "justice" can have quite the opposite effect. In this case, the filmmakers don't have to do much to make the bureau look foolish.
Largely due to his own steely resolve, Hatfill was eventually cleared of the crime (his nightmarish story was chronicled at length in an excellent piece in The Atlantic a few years back), and the case briefly went cold. But in 2005, the FBI honed in on another suspect: Dr. Bruce Ivins, a highly respected bio-defense researcher who also worked at USAMRIID. Thanks to newly emergent technology, the FBI was able to trace the anthrax to a particular flask under Ivins’ control.
The FBI maintained that Ivins had worked conspicuously long hours in the lab during the months of August and September 2001, but as Frontline investigators uncovered, their statistics only reflected the time he spent in one particular USAMRIID facility. They also maintained that Ivins intentionally submitted the wrong flask of anthrax spores to investigators, though on two other occasions he submitted the correct one. Ivins also had a history of emotional disturbances and substance abuse issues. As a graduate fellow, he became fixated on a colleague, Nancy Haigwood, a member of the sorority Kappa Kappa Gamma, and later vandalized her car. One of the letters was mailed from a mailbox across the street from the KKG administrative offices. Again, the FBI’s case was entirely circumstantial.
As they had done with Hatfill, the FBI mounted up the pressure on Ivins, all the while being acutely aware of his volatile mental state. They searched his home, exposing his most embarrassing personal secrets to scrutiny. After a breakdown during a group therapy session, Ivins was forcibly removed from his job at USAMRIID. Soon after, he killed himself. The sad coda to the story is that, earlier this year, an independent report by the National Academies of Science concluded that it was not possible to reach a definitive conclusion regarding Ivins’ role in the attacks. The report also directly questioned the FBI’s assertion that Ivins’ flask was “the murder weapon.”
The frustrating and yet powerful thing about “The Anthrax Files” is that it’s nearly impossible to walk away with any certainty about Ivins’ guilt or innocence. The sense of outrage over his death and the FBI’s bullying is, therefore, less acute than it otherwise might have been, but there’s some subtle power in the case’s uncertainty. It’s hard not to watch this episode of Frontline and imagine the difficulty of being a juror, listening to the competing “expert testimony” of various witnesses. On one hand, there’s Rachel Lieber, the likable US Attorney, who firmly states her case against Ivins, “It's not just the science; it's not just an obsession or two; it's the confluence of all these things.” Then there’s the pioneering DNA expert, Claire Fraser-Liggett, who declares, “This was not an airtight case by any means,” even though she’s the one who traced the anthrax to Ivins' flask. It’s Fraser-Liggett who gets the last and most compelling word. “If he wasn't the perpetrator, then it means that person is still out there.”
Whatever the truth is in this case—and we’ll probably never know—it’s useful to remember that wrongful convictions (or, as in this case, suspicions) don’t just punish the innocent; they also leave the guilty with impunity.