A handful of letters laced with powdered anthrax killed five people and sickened 17 others. The government closed congressional office buildings, the Supreme Court and postal facilities as the country braced for further biological terrorism.
But Mueller’s FBI struggled for nearly seven years to determine who was responsible — even as he personally managed the case.
“The director was always the leader of the anthrax investigation, period,” said Michael Mason, former head of the FBI’s Washington field office.
The FBI focused on Steven J. Hatfill, a virologist at the Army’s laboratories at Ft. Detrick, Md. In January 2003, Mueller assured congressional leaders in a closed-door briefing that bloodhounds had traced anthrax from the attacks to Hatfill.
But Hatfill had no experience handling anthrax. Nor did he have access to anthrax stored at Ft. Detrick or elsewhere. Years later, the FBI would reject the bloodhound evidence as unreliable.
After media leaks fingered Hatfill, he sued the FBI and the Justice Department on privacy grounds. In June 2008, the government agreed to pay Hatfill about $5.8 million.
Two months later, on Aug. 6, Mueller summoned senior investigators and prosecutors on the anthrax case to his seventh-floor office. The FBI would hold a news conference that afternoon, and he wanted to recap the case’s stunning denouement.
Bruce E. Ivins, an Army microbiologist at Ft. Detrick who specialized in handling anthrax, had committed suicide after his lawyers informed him he was about to be charged with murder for the letter attacks.
Evidence showed Ivins had created and held custody of a batch of anthrax traced by DNA to each of the killings. He had spent hours alone in specially equipped labs just before each batch of letters was mailed.
Mueller let others hold the news conference. Some aides who met Mueller that day think he was reluctant to publicly address the missteps with Hatfill, the bloodhounds and the long delay in focusing on Ivins.
“I think he was personally embarrassed,” said one. “I would assess him as someone that can’t accept the fact that he screwed up.”