Today’s NY Times wants to know if the FBI’s evidence — linking Bruce Ivins to the anthrax letters — really holds up. Frontline/ProPublica/McClatchy last week informed us, after reviewing thousands of FBI documents obtained through FOIA, that the FBI misled us. Ivins’ late-night hours at the lab in September-October 2001 were not really that different from usual. Furthermore, Ivins had submitted additional anthrax samples to the FBI, undercutting the FBI claim he failed to cooperate with a sample request in order to hide his involvement in the case.
An article by Martin Hugh-Jones et al. points out that there was too much silicon and tin in the second batch of anthrax to be a contaminant. Instead it suggested special processing. Anthrax with these additives was never found in the labs at Fort Detrick, where Ivins worked. Had the anthrax been grown there, some of these contaminants would have been left behind, and would have been discovered by environmental sampling. Failing to find them exonerates Ivins, and Fort Detrick, from involvement in preparing the letter spores.
The National Academies panel found the FBI failed to demonstrate Ivins was the perpetrator, and also found that the letters’ anthrax was not necessarily grown from Ivins’ seed spores. Ivins’ RMR1029 spore preparation had been shared with other labs, and any of those labs (wittingly or unwittingly) might have supplied the seed spores for the letters. If the FBI misled the public on the “morphotypes” it found in the many anthrax samples tested, the seed spores could have come from other, additional sources.
There was a strong sense of relief when the federal government concluded that a lone psychologically troubled government scientist mailed anthrax-laced letters in 2001, killing five people and terrorizing the nation. Now its evidence is looking increasingly shaky.
Dr. Bruce Ivins, an Army biodefense expert at Fort Detrick in Maryland, committed suicide in 2008 before the case against him could be tested in court. Independent inquiries this year have raised questions both about the genetic analyses that traced the anthrax to Dr. Ivins’s laboratory and a web of circumstantial evidence. There needs to be a new independent evaluation of the findings.
The government’s scientific case has been weakening for months. In February, the National Academy of Sciences warned that the genetic analysis “did not definitively demonstrate” that the mailed anthrax was derived from spores grown in Dr. Ivins’s laboratory. Last week, The Times reported that one of the leading anthrax authorities and two colleagues believe that distinctive chemicals in the mailed anthrax suggest it was produced by sophisticated manufacturing, which the scientists deemed far beyond Dr. Ivins’s capabilities. Although some experts think the chemicals might be meaningless contaminants, the chief of the academy panel and the leader of a pending Government Accountability Office review think the group’s assertions in a future paper need to be addressed.
As for the circumstantial evidence, an investigation by PBS Frontline, assisted by ProPublica and the McClatchy newspapers, cast doubt on two elements that prosecutors had declared important. A contention that Dr. Ivins worked extraordinarily long hours alone at night in his laboratory just before the mailings looked less suspicious after the journalists found that he regularly worked late hours in other labs and offices. And a contention that Dr. Ivins tried to mislead investigators by submitting an anthrax sample free of genetic markers looked questionable after the journalists found that he had submitted other samples that contained the markers.
Federal investigators insist that there is a vast amount of evidence supporting their conclusion of Dr. Ivins’s guilt. The Government Accountability Office needs to dig deeply into classified materials to judge how well the evidence holds up. Otherwise, Congress ought to commission an independent assessment to be sure there are no culprits still at large.
Previous NY Times editorials here and here got down in the weeds, pointing out big problems with the FBI’s case. The Times editorial brings to mind the critical role the anthrax letters played in recent American history:
- building the case for war in Iraq, despite Saddam Hussein being an enemy of al Qaeda
- helping pass the Patriotic Act
- helping to justify a national security state
- justifying 60 billion federal dollars for bioterrorism readiness since 2001, much of which has been wasted (and here is one recent example)
- relicensing the anthrax vaccine manufacturer, renewing the military anthrax vaccine program, and leading to the purchase of over 2 billion dollars’ worth of anthrax vaccine
First, airplanes were used as missiles. The public stopped flying. Then, anthrax-laden letters, which announced what they contained and how to protect against it (“Take penacilin now”) sowed fear of contagion through the mail.