Did the F.B.I. just take advantage of the suicide of Dr. Bruce Ivins by closing the case and pretending to have solved a crime? Some think so, and the recent report by a panel from the national Academy of Sciences ads fuel to the claim. The panel concluded the F.B.I. overstated the strength of their analysis to a supply kept by Dr. Ivins, a microbiologist employed at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease.
The report from the panel of experts concluded that genetic analysis done by the F.B.I. did not definitely demonstrate that the mailed anthrax spores were grown from a sample taken from Dr. Ivins’s laboratory at Fort Detrick near Frederick, Maryland. However the panel did state the evidence was “consistent and supports an association” between anthrax taken from Dr. Ivins’s laboratory and anthrax used in attacks. The report addressed only the scientific aspects of the investigation.
The crimes Dr. Ivins was suspected of were the mailings letters in Princeton, New Jersey, in September and October,2001, with anthrax which killed 5 people and sickened an additional 17. Coming just after the Al Qaeda attacks on September 11, 2001, they caused a panic over bioterrorism. At the time, many feared the mail attacks were the work of Al Qaeda.
Dr. Ivins committed suicide in 2008. The F.B.I. concluded he was the solely responsible for the attacks. The panel, which was paid $800,000 for their study to assess the F.B.I.’s work, concluded the F.B.I. failed to take advantage of new scientific techniques, molecular methods to identify and characterize anthrax samples, developed between the 2001 mailings and Ivins’s suicide.
The F.B.I. in a joint statement with the Justice Department did not dispute the weaknesses reported by the Academy panel. It said the scientific panel stated what “is and is not possible to establish through science alone in a criminal investigation. It said the F.B.I. relied, not only the scientific evidence, but all the evidence from its investigation to conclude “Dr. Ivins was the perpetrator of the deadly mailings.”
Some investigators insisted Ivins was guilty based on circumstantial evidence, such as working unusually late hours just before the two mailings were made and a recorded conversation with a collegue in which Ivins was ambiguous in his responses as to whether he was the anthrax mailer. But Ivins’s fellows at the laboratory insist he was eccentric but innocent.
Critics suggest the F.B.I. took advantage of Ivins’s suicide by closing the investigation. New attention is called to another possible perpetrator, the possible evidence of anthrax found at a rudimentary Al Qaeda laboratory in Afghanistan. Investigators reported having investigated the laboratory thoroughly, including interviews with those who used the laboratory, that there was no evidence it could have produced the anthrax used in the mailings.
The mailings generated the most expensive and manpower-intensive investigation in American history. The F.B.I. and the Postal Inspection Service devoted 600,000 work hours in that investigation. It entailed 80 searches, 5,750 grand jury subpoenas and 10,000 witness interviews. It involved 29 laboratories at government, university and commercial facilities. It also began a new branch of science now called microbial forensics, which uses genetics and other evidence to trace the source of biological pathogens.