Today’s excellent NY Times piece by Scott Shane and Eric Lichtblau reveals that Ivins as “sole custodian” of the RMR-1029 anthrax flask was a fiction. The flask was not always stored in Ivins’ laboratory, but kept in another building at different times between 1997 and 2001, greatly increasing the number of those who had access to 200-300, and weakening the claim that access was controlled by Ivins. Furthermore, the FBI sent Ivins a formal letter in April 2007 stating that he was “not a target” of the investigation. And the FBI only took a mouth swab for DNA a week before Ivins died.
Careful reading of the August 18 FBI briefing transcript suggests that the FBI became suspicious of Ivins as a result of Ivins’ first sample not meeting the requirements of their protocol, and his second sample not containing the expected 4 mutations. An unnamed official at the briefing stated, “We had reason to believe that there was something wrong with the April submission. It didn’t have these mutations, and so that caused the investigative team to say that it (sic) might be something more to this.” In response to a question about when suspicion first turned to Ivins, FBI’s Majidi reiterated what the unnamed official had said: “Investigatively, after we saw various mutations outside the RMR-1029, it all pointed back to RMR-1029, so the question became “Why are we seeing these mutations in these samples, and we know where they’re coming from and why are we not seeing it in their origin?” ‘
Yet the FBI admits this behavior, initially deemed “suspicious,” is now being called simply “questionable.” And that the protocol for sample submission had not even been established at the time Ivins submitted his first sample. But later another official disagreed, saying Ivins had received a subpoena with protocol before he submitted a sample… yet his was the first (of 1,070 total samples) FBI received. Back in 2002, when Ivins’ samples were submitted, the methodology to trace the anthrax origin by looking at variable colony morphologies resulting from insertions and deletions did not exist, so Ivins could not have been specifically trying to thwart it.
The FBI said that all 8 of 1070 Ames samples that had the same 4 mutations as Ivins’ first sample came from the RMR-1029 flask originally. How many others of the 1070 samples also came from that flask but lacked all 4 mutations? Choosing a different method to use, or seeking a different set of mutations, may have given a different result. It seems obvious that if a pure culture were obtained from the flask (one or even a few spores) it could not contain all four mutations, since each occurred in less than one per cent of colonies derived from samples in the flask. Might other scientists have submitted pure samples though their culture had an RMR-1029 origin as well? Did the FBI do its own collecting at all the labs with Ames anthrax? I don’t think so.
Dr. Keim said during the briefing that Ivins’ flask contained about a trillion spores (or enough to fill only half a Daschle letter, if he is accurate). But the flask contained a good portion of 35 separate production runs pooled from Dugway and Detrick. This makes it unlikely that sufficient anthrax to fill the letters could have been made in 3 to 7 days (time for only one or two production runs) using Detrick’s standard equipment, as claimed by FBI, unless considerable additional equipment was used.
FBI started screening samples for mutations in 2004, but even then the repository of Ames samples was not complete. It would have been much more likely for someone who submitted a sample after the methodology was developed (in 2004) to attempt to hide his tracks, rather than the person who submitted the first sample (which did contain all 4 desired mutations).
During the briefing, Dr. Majidi implied that the method used to dry the spores was of no interest to the FBI investigation. He was asked if the method wasn’t an important part of the evidence, and he said no, the important part of the evidence was relating the 4 mutations to RMR-1029! This reflects unwillingness to grapple with a critical part of the case: how the spores were prepared. Then again, Majidi claimed that there was no special preparation of the letter spores.
If the spores were not specially prepared, then the FBI should have had no difficulty re-engineering their precise preparation, and demonstrating the product to us. If FBI could not reproduce it, then the method by which it was produced is an even more essential part of the case to be solved, not dismissed. (BTW, various officials waffled over whether the spores had a charge, or not, during the briefing.)
In summary, when you read the entire FBI transcript, you are left with the impression that almost none of the questions raised by the scientists and journalists in the audience were answered satisfactorily.