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Iranian enmeshed in anthrax case-(but as an investigator, not as a terrorist.

Vahid Majidi is the little-known Iranian-American head of the FBI's weapons of mass destruction division. But he is getting much more media attention now that he played a key role in implicating suspected anthrax killer Bruce Ivins--a radical evangelical Christian who was revealed to be fiercely anti-Muslim.

In 2001, a series of envelopes laced with anthrax were sent to two senators and several prominent media figures; the attacks killed five people and sickened 17. Coming just weeks after the 9-11 attacks, they set the nation on edge as the public assumed this was the second part of what was to be an unending series of terrorist attacks on the United States.

Ivins, who at the time was a government microbiologist and senior biodefense researcher at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Fort Detrick, Maryland, was accused by the FBI only this summer, when the mailed anthrax was genetically linked to Ivins' work. The anthrax researcher committed suicide July 29, as he faced arrest for the attacks.

Despite recent revelations that Ivins was a radical evangelical Christian who believed Jews were God's chosen people, letters written by the perpetrator were phrased to say the mailer was a radical Muslim and to focus American anger on Muslims.

The Frederick News-Post of Maryland republished letters from Ivins in the wake of the 62-year-old's suicide.

In one letter, the anthrax researcher praised a rabbi for refusing to engage in dialogue with a controversial local Muslim cleric. In 2006, Ivins had written, "By blood and faith, Jews are God's chosen, and have no need for 'dialogue' with any gentile."

Earlier letters suggested he saw President Bush's re-election as a victory for evangelicals. "You can get on board or get left behind, because that Christian Nation Express is pulling out of the station!" he wrote after the election.

Ivins' beliefs are significant because the 2001 attacker's letters said, "Death to America, Death to Israel, Allah is Great."

In 2006, FBI Director Robert Muller restructured the bureau. One goal was to strengthen its scientific side. To do that, Mueller named Majidi to head the newly created directorate on weapons of mass destruction (WMD). As head of the program, Majidi's job was to search out any people attempting to build WMDs in the form of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. Con sequently, he played a key role in the Ivins' case, which had been stumbling along for years.

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Muller's choice of Majidi initially came as a surprise. The FBI typically promotes from within and rarely hires outsiders. But Majidi was an outsider --a chemist who worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the place where the first U.S. nuclear weapons were designed in the 1940s. Muller chose

Majidi partly because of his chemistry background--an expertise that was lacking at the bureau.

Majidi, 44, was born in Tehran. His parents sent him and his brother to Urbana, Illinois, in 1979 as the Iranian revolution unfolded.

Majidi received chemistry degrees from Eastern Michigan University and a doctorate in spectroscopy from Wayne State University. At EMU, he met his wife, Jeanne, with whom he has two children.

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Majidi taught at the University of Texas and the University of Kentucky. In 1997, he was hired by Los Alamos and became "increasingly involved in national security issues," he explained.

When the New York Post asked his opinion on Iran's nuclear program, he answered that his job at the FBI involved WMD threats from all over the world and would not be confined to one country or one program.

In 2001, he was loaned to the FBI to work on the task force trying to sort out the anthrax attacks that erupted that year. In 2003, he was named chief science adviser to the Justice Department, where he briefed the attorney general on science issues. He returned to Los Alamos in 2005, but Muller brought him into the FBI's inner sanctum the next year.

Last month, Majidi presented the most detailed scientific case to date against Ivins, trying to answer the many doubts aired across the country. But he acknowledged that many uncertainties remained. The suicide means there can never be a trial and the evidence can never be tested in court.

At a two-hour briefing for reporters, Majidi was joined by seven other leading scientists from inside and outside of the bureau. They discussed in detail the scientific path that let them from two main samples of anthrax used in the 2001 attacks, to four genetic mutations unique to the samples, to 100 scientists in the U.S. who had access to that particular strain, and ultimately to Ivins.

"I don't think we're ever going to put the suspicions to bed," Majidi acknowledged. In words that were widely quoted, he added, "There's always going to be a spore on a grassy knoll"--a reference to the allegations of a second gunman on the grassy knoll near the scene of President John F. Kennedy's 1963 assassination, another crime where the death of the accused foreclosed a trial.

Majidi also admitted to some mishandling of the case. He said that investigators, before issuing subpoenas to everyone known to possess the material, asked Ivins in February 2002 to submit a pair of samples of any RMR 1029 anthrax strain that he had worked with in his lab. They asked that the samples be prepared according to a protocol Ivins himself had helped the FBI design.

But the samples as Ivin's submitted them, Majidi said, did not comply with the protocol. They were prepared in the wrong medium and in the wrong container. They would never stand up to the scientific or legal scrutiny, the investigators agreed, so the FBI's sample was destroyed.

Years later, after the development of more sophisticated genetic testing, investigators discovered that Ivins' first sample--which had luckily been preserved--was a match to the eight mutations found in the attack letters.

Majidi said, "Looking at hindsight, obviously," the FBI should not have destroyed Ivins' first sample. But overall, he said, the methods and techniques used to build the case against Ivins had been "highly validated in consultation with a range of experts."

In an August 18 briefing, Majidi said, "Obviously, for us, the science is strong enough that we're disclosing it to you today." The scientists said that other evidence, including Ivins' failure to provide investigators with anthrax samples they requested, helped to focus the bureau's attention on him.

Majidi said the accumulation of evidence against Ivins was overwhelming: his oversight of the anthrax supply; his night hours; his mental problems; and his habit of driving to far-off locations at night to mail anonymous packages. But Ivins' lawyer disputed the government's account. "Because of their admitted mishandling of evidence, they are accusing him," said Paul F. Kemp, who has continued to represent Ivins despite his suicide.

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"There were a lot of lessons learned," Majidi said. "Were we perfect? Absolutely not. We had missteps, and those are the lessons learned.... It was over the last few years that we were able to incorporate all of the lessons learned that we have throughout this investigation."
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Publication:Iran Times International (Washington, DC)
Date:Sep 12, 2008
Words:1194
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