Should the Anthrax Case Really Be Closed?
If the U.S. Department of Justice thought its Feb. 19 announcement of the end of its probe into the 2001 anthrax terrorist attacks was going to silence doubters, they have been quickly disabused of that notion. According to the federal investigators, former scientist Bruce Ivins was the sole perpetrator of the 2001 attacks that killed five people and sickened 17 others. Ivins died in July 2008 just before he was to be indicted for the attacks. His death was ruled a suicide.
Stephanie Woodrow, at Main Justice, detailed the scope of the seven year investigation:
"The investigative summary was drafted by the Amerithrax Task Force which was comprised of roughly 25 to 30 investigators from the FBI, U.S. Postal Inspection Service, other law enforcement agencies, federal prosecutors from the District of Columbia and DOJ’s Counterterrorism Section. During the investigation, more than 10,000 witnesses on six different continents were interviewed, 80 searches were conducted, more than 6,000 items of potential evidence were collected, more than 5,750 grand jury subpoenas were issued and 5,730 environmental samples were taken from 60 sites, according to the DOJ release."
Science and law bloggers who have been following the case greeted the announcement, as well as the documents released by the FBI related to the investigation, with pointed criticisms and calls for an independent scientific review. But those criticisms, like everything else surrounding this murder mystery, are unlikely to lead to a satisfying conclusion.
The most vocal scientific critic is Dr. Meryl Nass, a physician with extensive experience studying biodefense reearch efforts. At the time of Ivins' apparent suicide in 2008, Nass said that Ivins didn't have the mindset, motive or means to pull off the attacks. After Friday's announcement, Nass ripped the FBI's contention that Ivins was the sole perpetrator of the attacks:
"The FBI report fails to entertain the possibility that the letters attack could have involved more than one actor. The FBI admits that about 400 people may have had access to Ivins' RMR-1029 anthrax preparation, but asserts all were "ruled out" as lone perpetrators. FBI never tried to rule any out as part of a conspiracy, however."
"That is only the first of many holes in FBI's case...."
Nass also disputes the report's contention that Ivins was upset with Nass over her charge that Gulf War soldiers were being sickened by an anthrax vaccine that Ivins helped develop. Reportedly, Ivins was also upset with journalist Gary Matsumuto, author of Vaccine A (Basic Books, 2004), and investigation of the consequences of testing the anthrax vaccine on military personnel. Nass insists that her relationship with Ivins remained cordial.
“For six years, Dr. Ivins fully cooperated with that investigation, assisting the government in every way that was asked of him. He was a world-renowned and highly decorated scientist who served his country for over 33 years with the Department of the Army. We are saddened by his death, and disappointed that we will not have the opportunity to defend his good name and reputation in a court of law.”
Meanwhile, Marcy Wheeler at Firedoglake wondered about some of passages in the report that aren't well explained. Here's one:
For example, Task Force agents vigorously pursued the possibility that the letters were the result of a state-sponsored attack, and specifically focused on those governments known to have, or have had, an offensive biological weapons program.
Her entire post, along with the comments, are a catalog of skepticism.
The DOJ documents show how investigators came to focus on Ivins after years of considering his colleague Steven J. Hatfill a "person of interest." Hatfill was eventually exonerated and paid a multi-million dollar settlement for his troubles. The documents, which include excerpts from Ivins' lab journals and emails, show a man who became increasingly unstable as he realized that investigators were zeroing in on him.
Barring any startling new revelations, it now appears that we have learned all that we are going to learn about the anthrax attacks. It seems destined to become another of those cases that will be debated and dissected, and maybe made into an Oliver Stone movie. But the official investigation, we're told, is done. Are you satisfied with the result?
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