Anthrax Report Cast Doubts on Scientific Evidence in FBI Case

The National Research Council, a prominent panel of scientists issued a 190 page report casting new doubt on scientific evidence that was a key part of the FBI’s case against Bruce E. Ivins, the deceased Army scientist accused of carrying out the deadly 2001 anthrax attacks.

The report questions the link between a flask of anthrax bacteria in Ivins’s lab at Fort Detrick, Md., and the anthrax-infested letters that killed five people and sickened 17 others.

“The scientific link between the letter material and flask number RMR-1029 is not as conclusive as stated in the DOJ Investigative Summary.”

This long-anticipated report, which was commissioned by the FBI, is sure to reignite the debate among scientists and lay people who have questioned the validity of the FBI’s evidence against Evins.

The panel said the science did not support the Justice Department’s statement in a 2010 report that “the anthrax mailer must have possessed significant technical skill,” an assertion that narrowed who could have been responsible. “Given uncertainty about the methods used for preparation of the spore material, the committee could reach no significant conclusions regarding the skill set of the perpetrator,” the report states.

The report, thus lends some support to critics’ concerns about the validity of the evidence upon which the government closed the case last year, concluding that Ivins–who had committed suicide while under FBI surveillance–had single-handedly prepared and mailed the deadly anthrax spores.

The report makes no judgment about Ivins’s guilt or innocence. Federal law enforcement officials stood behind their contention that Ivins was the anthrax killer.

 “This report entirely undercuts the conclusion that RMR-1029 was the source and that Ivins was the perpetrator,” said Meryl Nass, an anthrax expert and physician at Mount Desert Island Hospital in Maine. “That evidence was totally critical to their case,” said Nass, who added that hundreds of people had access to the flaks in Ivins’s lab. Federal investigators have said they investigated and ruled out all possible other suspects.

 * Meryl Nass, MD is a member of the  Board of Directors of the Alliance for Human Research Protection

  Vera Hassner Sharav

Anthrax report casts doubt on scientific evidence in FBI case against Bruce Ivins

By Jerry Markon
Washington Post
Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A panel of prominent scientists is casting new doubt on scientific evidence that was a key part of the FBI’s case against Bruce E. Ivins, the deceased Army scientist accused of carrying out the deadly 2001 anthrax attacks.

The National Research Council, in a report issued Tuesday, questioned the link between a flask of anthrax bacteria in Ivins’s lab at Fort Detrick, Md., and the anthrax-infested letters that killed five people and sickened 17 others.

 The Justice Department has said genetic testing conclusively linked the letters to spores in the flask – labeled RMR-1029 – found at the laboratory, where Ivins was a longtime researcher before committing suicide in 2008. The government closed the case last year after concluding that Ivins had single-handedly prepared and mailed the deadly anthrax spores, an incident that terrorized a nation still reeling from the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

 “The scientific link between the letter material and flask number RMR-1029 is not as conclusive as stated in the DOJ Investigative Summary,” said the $1.1 million report by the council, which was commissioned by the FBI. The document added, however, that the “genetic evidence is consistent with and supports an association between the RMR-1029 flask.”

 The report, while praising the FBI’s energetic pursuit of emerging science in the investigation, offered another possible explanation for the apparent link between the letters and the Ivins flask and said it “was not rigorously explored.”

 The 190-page document by the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences also said the FBI’s scientific methods in collecting samples of the strain of anthrax used in the attacks were “not optimal,” and it said the authors could not verify the government’s contention that only Ivins and a select group of scientists possessed the required expertise to prepare the spore-laden letters.

 “This shows what we’ve been saying all along: that it was all supposition based on conjecture based on guesswork, without any proof whatsoever,” said Paul Kemp, a lawyer who represented Ivins in negotiations with federal prosecutors who were preparing to charge him before his death. Kemp called for congressional hearings into the investigation.

 The report makes no judgment about Ivins’s guilt or innocence, and federal law enforcement officials on Tuesday stood behind their contention that Ivins was the anthrax killer. They pointed to what they said was overwhelming evidence linking him to the attacks, including e-mails and recorded conversations showing an increasingly agitated Ivins seeking to implicate colleagues while misleading investigators about his ability to make the deadly anthrax powder.

 Lab records from Fort Detrick revealed that Ivins uncharacteristically logged dozens of hours late at night just before the anthrax envelopes were sent and that he was inexplicably absent during long stretches when investigators think he drove to New Jersey to mail them.

 “The FBI has long maintained that while science played a significant role, it was the totality of the investigative process that determined the outcome of the anthrax case,” the FBI and Justice Department said in a joint statement. “Although there have been great strides in forensic science over the years, rarely does science alone solve an investigation.”

 The statement said the FBI had used science that was “innovative and groundbreaking” and that the report “provides valuable guidance” and “better prepares the FBI to respond to attacks of a similar nature in the future. ”

 But the long-anticipated report reignited a debate that has been simmering among some scientists and others who have questioned the strength of the FBI’s evidence against Ivins.

 The extensive eight-year FBI probe, which spanned six continents, has included missteps, including the public naming of Ivins’s colleague Stephen Hatfill as a “person of interest” in the investigation. The FBI later apologized to Hatfill.

 “This report entirely undercuts the conclusion that RMR-1029 was the source and that Ivins was the perpetrator,” said Meryl Nass, an anthrax expert and physician at Mount Desert Island Hospital in Maine. “That evidence was totally critical to their case,” said Nass, who added that hundreds of people had access to the flaks in Ivins’s lab. Federal investigators have said they investigated and ruled out all possible other suspects.

 The report did endorse a key conclusion reached by FBI scientists: that the anthrax spores used in the mailings had not been altered, either genetically or chemically. That appeared to rule out the possibility that the spores were “weaponized” or manipulated to make them more deadly.

 Some scientists have pointed to oddly elevated levels of silicon in the spores as an indication that the deadly powder was enhanced by someone with knowledge of advanced bioweapons techniques. The panel’s findings, however, appeared to support the theory that the spores were produced by one or more individuals working alone, and were not the product of a state-run bioweapons program.

 The proximity of the anthrax attacks to Sept. 11 had also fueled concern of possible terrorist involvement in the anthrax mailings. And the report reveals that the FBI and intelligence officers collected samples from an overseas site “because of information about efforts by al-Qaeda to develop an anthrax program.”

 The report said the tests turned out to be negative but that the evidence was inconsistent, and it called for further review. It said the committee that prepared the report was provided “only fragmentary information” about the tests “very late in our study.”

 Federal law enforcement officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information, said the committee was offered a classified briefing to explain why federal investigators determined there was no evidence of anthrax at the overseas site. The committee declined because it only wanted information that could be made public, the officials said.

 Staff reporter Joby Warrick and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this story.

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Panel Says U.S. Overstated Some Evidence Against Alleged Anthrax Mailer
Associated Press

HAGERSTOWN, Md.—Federal investigators overstated the strength of the scientific evidence against a late Army researcher blamed for the anthrax mailings that killed five people in 2001, a panel of scientists said Tuesday after an 18-month review.

 However, the panel didn’t contradict the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s conclusion that the researcher was behind the letters.

 The National Research Council committee scheduled a briefing in Washington on its 170-page report, which examines the novel microbial forensic techniques used by the FBI to determine that Bruce Ivins acted alone in making and sending the powdered spores.

 “We find the scientific evidence to be consistent with their conclusions but not as definitive as stated,” said Lehigh University President Alice P. Gast, who chaired the 16-member panel.

 The FBI said in a written statement that its conclusions were based on a traditional investigation as well as scientific findings. “The FBI has long maintained that while science played a significant role, it was the totality of the investigative process that determined the outcome of the anthrax case,” the agency said.

 Ms. Gast declined to comment on the guilt or innocence of Mr. Ivins, who died of an apparently intentional Tylenol overdose in 2008 as his indictment for the attacks neared. He had denied involvement, and his lawyer and some colleagues have maintained he was an innocent man hounded to self-destruction.

 Early last year, the FBI formally closed its investigation into the anthrax letters that unnerved a nation still reeling from the 9/11 attacks, saying it had concluded that Mr. Ivins had planned and executed the mailings by himself.

 Five people died in October and November 2001 from anthrax inhalation or exposure linked to the mailings. They were a Florida photo editor, two postal workers in Washington, a hospital employee in New York and a 94-year-old woman in Oxford, Conn. Seventeen others were sickened. Postal facilities, U.S. Capitol buildings and private offices were shut for inspection and cleaning by workers in hazardous-materials suits from Florida to New York and elsewhere.

 nvestigators have acknowledged that the case against Mr. Ivins, who worked at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md., was circumstantial. Still, Jeff Taylor, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, said in 2008 that prosecutors could prove to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Ivins was responsible for the attacks. The FBI asked the congressionally chartered council to validate its use of new and emerging science in the investigation.

 The panel said the science didn’t support the Justice Department’s statement in a 2010 report that “the anthrax mailer must have possessed significant technical skill,” an assertion that narrowed who could have been responsible. “Given uncertainty about the methods used for preparation of the spore material, the committee could reach no significant conclusions regarding the skill set of the perpetrator,” the report states.

 The report also challenges investigators’ conclusion that the parent material of the Ames anthrax spores used in the attacks came from a flask labeled RMR-1029 that was created and solely maintained by Mr. Ivins. “The scientific link between the letter material and flask number RMR-1029 is not as conclusive as stated” by the Justice Department, the report says.

The report reveals that the FBI pursued a possible al Qaeda link to the mailings by trying without success to grow anthrax from swabs and swipes taken from an unspecified overseas site at which a terrorist group’s anthrax program was allegedly located. The samples tested positive for Ames anthrax—false positives aren’t unusual—but wouldn’t grow spores, according to sketchy information in a newly declassified document that the FBI gave the committee in December or January.

The committee said the methods used in the inconclusive tests should be explored in more detail.

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