Author Q&A: David Willman

  • October 6, 2011

Kelly DiNardo Q&A with David Willman, author of The Mirage Man

In The Mirage Man, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Willman tells the story of the hunt for the anthrax killer who terrorized the country following the September 11th attacks.

Kelly DiNardo Q&A with David Willman

How did you come to write The Mirage Man?

My earlier work for the Los Angeles Times put me in an advantageous position. I had examined in depth some of the national security issues surrounding anthrax. And it was through my researching of subsequent articles for the paper that I began learning disturbing things about an anthrax researcher named Bruce Ivins, a civilian microbiologist then employed by the Army at Fort Detrick, Maryland.

Why did you decide to go back and look at the anthrax attacks more carefully, more deeply?

The anthrax attacks posed the most important mystery that remained from the traumatic fall of 2001: Who committed these awful crimes which killed five people? Policies with enormous consequences—not least the USA Patriot Act, the Iraq War, Project BioShield and the exponential increase of U.S. labs and scientists authorized to handle anthrax and other portable, biowarfare pathogens—all were pushed into being at least in part because of the anthrax attacks. It was my belief that crucial lessons could be learned from the attacks, lessons that might help us to better guard against another episode of bioterrorism. But without a cogent distinction between verified fact and baseless speculation, the essential lessons could be neither learned nor applied. My hope was that, with a book, I could bring to light crucial, clarifying facts.

After first looking at another scientist, the FBI has named Bruce Ivins, who died of suicide in July 2008, their prime suspect. Do you believe he’s responsible?

I believe the totality of the evidence gathered in this case points convincingly toward Ivins being the perpetrator.

What do you believe motivated him to commit such attacks?

My research found that from a young age Bruce Ivins wanted—in his own way, he demanded—both attention and approval. As an adult, he reveled in the recognition that came his way as an anthrax researcher. Beginning in the mid-1980s, he was developing a genetically engineered, “next generation’’ anthrax vaccine. He eventually held two patents on it. As a co-worker explained to me, the new vaccine became “his baby.’’ Ivins grew furious over the Pentagon’s lack of support for bringing the product on line. And by mid-2001, he knew that the next-gen vaccine was moribund. Ivins was a student of how media coverage intersects with policymaking. He understood that what moves the bureaucracy and elected officials is crisis. Sure enough, the panic unleashed by the anthrax letter attacks put Ivins and his Fort Detrick colleagues at the center of a national emergency. And, as I said, the attacks led to the passage of Project BioShield. As it turned out, the first contract awarded under ‘BioShield was for $877.5 million—for the stockpiling of the next-generation vaccine, Ivins’s baby. With this, Ivins had gained for himself the ultimate approval: Validation of his life’s work as a scientist.

As you looked at all of the evidence and then reflected on how the attacks were covered in the media, what did you think? What kind of job did the media do?

This was a challenging story for any news organization to cover. The work entailed understanding complicated science, and this required more precision than echoing the usual staple of malleable political rhetoric or parroting the conjecture of self-described experts. Coming on the heels of the September 11 attacks, the anthrax letters provoked immediate claims of Islamic sponsorship, of linkage to Saddam Hussein and/or al Qaeda. The stakes—war—could not have been higher. At a time when the country most needed journalists to be scrupulous and skeptical in their reporting, too many accounts took at face value or amplified claims that were dead wrong.

And the FBI?

The FBI got off to a stumbling start and this damaged its credibility with certain officials on Capitol Hill who were, after all, among the intended victims of the attacks. I do not fault Director Robert Mueller or his subordinates for the early and intense focus on Steven Hatfill, the biodefense researcher who had worked from 1997 to 1999 at Fort Detrick. But soon enough it became clear that Hatfill lacked the expertise to have perpetrated the attacks. He was a virologist, and anthrax is a bacterium. There was no evidence that Hatfill had ever as much as handled anthrax. After having left Fort Detrick in 1999, he had no access to a biocontainment suite, where negative air controls prevent scientists from breathing spores or other deadly contaminants. As of the fall of 2001, Hatfill did not have an up-to-date anthrax vaccination, which also would have left him dangerously vulnerable if he had tried to prepare spores. Yet senior FBI officials, up to and including the director, pushed for the better part of five years to button up Hatfill’s indictment, which never came. The bureau along the way embraced absurd conclusions about Hatfill, drawn from the reactions of supposedly omniscient bloodhounds brought in from Southern California. As I also reveal in The Mirage Man, a fierce battle unfolded inside the FBI over the direction of the investigation. It wasn’t until fall 2006, when Director Mueller at last installed new leadership, that the case turned away from Hatfill. Finally, I think the book makes clear that the FBI’s marshaling of both the scientific and conventional evidence against Bruce Ivins was a remarkable achievement.

What was the most surprising new information you uncovered for the book?

It’s hard to choose. Among other things, The Mirage Man provides the first biography of Bruce Ivins.  I reconstructed his life from his prenatal care—which included a crude attempt at abortion—through his isolated childhood in the small town of Lebanon, Ohio, to his college years, his scientific career and beyond to the hospital bedside after his ultimately fatal overdose. In 1979 and again in 2000, Ivins had confided to therapists, abandoned plots to poison and kill separate women with whom he was obsessed. Colleagues at Fort Detrick knew that he was taking psychiatric medications and that he was in therapy. And so I was surprised at the Army’s response to a request I’d filed under the Freedom of Information Act, seeking any documents pertaining to evaluations of Ivins’s mental fitness to handle anthrax. In that response, an Army official told me: “Dr. Ivins was never evaluated by USAMRIID [the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases] for mental fitness.’’

How long did it take to research and write? What was involved in the research?

I worked full time from November 2008 to April 2011 with the research, writing and, finally, the editing of galleys. I read thousands of pages of documents. I interviewed more than 300 people; some of them dozens, others, scores of times. I was fortunate to have access to subject-matter experts who vetted continually my understanding of the science and other technical details.

What do you believe are the essential lessons we should take from these attacks?

In direct response to the anthrax letter attacks, the government has funded the new biocontainment laboratories scattered across the country, and thousands of scientists are being hired at these facilities to handle anthrax or other pathogens that could potentially be used for biological attack. So we have succeeded at increasing the threat of another attack by an insider. In light of what we now know about Bruce Ivins, I think these policies should be re-examined. And I think we would do better to rigorously question future investigative decisions, journalistic accounts or policy impulses that may again be born of emotion or careless theory.

What is the biggest challenge we face in terms of biowarfare?

The country went to war on the assumption that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, including biological agents. Prominent members of the Bush administration, including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, told me that they assumed Iraq or al Qaeda were behind the anthrax letter attacks. The evidence shows these assumptions were unfounded, which points out the imperative for better intelligence and for leaders who demand and heed it. Without a clearer understanding of the potential threats, it is difficult to assess which biodefense expenditures may be merited, or wasteful.

Future book plans?

Researching and writing The Mirage Man was a great joy, and at some point I’d consider another book. My focus now is back to producing investigative reports for the Los Angeles Times.

Kelly DiNardo is a freelance writer and the author of Gilded Lili: Lili St. Cyr and the Striptease Mystique.

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