Noah Schactman has an extremely detailed, useful piece on the anthrax mailings in Wired. Noah did his homework. The 72 comments are also interesting.
UPDATE: Podcast with Noah here. Extracts of the magazine story follow:
In February 2003, anthrax became part of the rationale for invading Iraq. Colin Powell went to the United Nations Security Council, in part to discuss the potential bioweapon. “Less than a teaspoonful of dry anthrax in an envelope shut down the United States Senate,” he said. “Saddam Hussein could have … enough to fill tens upon tens upon tens of thousands of teaspoons.” Two weeks later, Tom Ridge told Americans to buy duct tape and plastic sheeting to protect themselves from a bioterror attack. Four weeks after that, the invasion of Iraq began.
The National Research Council report also casts doubt on whether the killer spores really were descendants of Ivins’ RMR-1029 flask. The FBI resampled RMR-1029 a total of 30 different times, the report found. They could get all four telltale morphs on only 16 occasions.
Further, the FBI says that only eight samples in its Ames repository were genetic matches to all four morphs of the killer spores—and that the scientists with access to those isolates were thoroughly scrutinized. But the National Research Council found that the FBI’s collection can’t be fully trusted: Too many of the samples were intermingled or descended from other labs’ anthracis to provide a truly representative cross-section of Ames anthrax. This may also be a reason why nearly one in 10 samples in the repository tested positive for at least one mutant.
Paul Keim, who helped assemble the FBI’s Ames collection, still wonders how much to trust an anthrax repository that relied on scientists (and potential murder suspects) submitting their own samples. “We don’t know if people did it correctly, and there’s no real way to control for that,” Keim says…
There are still other problems with the case against Ivins. The killing spores were so volatile that they cross-contaminated piles and piles of mail. Yet spores were never found in Ivins’ house or his car, and only a handful were discovered in his lab. There’s no evidence of any trip to Princeton to mail the letters. And just because the killer spores were descendants of a USAMRIID flask, there’s no guarantee a USAMRIID scientist was actually the mailer. In fact, the FBI was never able to prove where the attack anthrax was cultured. “It would’ve been very easy to take the anthrax out, to steal some,” a former USAMRIID officer says. “Anybody could do that.”
Finally, there’s the matter of motive. The Justice Department asserts in its investigative summary that Ivins mailed the letters to gin up support for an anthrax vaccine, offering a few ambiguous emails and comments to friends and investigators as proof. If there’s any further, credible evidence to support this notion, Wired couldn’t find it in the thousands of pages of case documents released by the government or in the hours of interviews conducted with the investigators. Montooth [who led the FBI’s case in the beginning] concedes it’s a placeholder rationale at best…
There’s an irony in the fact that the culprit was likely a top government anthrax expert: Since 2001, the US has built dozens of labs, spent just under $62 billion, and hired an army of researchers to prevent a second bioterror attack. In effect, Washington has devoted the past decade to training and equipping hundreds of people like Ivins.
It’s an unnerving scenario. But there’s something much scarier to contemplate. There’s still the possibility that the government was as wrong about Ivins as it was about Hatfill. If that’s the case, the anthrax mailer is still at large. And that means someone launched the deadliest biological attack in the history of the United States—and got away with it.