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Evidence Against Anthrax Suspect Strong

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is not the first time a scientist's name has been connected to the anthrax letters. In 2002, Steven Hatfill became the focus of public scrutiny. Like Ivins, Hatfill was a biodefense scientist. On a hot August day that year, he stood outside his lawyer's office to defend his name.

Doctor STEVEN HATFILL (Biodefense Scientist): No one has come up with a shred of evidence that I had anything to do with the anthrax letters. I've never worked with anthrax. I know nothing about this matter. As a substitute, the press and now the public have been offered events from my past going back 20 or more years as if this were critical to the matter at hand. In fact, it is not.

BLOCK: Hatfill sued the government for, as he said, ruining his life and last month, the government agreed to pay him nearly $6 million. So there is skepticism now as we've heard about the FBI's latest evidence.

NPR's David Kestenbaum has been following the anthrax case for the past seven years. He joins us here in the studio. And David, how does the evidence against Bruce Ivins compare with what got the FBI interested in Steven Hatfill?

DAVID KESTENBAUM: Well, there's a lot more here. As Hatfill said, he never worked with anthrax. Ivins did. He published dozens of papers. He was an expert in making it. The FBI, as they - as you heard there, has linked the spores in the attacks to a sample he had custody of. They have work records indicating he was working unusually late in the lab and alone. So he certainly had the expertise, the opportunity and the access.

BLOCK: And then there's still the question of motive.

KESTENBAUM: In this case, I think that's one of the weaker things. It's where the documents don't really lay things out very clearly. With Hatfill, you know, he'd been out there sounding the alarm saying the U.S. is not prepared for a bioweapons attack. There's a photo of him in a magazine showing how to cook up plague in the kitchen, showing how easy it would be for a terrorist. He wrote a novel about a bioterror attack that drafted the novel. With Ivins, the documents say that he was working - the most they say that he's working to resolve problems with an anthrax vaccine, which the FDA suspended production of and they were under a lot of pressure to get it back in production.

After the anthrax attacks, they did get re-approved. But, you know, I talked to a number of his colleagues and they say that at times, it was just not something that seemed like a big issue. It wasn't something you heard him sounding off a lot. So he clearly was struggling psychologically at the time, but I think the motive's a little unclear here.

BLOCK: Do you think the evidence released today resolves this case?

KESTENBAUM: I don't know. I mean, you know, for a - there are a lot of things in these documents. They would be, I think, difficult for a defense to explain. But we haven't heard the other side from a lawyer. There is nothing placing Ivins specifically mailing the envelopes in New Jersey. It's unclear exactly how he would have made the powder. You need - you probably need some milling machine to actually - once you have the dried anthrax to make a powder, there's nothing about that so far as I've read. And, you know, talking to a couple of colleagues who had been convinced he was innocent, I would say they're a little less convinced after looking at this, but they still feel like, you know, this doesn't prove it. They're not quite sure what to make of it.

Hatfill complained in that tape we heard about irrelevant things from his past being dragged up, and there's certainly an element to that in this case. But the evidence goes way beyond that. Still, you know, I think there are rooms for books. I'm sure you will see books the way we saw books after the JFK assassination on this.

BLOCK: Okay. NPR'S David Kestenbaum. Thanks so much.

KESTENBAUM: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Melissa Block
As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
David Kestenbaum
David Kestenbaum is a correspondent for NPR, covering science, energy issues and, most recently, the global economy for NPR's multimedia project Planet Money. David has been a science correspondent for NPR since 1999. He came to journalism the usual way — by getting a Ph.D. in physics first.