WASHINGTON — As an FBI investigation increasingly focused on him as a suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks, Fort Detrick scientist Bruce Ivins enjoyed a security clearance that allowed him to work in the facility's most dangerous laboratories, to handle deadly biological agents, and to take part in broad discussions about the Pentagon's defenses against germ warfare.
On July 10, the day he was taken to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation, for example, Ivins spent part of the afternoon at a sensitive briefing on a new bubonic plague vaccine under development at the Army's elite biological weapons testing center, according to a former colleague who talked with him there.
Records that have surfaced since Ivins committed suicide last week show that Fort Detrick officials abruptly barred him from the Maryland base on July 10, based on what a counselor called his deteriorating emotional condition. Until then, his security clearance gave him access to some of the most secure areas at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, or USAMRIID. Months earlier, Ivins had become one of a handful of scientists regarded by federal investigators as the lead suspects in the unsolved killing of five people by mailed letters containing anthrax.
Co-workers and neighbors say they cannot conceive that Ivins would be responsible for anthrax attacks, but court records and testimony from his onetime therapist, Jean Duley, paint a more disturbing view of Ivins and his psychiatric state.
His freedom to move about Fort Detrick, even as the FBI closed in on him and threatened an indictment, adds another layer of mystery to the massive case, which law enforcement authorities now hope to close as early as today.
As a world-renowned specialist in the study of anthrax bacteria, Ivins worked closely with the FBI in its "Amerithrax" probe while gradually becoming the principal suspect in the case.
His scientific expertise was so recognized that he took part in broader discussions about a major government buildup of biological protections to guard against future attacks.
The July 10 plague briefing brought together experts to discuss the next stages in developing a vaccine to protect American troops, a project being handled by DynPort Vaccine, an outside contractor.
Jeffrey Adamovicz, who formerly supervised Ivins as head of Fort Detrick's bacteriology division, saw him at the briefing and talked to him for about 10 minutes. "He seemed stressed but fairly normal," said Adamovicz.
Colleagues question how Ivins could have maintained his security credentials if the FBI suspected him in the anthrax case. "Even back in the old days, there was a screening process for people who work in those laboratories," Adamovicz said.
Caree Vander Linden, a spokeswoman for USAMRIID, said government rules bar her from discussing the security clearance of a specific employee.
"There are time-honored procedures to examine security clearances on a regular basis, to verify information provided by the security-clearance holder, and traditional steps to ensure that only the appropriate level of security access is granted, largely based on the nature of the person's government job," she said in an e-mail. It would not have been "unusual" for a scientist of Ivins' standing to attend a briefing on the unclassified plague-vaccine research program, she added.
Ivins himself had called into question the effectiveness of the sprawling fort's security procedures in interviews with reporters as long as six years ago. Since the 2001 attack, laboratory security has tightened greatly: Scientists who work with potentially lethal germs or viruses in contained laboratories are under tight surveillance from cameras and security guards to make sure that no germs are removed from the facilities.
Still, others say biological weapons facilities have expanded so quickly since 2001 that it has proved difficult to keep close tabs on the labs or thousands of scientists, many of whom work in independent labs.
Military laboratories have policies intended to spot mentally troubled scientists.
At private and academic labs, the policies are more lax.
An estimated 14,000 scientists are cleared by the government to work with the most dangerous substances known as "select agents." Nearly all of them have access to potential biological weapons.
There is little to stop one of them, especially an investigator in charge of his own lab, from smuggling out an anthrax spore, for example, on a cotton swab.
"You cannot persuade me there are not more disturbed or disgruntled persons with a political agenda in such a large group," Richard Ebright, a chemistry professor at Rutgers University who has closely followed the lab expansion, said in an interview Sunday.
Ebright said President Bush's response to the 2001 anthrax cases increased the risk of further attack. While a biodefense program is needed, he said, the president should have reduced — not increased — the number of scientists with access to potential biological weapons. Yet the administration pumped billions of dollars into the program, swelling the number of labs to nearly 1,400.
Information from the Washington Post and the Associated Press was used in this report.