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
One of the engines of the economic revival of this city is,
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
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 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.
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
Frederick is a small city as cities go. The social network is a tight
one, and memories fade very slowly, if at all.
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
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
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
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.
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,
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.
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.
"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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