THE OLSON AND IVINS CASES: SUICIDE OR MURDER?

By Peter Duveen

PETER'S NEW YORK, August 15, 2008--Frederick, Maryland is a city with deep historical roots, and one which has undergone a sort of economic revival in recent years. The downtown is bustling, filled as it is with trendy clothing stores, cafes, restaurants and antique shops. The rich architecture of a bygone era lends charm to the experience of shoppers who wend their way past each other in search of the next retail destination.

One of the engines of the economic revival of this city is, interestingly enough, Fort Detrick, the government research facility that has been targeted by FBI investigators as the source of a series of perverse mailings that delivered an artificially produced strain of anthrax bacterium to high-profile destinations such as the U.S. Congress and media personalities. The toxic mailings resulted in five deaths and almost a score of illnesses. The number of fatalities were far outweighed, however, by the implications that the successful use of such a mode for delivering biological weapons posed for the entire American population. The mailings, which followed closely on the heels of the events of September 11, 2001, arguably helped whip up a national apprehension of possible terrorist acts. It almost certainly influenced Congress in its decision to support passage of the Patriot Act and other legislation that civil liberties proponents argue have badly eroded the legal infrastructure that supports constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms of Americans.


Downtown Frederick
Downtown Frederick Maryland as seen through one a fashionable tapas bar. Locals give much of the credit for Frederick's economic revival to the earnings from workers
at Ft. Detrick, where
bioweapons research is said to be conducted.

On the local level, there is undoubtedly satisfaction that Frederick's economy is humming along. Restaurants are filled with happy diners, and crowds are still drawn to the mix of exotic shops and kiosks. But hidden underneath the surface of apparent prosperity is a palpable uneasiness, the source of which can be traced to the anomalous occurrences tied to Fort Detrick--the historical center of the government's bioweapons research programs--and the lore that has been fed by them. Citizens here talk among themselves of the prospect that they could fall victim to a pathogen were it to be accidentally or intentionally released from the government facility. They point to instances of neighbors dying of unknown causes, particularly among those who have worked there. Some complain of what they say is a mysteriously high cancer rate in the region, and direct the attention of visitors to fields where, it is said, large quantities of chemical or biological agents have been disposed of.

When a couple of weeks ago, one of their own, Bruce E. Ivins, was accused by the FBI of responsibility for the anthrax mailings shortly after his alleged suicide, support for the government's announced conclusions was far from universal. The case of the death of another anthrax specialist was too much a part of local lore for the charges to carry much weight. Even though it had happened over half a century ago, the parallels between the earlier death and that of Ivins are striking, and the personal impact it had on the community hard to shake. Frederick is a small city as cities go. The social network is a tight one, and memories fade very slowly, if at all.

Frederick public library
The Frederick Public Library, Frederick, Maryland, where FBI agents seized computers allegedly observed to have been used by Anthrax researcher Bruce Ivins in the days before he died. Frederick residents are skeptical of the posthumous charges of murder leveled by the FBI against their neighbor.

The story of Frank Olson was documented in the months before 9-11 in an article in the New York Times magazine section. Written by his son's Harvard schoolmate, Michael Ignatieff, we learn from the story that "Frank Olson's specialty...had been the development of aerosols for the delivery of anthrax." In the years immediately preceding his death, Olson was one of the top officials at the government's biological weapons laboratory at Fort Detrick.

In 1953, Olson was found on a New York City sidewalk, his body bloodied and broken, apparently after a fall from his hotel room. The details of his death, ruled a suicide, remained a mystery for more than twenty years. But in 1975, an article in the Washington Post revealed that, contained in a report issued by the then-recently concluded U.S. President's Commission on CIA Activities was an account of a scientist who had been administered a dose of LSD without his knowledge, suffered side-effects from the drug, went to New York under CIA escort for psychological treatment, and jumped out of a hotel room window. Olson's family quickly made the connection between the individual in the report and Frank Olson, and when Olson's wife threatened to sue the government for wrongful death, a visit to the White House was arranged, the President of the United States apologized, and the family received a settlement of $750,000. These unprecedented actions to appease a family certainly must have raised eyebrows, but at the time, it was taken at face value, and little more was learned about Olson's case over the next decade.

Always trying to unravel the mystery of what happened to his father, Olson's son Eric had his father's body exhumed in the 1990s, and an examination revealed that Olson had suffered a blow to the temple, a method a CIA manual describes as a prelude to an assassination by dumping someone out a window or down an elevator shaft. Some of those who examined Olson's body concluded that the blow must have occurred before he fell from his hotel room window, since, they argued, the injury was not consistent with the damage his body would have sustained from the fall. Further research led Olson's son to speculate that Olson, during a trip abroad, had discovered the CIA was conducting lethal experiments on prisoners similar to those carried out in wartime Germany and Japan where dissections were performed on live subjects who had been exposed to anthrax.

This knowledge, and Olson's negative response to it, may have triggered his execution by the CIA, his son contends, although Ignatieff writes that the job may have been carried out by mafia intermediaries.


There is, indeed, an interesting link between the events of 1953 and the Administration of George W. Bush. Bush's vice president, Richard Cheney, and his former secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, were both working at the White House for President Gerald Ford during the revival of the Olson case in the 1970s. Around 2002, a memo was unearthed from archives of the Gerald Ford Library in which Cheney conveyed his concern to Rumsfeld that Olson's activities, which the government considered highly sensitive, might be revealed in court proceedings, the implication being that actions ought to be taken to ensure that the information did not come out.

After the FBI announced earlier this month that Bruce Ivins was the only suspect in the anthrax mailings of 2001, amid reports that he had died by his own hand after weeks of allegedly erratic behavior,
local officials with jurisdiction over the case deemed it unnecessary to conduct a complete autopsy. This decision will certainly fuel speculation that the government is once again trying to cover up activity which may at best be embarrassing to it, and at worst, reveal illegal activities, or even, as many would submit, government complicity in the murder of its citizens through an attack by a lethal biological agent. The failure to conduct an autopsy can only remind observers of the trucking away of 9-11 steel from the collapsed World Trade Center buildings before it could be examined forensically. In fact, to many, it is a tacit admission of guilt.

In light of the long tradition of unorthodox methods used by the CIA, in conjunction with other intelligence agencies, it is no wonder that people in Frederick are highly skeptical of the FBI's declaration of Ivins's guilt, and remain on edge. In reaction to the representations of the FBI, the Washington Post has called for a probe into the way the FBI has handled its investigation of the anthrax mailings and of its accusations against Ivins. In spite of Eric Olson's protestations in the press that the cases of his father and Ivins are quite distinct, many Frederick residents appear to be unswayed.


If the CIA and the FBI can do what it pleases, first to Frank Olson, and then to a succession of other workers at Ft. Detrick including Bruce Ivins, with the full force and support of the U.S. government, they can do the same to every man, woman and child in this country. So when you see Dick Cheney snarling at what appears to be empty space, remember that he may be snarling at you.

Further reading:
"What did the CIA do to Eric Olsen's father?" by Michael Ignatieff, The New York Times, April 1, 2001.
The Frank Olson Project, http://www.frankolsonproject.org/Contents.html, has a long list of well written and informative articles about the Olson case.

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