The story has all the ingredients for a good conspiracy theory: a killer germ created in a secret government lab, a government on the brink of war, a murder investigation with unanswered questions, and a suspect who committed suicide before he could be charged.
The Justice Department considers the 2001 anthrax attacks solved, but for skeptics and conspiracy theorists, it's far from over.
It has been a week since authorities laid out much of their case against Bruce Ivins, a psychologically troubled Army scientist who killed himself as prosecutors prepared to charge him as the lone anthrax killer. Since then, armchair investigators, bloggers and scientists have pored over hundreds of pages of documents and circulated their own ideas about what happened.
"I think it's going to be one of the great conspiracy theories, like whether we landed on the moon or whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone" to assassinate President Kennedy, said Edward Lake, a retired Wisconsin computer specialist whose Web site has for years been one of the most comprehensive repositories for analysis on the anthrax case.
The ideas being kicked around run from the slightly suspicious to the farfetched. Some are meticulously researched, others thrown together with little if any documentation. For the most part they fit into one of three categories, which sometimes overlap:
- Scientific skeptics want to know more about the DNA analysis the FBI used to focus on Ivins and exactly how investigators ruled out others in the Ft. Detrick laboratory. Some former co-workers who question whether Ivins could have carried out the attacks. Others simply believe Ivins was an easy target and they want more evidence from the FBI.
"There are a lot of people in science who are weird or unstable," said Courtney Hodges, a biophysics graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley who blogs about science and culture at HodgesLab.org. "I don't consider myself among the hardcore conspiracy theorists, that this is a total cover-up. It looks more like bungled investigation."
Watchdogs want answers
Watchdogs and others recall the Bush administration asserting a rock solid case for war in Iraq, only to find glaring holes in the intelligence. They note that the anthrax attacks helped drum up support for war and they question whether Ivins is a convenient way to make the case disappear.
Glenn Greenwald, a columnist at Salon.com, has tugged at the holes in the government's evidence and called for a full accounting of the case. Meryl Nass, a Maine doctor who runs an anthrax-related Web site, says she doesn't know whether Ivins was involved but says she knows who benefited: biotech and pharmaceutical companies, neoconservatives and those who supported more wartime executive authority.
"These are people with what appears to be a potential significant motive," Nass said. "Were I an FBI agent, I would be investigating them to see whether they actually had means and opportunity to carry out an attack like this."
Conspiracy theorists believe the government was behind the attacks. Some believe the anthrax letters were part of a "false flag" covert operation, in which the U.S. government plotted against its citizens to win public support for war. Often, that story line ends with the government killing Ivins to cover its tracks and close the case.
"They didn't decide to pin the job on Bruce Ivins after they sent out the anthrax letters, they had already decided on using him beforehand," Ken Adachi, editor of the site Educate-Yourself.org, wrote last week in a posting entitled, "Bruce E. Ivins, The Government's Latest Fall Guy."
Others, especially anti-Jewish writers, blame the attack on a Zionist plot, with the anthrax being smuggled out a decade earlier by a Jewish scientist caught sneaking into the lab late at night.
One flaw in that theory is that the scientist is not Jewish — at least not according to his wedding announcement, which said he was Catholic. Another is that, according to the FBI's genetic analysis, the deadly anthrax wasn't created until years later — by Ivins.
University of Florida law professor Mark Fenster, an author of a book on conspiracy theories, said the anthrax case is perfect for conspiracy theorists because it is "as dangerous as it could possibly be, and also deeply mysterious." The Bush administration's penchant for secrecy doesn't help, nor does its intelligence failures on Iraq, he said.
There are also several unanswered questions that the FBI can only theorize about. For instance, investigators can't place Ivins in New Jersey when the letters were mailed. And they can't say for sure how he could have converted the anthrax into a powder, a process other scientists said would have been difficult to perform without being noticed.
And then there's Ivins, who cannot defend himself.
"It's almost a generic aspect of conspiracy theories that some of the most important witnesses, or the fall guy for that matter — think Lee Harvey Oswald — is now dead because they can't contradict or complicate a conspiracy theory," Fenster said.
Hodges, the graduate student, said the Ivins case reminds him of the mysterious death of another Army former Ft. Detrick scientist, Frank Olson. The official explanation was that, in 1953, Olson unwittingly took LSD in a CIA experiment and leaped to his death from a 13th-floor window. His family says he was murdered to maintain secrets about government weapons programs.
As for Ivins, Hodges said a biologist would have known that a Tylenol overdose is a long and painful way to commit suicide.
Capitol Hill lawmakers have pledged to investigate the anthrax attacks and the FBI's response to them. Congressional hearings will answer some questions. Others may never be answered.
Lake, who runs the Web site AnthraxInvestigation.com, says the evidence so far suggests Ivins was the anthrax killer, even though it runs counter to his long-held theory that two men acted together.
But he wants to know more about the genetic analysis. He wants to know whether the anthrax really was "weaponized" as suggested early in the case and, if so, how Ivins learned how to do it. Those questions will silence some critics, he said, but not all.
"I've seen the theories that he was a pawn like Lee Harvey Oswald. That's going to be hard to disprove," he said. "How do you disprove that a dead man was not a puppet being manipulated by the CIA? You're talking about proving a negative. You can't prove aliens didn't mail the letters."