Experts discuss security gaps surrounding 2001 anthrax attacks

A panel of experts on the 2001 anthrax mailings recently met at the University of Virginia this week to speak about the number of security gaps the attacks revealed and the errors in the ensuing investigation.

David Willman, a journalist with the Los Angeles Times and author of "The Mirage Man," a book about the attacks, described how the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation originally targeted bioweapons expert Steven Hatfill, a virologist with no access to anthrax, as the perpetrator, according to

"Steven Hatfill was essentially lynched by the press," Willman said, reports. "This is a guy who just doesn't check out [as a credible suspect.]"

Hatfill would ultimately sue the federal government and three media organizations for destroying his reputation. He settled with the government for $5.8 million.

By 2005, the investigation had begun to shift towards Bruce Ivins, a researcher from the U.S. Army's biodefense labs at Fort Detrick, Maryland. Ivins had a history of substance abuse and mental illness. Prior to the attacks, Ivins' work on a next-generation anthrax vaccine had an uncertain future. Following the attacks, it became a priority.

"What happens is, Bruce Ivins starts getting the attention that he loves," Willman said, according to

Ivins, according to Willman, craved recognition and attention for his work, and would eventually receive it. He not only had access to anthrax leading up to the 2001 attacks, he also spent unexplained time in the lab's hot suite in September and October 2001.

Ivins committed suicide in 2008 after learning that he would be charged in connection with the anthrax mailings.

Dr. Ronald Schouten, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School and one of the Amerthrax review panelists, went on to describe how the U.S. Army failed to detect Ivins' history of mental instability and substance abuse.

"Anybody handling nuclear weapons gets thoroughly screened," Schouten said, reports. "Everybody in that chain of command is carefully monitored. We have nothing like that on the bio side.

"[Ivins] was not a restricted person, even if they had applied all the criteria, because he never was civilly committed, he never was adjudicated as a defective, he never had been caught in all of his burglaries of Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority houses. In all of his stalking, and all of his murder plots he was thinking up, he was never arrested. So he never would have popped up as a security risk."

Schouten said that the system in place did not work. The panel agreed that the investigation had also missed opportunities to identify Ivins earlier.