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August 5, 2008

Guilty or Not?

Roy Meachum

The apparent suicide of a Fort Detrick scientist was the weekend's conversational rage. Everyone knows someone who knows someone – that’s how it went.


Those standing outside the network "know" Bruce Ivins must have been guilty in those deadly 2001 anthrax deaths. The final-nail in their argument: If he were innocent, why would he take his own life?


Having condemned Dr. Ivins as a murderer, they are prepared to move on with their lives. Unfortunately, the area's major newspapers are no better.


It must be noted, however, many of these same upstanding citizens and media prepared the virtual "gallows" for Steven Hatfill, another Detrick researcher, in 2002, especially after Attorney General John Ashcroft branded Dr. Hatfill as "a person of interest."


The ex-Republican senator from Missouri's comment simply enforced the media's "right" to swarm on each and every aspect of Dr. Hatfill's life – whether relevant or not. It would not be unfair to compare the behavior of television and newspapers, radio and magazines with the Eumenides, the Furies of ancient Greece.


Although the feds forked over nearly $6 million by way of restitution for the personal and career damage they wrought on his life, the government refuses to admit he was exonerated from their baseless allegations. The money came with no recognition that he had been consistently maligned by federal agencies.


At least Dr. Hatfill still had relative youth on his side; he was only 48 when his public nightmare began. The newly designated "person of interest" in the frightening and deadly anthrax attack is older. If Dr. Ivins stuck around and underwent a similar six-year trauma, he might have reached 68, an age when many people are settling into retirement.


While we can be assured the Federal Bureau of Investigation and allied law enforcement agencies worked very, very hard to get the case against Bruce Ivins straight, there could be no guarantee an intelligent and aggressive defense would not prevail.


Now we'll never know.


The government is free to list and enumerate the circumstances and conditions that brought Dr. Ivins under a cloud, citing specifics by the barrel. But that's only one side. His family, friends and colleagues are prepared to argue their doubts and compelling evidence of their own.


The two sides can never now confront each other before a federal judge. Above all, this "person of interest" can no longer speak out to the world, explaining himself. The matter of the manner of his death itself remains open.


WFMD's Bob Miller properly insisted on inserting "alleged" at every mention of suicide, in our Friday conversation on his Morning News Express show. He is right. On examination, too many suicides have proven not to be as initially perceived.


Having learned, in Dr. Hatfill's scenario, the federal government cannot be trusted, why should people now believe anything officials say? That's not a rhetorical question. When bureaucratic principles and egos are at stake, we can certainly not!


As readers recall, the nation's first bioterrorism attack – as widely advertised – came a few weeks after Sept. 11, 2001. The weapon was a powder in envelopes that released deadly anthrax into the air when handled. While the high-profile targets were Democratic Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick J. Leahy, the victims mainly worked for the postal system.


Had he lived Dr. Ivins would have been called upon to explain how an expert on vaccine, as he was, learned "the skills to turn the pathogen into an inhalable powder" as The New York Times story put it.


Anthrax researcher John W. Ezzell, whose committee hired Dr. Ivins 18 years ago, publicly summed up for The Washington Post the projects the dead man pursued. To the best of his knowledge, Mr. Ezzell said, the work was devoted to anthrax spores in liquid alone. He said explicitly the dry powder form was not involved.


"I don't think a vaccine specialist could do it," The Times quoted Dr. Alan Zelicoff. The physician-scientist aided the investigation when he worked at Albuquerque's national laboratories.


"This is aerosol physics, not biology," Dr. Zelicoff added. "There are very few people who have their feet in both camps."


The (Baltimore) Sun's story assumes Bruce Ivins killed himself and the scientist was guilty as alleged, never charged. "Planning" or "going to" indict is not news; it falls in the realm of fairy tales' crystal balls. It is part of a propaganda strategy that already cost taxpayers nearly $6 million.


The Washington Post suffered similarly from editorial malfunctioning; its story was predicated on government sources' contention a plea bargaining session Tuesday was cancelled because the defendant was declared dead that morning.


The scientist's attorney, Paul Kemp, protested strongly his client's complete innocence – not an attitude for a lawyer prepared to make a recommendation for a guilty plea that would, according to government sources, stave off execution.


Both papers' sort of "objective" reporting serves neither the truth nor journalism. It helps to explain why this profession suffers dwindling respect. But don't hold your breath until moves are made to restore the reputation of Bruce Ivins.


He's dead, after all: no position to quibble!


Yellow Cab
The Morning News Express with Bob Miller
The Covert Letter

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