Is the anthrax case solved now?

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Aug. 2 2008 6:35 AM

Scientific Inquiry

Everyone leads with follow-up stories on the suicide of Bruce Ivins, a government researcher who was about be charged with mailing anthrax to government and media figures back in 2001. Ivins died from an overdose of codeine and Tylenol last Tuesday, just hours before his attorneys were scheduled to have a plea-bargain meeting with investigators.

The Los Angeles Times, which broke the story yesterday, is now saying that Ivins was one of the researchers credited with developing an anthrax vaccine and would have received royalty payments on the drug, giving him a financial motive for starting a panic. The paper says, however, that the sum he stood to gain was only in the tens of thousands of dollars range, and ultimately no payments were made because the federal contract for the drug was canceled. The paper says Ivins may also have been trying to scare the government into providing more funding for bioterrorism research in the panic-filled months after the Sept. 11 attacks. The New York Times says the FBI focused its investigation on anthrax researchers instead of terrorist groups because it appeared the attacks weren't actually meant to be deadly, even though they would eventually kill five people. The Wall Street Journal reports that Ivins first came to the attention of the FBI in 2002 when he didn't report an anthrax contamination incident at his lab.

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But the case against Ivins wasn't exactly open and shut. The Washington Post cites anonymous sources who claim the evidence linking Ivins to the attacks was largely circumstantial. The sources say that the FBI could prove Ivins had access to the strain of the bacteria used in the attack, but he was not the only researcher with that access. The NYT says a specialist who aided the FBI's investigation doesn't think Ivins had the capability to convert the disease into an inhalable power. Questions about the strength of the case are especially pertinent, since the FBI had initially suspected another scientist at the same government facility, only to later pay him a roughly $5 million out-of-court settlement. It's unknown whether the FBI will continue to examine other suspects or if Ivins' death brings an end to the investigation.

Regardless of his involvement in the attacks, the papers can all agree that Ivins was a deeply troubled man. The WP devotes a separate front-page story to the violent behavior Ivins exhibited in the months leading up to his death. He had been admitted to a psychiatric clinic after threatening his co-workers. His therapist eventually petitioned a judge for protection from him. It may be impossible to know now if Ivins' increasingly strange behavior was the product of a murderous mind or if he was a nervous wreck being hounded by federal investigators.

Anthrax is scary stuff—no less so now than it was in 2001. So, why aren't we all still buying duct tape en masse and opening our mail with gas masks on? The WP goes inside with a look at the way we get rid of old fears in order to make room for fresh phobias.

The NYT and the WSJ each report on the fading fortunes of Detroit automakers, after General Motors reported a stunning $15.5 billion loss in its quarterly report on Friday. G.M., along with Ford, saw the sales of trucks and SUVs collapse due to rising gas prices. For years, those sectors were their top sellers in America, so the companies are just now deciding to bring more energy-efficient vehicles to market. The question the paper poses is: Can American automakers retool their product lines successfully before burning through their cash reserves? Given that the paper puts G.M.'s cash pool at $21 billion and it's reportedly using up more than $1 billion a month, we might not have to wait all that long for an answer.

Automakers aren't alone, however: The WP tells us there's plenty of bad news to go around as joblessness rates hit a four-year high. What's really worrisome isn't the 51,000 jobs newly lost but the way the job cuts are spreading from long-troubled industries like construction and manufacturing to other fields like trucking and telecommunications.

Under the fold, the WP reports that the Chinese government is cracking down on dissidents in the weeks leading up to the Olympic Games. The paper says the crackdown is pretty much the opposite of what China promised to do when it was bidding for the Games. The irony here is that the government is trying to avoid embarrassing coverage of protests in foreign media.

But hold on there, says the NYT. Human rights violations are still a big problem in China, but the paper argues that, on the whole, things have gotten better over the last 20 years. Political action is still suppressed, but certain economic realities have forced the government to make de facto concessions on things like private poverty and the ability of citizens to move to other parts of the country for work. The changes are subtle things—more the government accepting new policies than instituting them—but they provide a little context for the fresh outrages of the WP's coverage.

Meanwhile, the LAT reports on online Olympic tickets scams.

According to the NYT, archaeologists are worried than energy development projects in Western states could destroy archeological artifacts belonging to a range of ancient Native American groups.

The LAT reports that Sen. Barack Obama is hoping to help his image with rural and blue-collar voters across the nation by trying to showcase inroads made with voters in southern Illinois. The paper acknowledges, however, that such appeals can be fraught with landmines, including racial tension. And race, the NYT explains, is a subject Obama is in no hurry to bring up again.

High-fructose corn syrup sweetens practically everything—is that a problem? The LAT examines the ins and outs of the issue—and the huge pile of money that's at stake.

You know that whole "six-degrees-of-separation" theory about the links between any two people? Turns out it's for real, or mostly real, at least online. The WP has the story.

The NYT is a little late to the party on this one, but it gives a front-page slot to piece on a service called Slydial that can send your calls directly to someone's voicemail, allowing you the option of forgoing unpleasant small talk when delivering bad news.

Jesse Stanchak is a writer living in Washington, D.C.