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As Long as We Remember...

March 12, 2010

Ivins Minus the Technicolor

Norman M. Covert

(Editor’s Note: This is the second of two commentaries regarding the late Dr. Bruce Ivins of Fort Detrick, who was accused of being the notorious anthrax bomber.)


Many scientific and lay persons express dismay at the Department of Justice’s Amerithrax report. It begs belief of its conclusions despite a host of miscalculations, far-fetched circumstantial evidence and omission of some mitigating facts. This creative assessment of evidentiary material lacks Hollywood’s blandishments, but not the creativity.


The report would have you believe the late Dr. Bruce E. Ivins is a clone of “Star Wars” cinematic villain Darth Vader. The tragic-comedy here is that the villain within may be the Justice Department, portraying the bumbling Dark Helmet and his sidekicks in Hollywood’s “Space Balls” spoof.


Like Dr. Ivins, the analogous “Dark Side” of Fort Detrick does not exist. There is no secret laboratory beneath the former airport runway parallel to Military Road. Offensive biological warfare came to an abrupt halt. Despite braying of dissenters, the U. S. Army cannot be a scofflaw.


Several hundred professional and support personnel vacated Fort Detrick after President Richard M. Nixon issued executive orders in November 1969 forbidding offensive biological warfare research. He retained defensive research, a small percentage of the work force. The U. S. Army Medical Unit (USAMU) became the U. S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID).


Overt destruction of bio-weapon stockpiles was undertaken in the network of biological warfare research complexes, including Fort Detrick. Then Frederick County Public Health Officer Dr. Forbes Burgess was a witness. It was recorded on still photography, 16mm motion picture film and other media technologies of the era, all of which is available in the National Archives and Records Center.


Many local citizens still express anger that family members were transferred “down the road” or simply lost their jobs through reduction in force procedures.


Dr. Riley D. Housewright was a World War II scientist, becoming scientific director in 1956. He was directed to oversee destruction, dismantling and facility transfer to the National Cancer Institutes, President Nixon’s concession to Sen. Charles (Mac) Mathias (R., Md.) and Rep. Goodloe E. Byron (D., MD 6th). Dr. Housewright then helped found one of the first civilian laboratories in Rockville in 1973.


The National Academies of Science presented its awaited report two weeks ago on the existing and new facilities of USAMRIID. It faced a collection of dissenters, who groused about the distinguished, multi-disciplinary group for not giving credence to what they termed “potential dangers.”


The report tossed a bone to local insurgents regarding one piece of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). However, the panel praised USAMRIID for going above and beyond to ensure safety. The new facility promises to be even better, ensuring another season of some local protestations.


Fort Detrick/USAMRIID leadership was urged to cultivate closer communication with the Frederick community. New Mayor Randy McClement is anxious for such dialogue, which eroded during the early days of former Mayor Jennifer Dougherty’s administration. Flashes of interaction ensued before she was kicked out of City Hall.


Conspiracy theorists love the chase, which explains why many find it believable that Dr. Ivins was just another rogue scientist carrying out his own form of justice.


In the mid-80s a former local pastor’s mistrust was allayed after he served a term as community member of the institute’s human use committee. Its professionalism, thorough review and consideration for Medical Research Volunteer Subjects (MRVS) changed his thinking.


This writer and a local farmer/doctor of veterinary medicine served more than a decade together as non-scientific and community members, respectively, of the Institute’s Animal Care and Use Committee (LACUC).


Both committees reviewed protocols with a critical eye. Dr. Ivins presented 18-page protocol No. 01-28 before the LACUC in June 2001, seeking to take anthrax vaccine research another step forward.


Dr. Ivins was professional and quick to answer detailed challenges, earning the committee’s approval. He proposed to use a strain of B. anthracis drawn from the original Ames stock at USAMRIID, not RMR 1029, which the Justice Department says was basis for the letter spores.


We saw no troubled, brooding scientist during that presentation just two months prior to the first anthrax letter attacks. His career was certainly not on the rocks and he was considered among the best and brightest at USAMRIID.


The Justice Department has overreached in slandering the besieged Dr. Ivins. He may have been their last-chance suspect among microbiologists at USAMRIID. Each was vulnerable to suspicion after demonstrating their individual skills to assay evidence from the letter bombs.


USAMRIID’s team found the dry anthrax spores to be among the most sophisticated they had ever seen. The silicon-laced spores bore little resemblance to their wet product used to expose research animals.


The former Pilot Plant (Bldg. 470) at Fort Detrick once possessed and produced the volumes of anthrax slurry in pursuit of weaponization. Such equipment, including a large volume lyophilizer, did not exist at Fort Detrick in the summer and fall of 2001. Dr. Ivins and his colleagues were limited to small volume vessels to brew the wet product they needed.


Time, the experts say, also mitigates Dr. Ivins as the killer. It would have taken many months to produce the amount of slurry needed to realize the final amounts of product. Each letter was said to contain many multiples above what is needed for an effective lethal dose.


Any major production in Dr. Ivins’ suites, centrally located in USAMRIID’s main building (1412), would have been detected. Biological warfare safety experts agree it would have been impossible to contain contamination within the BL3 equipped laboratory.


USAMRIID’s negative airflow system carries outside air from the two entrances through HEPA filters prior to outside exhaust. This reduces to near zero any threat to the community.


Inside is another challenge. The tragic deaths of Joel E. Willard (1958) and William A. Boyles (1969) resulted from exposure to anthrax spores inside the old Pilot Plant. This month’s Justice Department scenario would result in certain contamination and infection of epidemic proportion inside the Bldg. 1412. Spores could not be contained within the BL3 suite.


The latter scenario would have played into the hands of local doomsdayers. Thankfully, that epidemic did not occur.


Clearly someone was going to take the fall for the attacks despite the enormity of the challenge. The lack of direct evidence suggests the investigation had gone as far as it could. The report is an indictment of those who simply failed in their investigation – a sorry ending to this screenplay.


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