The Coded Message in the Media Letters

Ed Lake
(February 28, 2010)
(Latest update: March 18, 2013)

There is a coded message in the media letters which appears to be "smoking gun" evidence proving Dr. Ivins' guilt beyond any reasonable doubt.

However, The coded message itself is not the key to understanding the significance of this finding, it's the entirety of the circumstances and the details of how the person doing the encoding notifies the recipient that there is a code in the message.  And there is also the fact that Dr. Ivins attempted to destroy the evidence that he knew this code and all the details about it.

Dr. Ivins' Attempt to Destroy Evidence

On November 1, 2007, FBI and Postal Service investigators searched Dr. Ivins' home, his cars and his office for evidence related to the anthrax mailings of 2001.  Knowing that that kind of search very often causes guilty people to destroy any evidence that the investigators failed to find, the investigators also initiated 24/7 surveillance of Dr. Ivins and began procedures for obtaining his trash after Dr. Ivins had desposed of it without letting Dr. Ivins know that this was being done.

A week after the search,  the investigators observed odd activities by Dr. Ivins which they described on page 64 of their summary report.  That part of the summary report reads as follows:

"Just after 1:00 a.m., on November 8, 2007, with the front porch light on, he walked out the front door of his house across the street from USAMRIID, wearing long underwear, and stood outside for a few minutes before walking back inside. A few minutes later, the municipal garbage truck pulled up in front of his house and took his garbage. Seven minutes later, Ivins again emerged from the house and walked toward the street. He walked to the garbage cart where the garbage once was and looked inside, closed the lid and pulled the cart back into the driveway. He then walked towards his neighbor’s house, and while standing in the street, looked into the parking lot across the street. He walked towards the wooded area across from his house (where the surveillance agent was making all of these observations) and peered into the wooded area and the parking lot for approximately a full minute. He then went back inside his house. In the other 15 or so trash runs conducted before and after this one, Dr. Ivins was never observed doing anything remotely like this."

Included among the trash that Dr. Ivins threw out that night was very important evidence of his guilt.

The evidence consisted of a copy of one of his favorite books, "Godel, Escher, Bach -
An Eternal Golden Braid" (a.k.a. 'GEB'), published by Dr. Douglas Hofstadter in 1979, plus a 1992 issue of American Scientist Journal which contained an article entitled “The Linguistics of DNA” which discussed, among other things, codons and hidden messages.

Godel, Escher, Bach

On page 64 of the FBI/DOJ's summary it says this about "GEB":

"Within the book, there are several specific passages relevant to the anthrax letters. First, in a chapter entitled “The Location of Meaning,” the author explains that deciphering consists of three message layers. The first layer is the frame message, which conveys that there is a message from the sender. Once the frame message is recognized, the attention is switched to the outer message, which is a set of triggers, patterns, and structures, telling the recipient how to decode the inner message, which is the third layer and the actual message to be conveyed. The author comments that the sender cannot ensure that the inner message will be understood."

As it happens, I've had a copy of this book in my personal library for many many years, and it also fascinated me.  I also appear to have the same edition of the book that Dr. Ivins had, since his page 404 is identical to page 404 in my copy.  Thus, I am able to examine the same passages cited by the FBI & DOJ.  Here is what "GEB" says on page 162 in my copy, in the chapter titled "The Location of Meaning" and in a section titled "Levels of Understanding of a Message." 

"Nowadays, the idea of decoding is extremely widespread; it is a significant part of the activity of astronomers, linguists, archaeologists, military specialists and so on.  It is often suggested that we may be floating in a sea of radio messages from other civilizations, messages which we do not yet know how to decipher.  And much serious thought has been given to the techniques of deciphering such a message.  One of the main problems -- perhaps the deepest problem -- is the question,  'How will we recognize the fact that there is a message at all?  How do identify a frame?'  The sending of a record seems to be a simple solution -- its gross physical structure is very attention-drawing, and it is at least plausible to us that it would trigger, in any sufficiently great intelligence, the idea of looking for information hidden in it."

More of the "smoking gun" is in the fact that Ivins followed all the steps.  And he was known to be fascinated by codes.  Here is what it says about that on page 60 of the FBI/DOJ summary report:

"According to statements Dr. Ivins made to investigators in his on-the-record interviews in January and February 2008, and his past statements to Former Colleague #1 and Former Colleague #2, from at least early adulthood, Dr. Ivins maintained an interest in secrets, codes, and hidden messages. For example, Dr. Ivins described in his interviews that, in the late 1970s, he broke into the KKG sorority house at UNC and stole their cipher – a decoding device for their secret sorority rituals – from a locked closet, along with some other ritual documents, though not the ritual book itself. Dr. Ivins held onto this cipher for a few years, before he traveled to West Virginia University (“WVU”) in Morgantown, broke into the KKG house there, and stole the actual ritual book from a locked cabinet. He later copied this book, and then mailed it back to the WVU chapter, with a note explaining that his fraternity brother took the book and he wanted to return it."

Step 1: Message Notification

The first step in the GEB code procedure is to make certain the person receiving the message realizes that there is a hidden message within what is written on the page.  In GEB, on page 404, the example below is provided.  The hidden message is within a list of great mathematicians:

Page 404 code

The message contains an "attention-drawing" feature.  There is a diagonal line of letters which are darker or bolder than all the others.   That diagonal line spells out "Dboups," which appears to be totally meaningless.  But clearly it means something.  It is not the message.  Along with the diagonal line, it is the message notification.   It's the attention-drawer.  It poses the question: Why are those letters highlighted.
Bruce Ivins used something very similar in the media letters. 
Here is the Brokaw letter.  Click on it to view a larger version.

The Brokaw Letter - small

Here is the same media text with the highlighted letters in red:


For me, the first "attention drawing" item in the letter is the misspelling of "penicillin," which is spelled "PENACILIN." 

A second "attention drawing" item is that not all A's and T's are highlighted.  In fact, the A which does not belong in "PENACILIN" is highlighted, but the A in TAKE on the same line is not.  Another indicator of a code.

The "frame" or third "attention drawing" item is the one the FBI sees as most important.  The letters in the four corners of the message are all highlighted, i.e., the first and last letters of the first and last sentences are highlighted.  That's another message notifier.

The FBI suggests that the fact the first T in the letter is highlighted is another attention drawer. 

It is clear that the highlighted letters are intended to draw the attention of the reader.  Anyone looking for codes would know that they are a signal that there is a code here.  And, as in the GEB code, the highlighted letters contain the coded message.

Another "attention drawing" element in the letters is the fact that all the sentences are three words long.  It might be just a coincidence, of it might be an indicator that three is a number that has some significance in the decoding process.  It could be telling the reader: Look for three of something.

Step 2: How to Decode

So, the reader has been notified in several ways that there is a hidden message in the letter, and the message is probably to be found in the highlighted letters.  But how do you decode them?

In the GEB example,
under the list of mathematicians, the decoding information is provided:

"Subtract 1 from the diagonal, to find Bach in Leipzig." 

That means go back 1 in the alphabet for each highlighted letter you see.  In other words, D becomes C, b become a, etc.  The result is "Cantor."  That's the hidden message.  Bach was a cantor in Leipzig.

The anthrax letter doesn't contain the same kind of spelled-out instructions for decoding as the GEB example does, but the highlighted letters themselves would have meaning to anyone familiar with DNA coding.  The highlighted letters are:


Many people familiar with DNA coding noticed that A's and T's were the only letters highlighted, and DNA coding uses A's, T's, G's and C's as abbreviations for adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine.

Furthermore, people with knowledge of DNA know that Adenine (A) forms a base pair with thymine (T), as does guanine (G) with cytosine (C).   Thus, combinations of A's and T's have special meaning to someone with knowledge of DNA coding.

The person with knowledge of DNA coding would then notice that there are nine letters or three sets of three, because there is another code which contains three letters.  TTT AAT TAT are 3-letter combinations which have a specific meaning.

The three letter combinations are called "codons."  The 1992 issue of American Scientist Journal which Dr. Ivins attempted to throw away on November 8, 2007, contained an article by David Searls entitled “The Linguistics of DNA” which discussed, among other things, codons and hidden messages.

Step 3: Decoding the Message

Those three letter sequences can be decoded in two ways:

TTT = Phenylalanine (single-letter designator F)
AAT = Asparagine (single-letter designator N)
TAT = Tyrosine (single-letter designator Y)

So, the coded message in the media letter is either PAT or FNY or both.

Pat is the nickname of a former co-worker with whom Bruce Ivins had a fascination.

FNY appears to mean F**K NEW YORK.  Four of the five media letters were sent to news outlets in New York City. 

The FBI/DOJ's summary report describes the decoded message this way on page 60:

"From this analysis, two possible hidden meanings emerged: (1) “FNY” – a verbal assault on New York, and (2) PAT – the nickname of Former Colleague #2. First with respect to “FNY,” according to numerous witnesses who knew him well, including Former Colleague #1, Dr. Ivins had a deep hatred for New York. For example, in the aftermath of 9/11, Dr. Ivins sent Former Colleague #1 an e-mail where he essentially accused “typical” New Yorkers of overplaying the tragedy and seeking attention, wondering “what about those folks in Oklahoma City, they deserve sympathy too.” Further, Dr. Ivins strongly associated Former Colleague #1 with New York, so this reference may well have been directed at her. His communications with her both when she worked at USAMRIID and in the years that followed were replete with references to the New York Yankees, her favorite baseball team, not always in the kindest of terms. Finally, these were the letters that were sent to Tom Brokaw and the New York Post, both in New York City."

Conspiracy theorists and True Believers will undoubtedly say it's all just an incredible string of coincidences, or that the FBI maliciously put things together in a way that proves what they wanted to prove.  But, any objective observer will see that every detail fits.  And Ivins tried to destroy the evidence.

But there is still one key question which the FBI doesn't appear to address in their summary report, but which I addressed in detail in my book and on my web site without knowing there was a code in the letter:

Why did the culprit put the code in the letter?

Why on earth would the anthrax mailer put a hidden message inside the letter sent to the media?  Here is what I wrote in "
Studying The Anthrax Letters," which is Chapter 1 of my 2005 book "Analyzing The Anthrax Attacks":

Why didn't the anthrax mailer send out any originals? It wasn't an
attempt to prevent comparison of inks. The envelopes are all originals,
of course, and tests of the inks could be (and were) made from them.
Theoretically, both the letters and copies of the letters would have a
similar probability of having fingerprints or other forensic traces.
Writing seven individual letters might give a better handwriting sample,
but he apparently addressed seven separate envelopes, so he didn’t
seem concerned about providing handwriting samples.

Did he save the original? That’s possible. He could have saved the

original so he could use it again. But he wrote a different letter for the
second mailing, and there he needed only one extra copy.

If there was a copy machine nearby, it would definitely be easier to

make a copy than to write a second copy. If he had to go down to some
Kinko’s or other copying place, then it would seem easier to just write
a second copy. All we know for certain is that both Senate letters are

Most likely the culprit simply didn’t want to have to write more

than one original. Making copies was just easier.

But there’s also the possibility that the culprit wanted to keep the

original, just in case he might someday need it.

He may have saved the original just in case someone else was arrested

for his crime. The original could be used to prove that the “real”
anthrax mailer had not been caught.

Or, if he thought he was doing a heroic thing to awaken America to

the dangers of bioterrorism, he may have wanted to be certain he could
prove he did it if he was recognized as a hero for preparing America just
before the real thing hit.

In early 2002, I sent the FBI an email suggesting that they check the safe deposit boxes of any suspects to see if the originals of the letters were retained there.

Now it seems that the coded hidden message in the letters would accomplish the same thing as saving the originals, and it would be safer and less likely to be found before the anthrax mailer wanted it to be found.

What's the point of performing a great heroic act if no one will ever know who did the act?  When the nation calls for The Great American Hero Who Warned American in Time to Prevent a Catastrophe to step forward and identify himself, proof would be needed to confirm that he was that hero.  The code in the letter would be that proof.

The FBI/DOJ summary points out various motives Dr. Ivins had for sending the letters.  His vaccine was under scrutiny and was being criticized as being the cause of "Gulf War Syndrome."  Ivins had spent his life working on anthrax vaccines, and
the entire vaccine program was in danger of being dropped by USAMRIID.  But motives of gaining a small amount of money or remaining employed on work he loved do not seem strong enough to warrant the extreme act of sending anthrax letters through the mail.  The possibility of saving countless American lives and becoming a hero for doing it, however, does seem like a very strong motive to me - particularly for someone with mental problems like Dr. Bruce Ivins.

It seems very clear that the anthrax letters were sent as a warning to awaken America to the dangers of bioterrorism.  There was no intention of killing anyone.  The anthrax mailer took several precautions to assure that no one would be harmed:

1.  He included medical advice in the first letter: TAKE PENACILIN NOW.  (In the Senate letters he informed the recipients that the powder was anthrax - WE HAVE THIS ANTHRAX.)

2.  He put the anthrax powder inside a sheet of paper and used the pharmaceutical fold to enclose the powder.

3.  He taped shut the seams and the edge of the flap on the back of the letter so that no spores could escape. 

(At the time of the mailings, no one believed that anthrax spores could escape by sifting through the paper of an envelope, much less through a folded letter and the envelope.   That's why the CDC felt that it was okay to allow postal facilities to continue operations. 
A Canadian study titled "Risk Assessment of Anthrax Threat Letters" and coincidentally completed in September of 2001 considered a letter where the spores were wrapped in a sheet of paper that was simply folded in thirds and open at the ends to allow the spores to escape, and they considered the risk of spores escaping through the unglued corner of the flap where one inserts a letter opener, but the report never considered spores getting through the paper.)

4.  He omitted any return address on the media letters so they would be destroyed if they were undeliverable, instead of returning to some location to be opened.  (He used a false return address on the Senate letters, so the letters wouldn't be returned to some real school.)

5. And anthrax does not kill instantly.  Anyone opening such a letter and seeing the warning would be able to take Cipro and avoid contracting anthrax, as everyone in Senator Daschle's office did when a letter was opened there.

After the mailings

When Dr. Ivins learned that Bob Stevens had contracted inhalation anthrax in Florida, he sent an email to the CDC to see if it was some Florida strain.  Presumably, he was concerned about his anthrax letter to the National Enquirer in Florida and a sudden case of inhalation anthrax contracted by an employee of a different tabloid newspaper located in another part of Florida.  Was it just a coincidence?

Before the second mailing, there had been nothing in the media about any anthrax letters being received anywhere.

After the second mailing, when Dr. Ivins learned that there were other infections, they were all from the Ames strain, and people were dying, one of his colleagues said in an email, "Bruce has been an absolute manic basket case these last few days."

Summing up

There's no way that all of this can just be a series of incredible coincidences.   The hidden code in the letter and Dr. Ivins' attempt to destroy the evidence related to the code is concrete solid.  And when combined with the solid evidence related to his control of flask RMR-1029, the "murder weapon," his multiple attempts to mislead investigators and his statements to a "witness" that he couldn't remember sending the anthrax letters and didn't want to be hypnotized to help him remember, and he wasn't a killer at heart, what doubt can remain?

The hidden code in the letter is a "smoking gun."  It proves Ivins was guilty.
Dr. Ivins had control of "the murder weapon."
Dr. Ivins showed himself to be guilty when he repeatedly tried to mislead investigators.
Dr. Ivins also showed himself to be guilty when he tried on more than one occasion to destroy evidence. 
End of story.  Dr. Bruce Ivins was guilty beyond any reasonable doubt.

April 21, 2010
- Added a paragraph about the three word sentences and their possible meaning as an attention drawing device.
March 9, 2011- Corrected a mispelling of codon which had been spelled "condon."
March 18, 2013 - Added an explanation that my theory about why the culprit put the code in the letter comes from my first book, published in 2005.

© Copyright 2010-2013 by Ed Lake
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