Nearly seven years after a series of anthrax attacks unnerved a nation still jittery from September 11, there finally appears to be some resolution to the question of who was behind the mysterious, deadly envelopes.
Bruce Ivins, a leading U.S. military anthrax researcher, apparently committed suicide this week as federal investigators were reportedly preparing to indict him on charges of staging the attacks on several Capitol Hill offices and news organizations.
The ending might be unsatisfying to those who wanted to see the mastermind hauled into court and hear his motivations explained. But it also could help close the book on a puzzling, for a time terrifying, incident that threatened to paralyze a vulnerable nation in a state of fear.
After tainted envelopes were discovered on Capitol Hill and in several newsrooms in October 2001, the sight of hazmat teams clad in puffy space suits and gas masks became a common spectacle on the evening news. Several Senate offices were closed for months, along with a Washington postal sorting facility where two employees died from contamination.
The appearance of white powder (whether from anthrax or the powdered sugar from a doughnut) routinely triggered evacuations and quarantines. In mailrooms across the country, workers began wearing gloves and masks. And the federal government started irradiating all incoming mail, delaying delivery and turning letters into yellowed, crispy wafers. Some even worried that the entire U.S. Postal Service might have to shut down.
At the time, U.S. News quoted magazine editor Geoff Van Dyke, who watched as New York police and the National Guard sealed off his street, as saying, "What is this world coming to? Will this ever end?"
Many, unsurprisingly, were quick to blame al Qaeda, which a month earlier had managed to destroy the World Trade Center. And Osama bin Laden has remained a top suspect in the minds of many.
But there was never any proof of al Qaeda's involvement, and the FBI, which some have accused of botching the case, has long focused most of its attention on government scientists. For a while, the bureau named Steven Hatfill as a "person of interest." Hatfill, a former colleague of Ivins at the Fort Detrick biodefense laboratory, was later awarded $5.82 million after he sued the U.S. government for falsely accusing him of staging the attacks.
More recently, it appears that FBI investigators had turned their attention to other scientists, including Ivins. No formal indictment has been released, although reports say that prosecutors were planning to seek the death penalty. It remains unclear whether any other scientists were believed to be involved.
The FBI reportedly has had Ivins under intense scrutiny for more than a year. His lawyer told the Associated Press that the scientist had cooperated with investigators. "We are saddened by his death and disappointed that we will not have the opportunity to defend his good name and reputation in a court of law," attorney Paul F. Kemp said. "We assert his innocence in these killings and would have established that at trial."
Given the high profile of the case—and the unexpected twist of Ivins's death—the Justice Department will likely need to make its evidence public in some manner and respond to doubters that it had finally found the right suspect.
Still, Ivins's death may mean that questions about how and why the attack was staged will never be fully answered.