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Frontline: The Anthrax Files (DVD Review)

23 Jan, 2012 By: Mike Clark

$24.99 DVD
Not rated.

The material forming the basis for this documentary was gathered by “Frontline,” ProPublica and McClatchy Newspapers, and it led to editorials in both the New York Times and Washington Post calling for investigations into the FBI’s wobbly case against the late army scientist Dr. Bruce Ivins. But whether you’ve determined for yourself that Ivins didn’t — or actually did — send anthrax-filled letters to government officials in 2001, this multi-layered cautionary tale shows how a mere accusation of having done “A” can cause a lot of hitherto well-concealed “B’s” to become a part of the public record to abject embarrassment and despair. Life is complicated — once again.

Of course, the Bureau’s Ivins embarrassment in no way diminishes the severity of an act that was perpetrated by someone, though you never get much sense in this documentary that five people died and many more suffered injuries from the mailings. Given that these commenced just a week after 9/11, you can imagine the degree to which it thrust the Bush II Administration into kick-ass mode in terms of getting the case cracked. The initial suspect was bio-weapons researcher Dr. Steven Hatfill, who took rightful indignation (and it was) to full extremes by throwing press conferences after Attorney Gen. John Ashcroft (talk about a blast from the past) stooped just short of accusing him of the crime in public forums. The low point probably came when the FBI spent major money dredging a pond where they thought Hatfield might have been conducting an underwater anthrax lab and only came up with … a turtle trap. Or, if not that, Hatfill’s multi-million dollar lawsuit settlement with the government.

Eventually — though this is a case that stretched until 2008 — the focus turned to Ivins following the extremely vocal Hatfill’s exoneration. It turned out that the top anthrax researcher at the U.S. Army Research Medical Institute of Infectious Diseases was working in the lab more than usual at night around the same time as the mailings — though colleagues say these nocturnal labors weren’t that outside the realm of his usual pattern. Ivins also (an accident, he claimed) turned in the wrong kind of samples from his lab when the Bureau requested one – but on other occasions turned in correct ones, which did not suggest a pattern of duplicity or obfuscation.

During the course of the investigation, however, FBI sleuthing turned up instances of alcohol/substance abuse on the part of Ivins — and also an unhealthy obsession with the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority, stemming from his onetime infatuation with one of its members in a romance that didn’t go anywhere. As it turns out, about 90% of the straight guys with whom I went to college had fairly raunchy Kappa Kappa Gamma obsessions — but we’re talking about degree here, and Ivins’ own was pretty unhealthy, including vandalism and some rather gamey stuff they found about sorority members in his personal files. It was the kind of material professional interrogators can use to break a subject, and as the walls closed in, Ivins began cracking. Eventually, he committed suicide by downing a bottle of Tylenol.

Unless there’s some unforeseen break in the case in what would now be a decade-plus after the fact, we’ll probably never know if Ivins was or wasn’t guilty — though the National Academies of Science issued an independent report calling the FBI case inconclusive, and even investigating DNA expert Claire Fraser-Liggett (interviewed) voiced her doubts. This was a major tragedy with huge national security ramifications — yet it’s this documentary’s portrayal of a personality disintegrated (Ivins is portrayed as a sometimes very jolly/funny guy) that gives it the extra kick that a lot of viewers may not expect going into a film with this kind of title.

About the Author: Mike Clark

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