Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Limits of Forensic Microbiology, or "We prosecute people, not beakers"

The FBI and major media have placed a lot of emphasis on the techniques used to identify the specific batch of Ames anthrax used in the Daschle/Leahy letters. Careful consideration of these methods is certainly important, for their accuracy is critical to the FBI's theory of the case.

However, at the end of the day, the forensics are only one piece of evidence. Much as we may desire a tidy resolution to the case, the forensics simply do not have the power to provide it. They can identify a batch, or a pooled sample, and one or more flasks. But they can never tell you who obtained anthrax from the flasks. The strains found in Ivins' flask had been shared; 100 people had access; and who knows how many more had access to the samples maintained by these 100 people?

At the end of the day, it will be the detective work that solves the crime.

As an article in the August 20 NY Times points out:
The scientists say they are confident the F.B.I. has identified the source of the anthrax, a flask in the custody of Bruce E. Ivins, whom the F.B.I. considers to have been the perpetrator of the attacks. But almost a hundred other people were known to have had access to cultures from the flask, and the scientists say they have no opinion as to whether Dr. Ivins, who committed suicide last month, was the culprit.
And the Nature editorial makes the same point:

... The genetic analysis itself seems quite solid. The FBI has collaborated with some of the best outside scientists on anthrax, and on 18 August convened many of them to answer journalists' questions about the science. The researchers on the panel explained that none of the analysis techniques used in this case is new; just the application to anthrax forensics. Several peer-reviewed papers on the forensic work have already been published, and another dozen or so are anticipated.

Although this openness about the techniques is commendable, neither the conclusions drawn from the scientific analysis, nor such crucial legal elements as the veracity of the provenance and handling of samples, have been tested in court. So far only one side of the story has been heard: that of the prosecution...

The FBI should explain why it thinks the scientific evidence implicates Ivins himself, and not just the flask. As Kemp aptly puts it: "In this country, we prosecute people, not beakers."

I much prefer that analogy to the one about the spore on the grassy knoll. Let's get clear about what the scientific evidence does and does not indicate.

How did the FBI get from the beaker to Ivins? Erlenmeyer Flask 2000ML


George Washington said...

A professor of chemistry (Ph.D. in Molecular and Cell Biology from UC Berkeley) says: "although we were initially told by the FBI-parroting media that sophisticated scientific techniques could uniquely identify Ivins' flask as the smoking gun, we learn that even this flimsy piece of evidence isn't true: there are 8 known smoking guns and a theoretically infinite number of unknown smoking guns."

Elizabeth Ferrari/ San Francisco said...

That's exactly what I put into my letter to the NYTs. They can flap about tracking the anthrax back to Ivins all they want (which, they actually haven't done yet, have they?). They still haven't shown he did anything illegal with it.

Paul Kemp is handling the media very well. Good for him.

Ennealogic said...

Anyone know if the liquid anthrax in flask RMR-1029 contained a "Silicon signature?" I'm guessing it didn't...

Apparently both batches of spore powders used in the attacks did. The FBI claims they were able to make an identical spore powder using the equipment in Ivins' lab, but they were unable to exactly duplicate it in this respect -- their reverse-engineered product did not contain this "Silicon signature."

The explanation sounds somewhat fishy to me (from the NYTimes 8-19):
"The F.B.I. scientists said they had been able to reverse-engineer the production and properties of the attack spores, producing bacteria that flew into the air with ease. One person could have prepared the attack anthrax in three to seven days, with equipment available at Fort Detrick, a bureau expert said.

The F.B.I. had been unable to reproduce one feature of the attack spores — their high level of silica — but attributed that to natural variability."

Maure said...

How indeed did the FBI get from the beaker to Ivins! Dr. Nass, I have a question for you… why is it called RMR-1029? What does the “RMR” stand for? Why does the FBI think Ivins created this strain? If Ivins created this strain, why isn’t it BEI-0001? I googled it and found that Ivins also referred to this strain as "Dugway Ames spores, 1997." Also found this for RMR-1029: “…its original point of manufacture, at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, an Army biodefense center administered by a company called Battelle.” Was there possibly a person with initials “RMR” at Dugway who named this strain? Anyway, it has been so many years, with samples going back and forth, and so much opportunity for mishandling, that matching an FBI strain with a flask standing in a refrigerator with a (sloppy) cheesecloth cover in Ivins’ lab means: ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. Maybe Ivins’ flask had the same strain the FBI gave to him in the first place years ago! The “genetic fingerprint matching” evidence is probably the weakest evidence in their whole case. They have to present much better evidence, such as placing Ivins not only in New Jersey but also Florida, and even London, at the time of the anthrax mailings; and show the 'secret safe' in Ivins’ home that contains unmailed anthrax letters that he never got around to sending!

Elizabeth Ferrari/ San Francisco said...

In the magazine, Nature, there is some version of the Haigwood "stalking" story.

The story (Haigwood) oddly repeats four FBI talking points as if the last three weeks of journalists poking around haven't happened -- financial gain (debunked), sorority house (not true), cover up spill (debunked) and misled FBI (FBI keeps changing this story, improbable).

I was googling around a little and find that Haigwood's outfit depends upon yearly Federal funding of about $30 million. I don't know if that matters or not -- a lot of research outfits depend on Federal funding but she's not exactly an independent actor, is she?

There's also a strange detail in the spray painting story. I read a version in an Oregon paper where the spray painting on the car was described as done "carefully so as not to damage the car" but in all other versions, that detail was dropped.

Old Atlantic Lighthouse said...

"done "carefully so as not to damage the story"? the FBI trademark.

George Washington said...

Dr. Nass,

I apologize in advance for again posting off-topic (9/11). However, structural engineers, fire safety experts, and architects say that the government's explanation for why World Trade Center 7 collapsed on 9/11 is as hollow as the FBI's case against Dr. Ivins. So I wrote this.

As usual, the views express in the blog do NOT necessarily reflect your views, or those of anyone who posts on or is referenced in your website. They are solely my views.

Anonymous said...


The path to prove Ivins was not a nut is not a fruitful one.

As for the sorority, he did obsess about it online, though about its secret rituals, not its' women.

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth, I've wondered if Ivins' "obsession" with the sorority could have actually been puzzlement about why someone in the sorority (Haigwood) had accused him of vandalism and also went to the FBI about him after the anthrax attacks. The reason he'd associate her with the sorority would be her claim that he painted the sorority's initials on her car. She may be entirely on the level, but on the other hand she, not he, might better fit the term "stalker". For all we know, those initials were the initials of the one doing the vandalism.

Ellen Byrne said...

Bruce Ivins was one of the warmest, kindest people I have ever known. He was extremely likeable and I cannot imagine him threatening or intimidating anyone, ever. He was a smart, delightful, upbeat, goofy guy, much beloved by his colleagues and friends.

Elizabeth Ferrari/ San Francisco said...

Anon said: Eliz,

"The path to prove Ivins was not a nut is not a fruitful one.

As for the sorority, he did obsess about it online, though about its secret rituals, not its' women."

And it's true that Bruce Ivins had mental health issues. That in itself is not damning, is it? That's the situation of a significant percentage of the American public.

What is unclear is that he ever stalked anyone -- just as it is unclear that he ever tried to attack anyone with anthrax. There is a claim and there is no supporting evidence that his interest was perverted and acted out. I collect toys from the 40s. Some people may find that interest obsessive, too. And I suppose that interest could be "connected" to locations all over.

The last article I read said that his exchange with Haigwood in 2002 was "short and cordial". Most stalkers don't get nicer and less insistant over time, do they?

The detail about being careful about the spray painting suggested a prank to me, not a threat. That version was in the Oregonian and the AP dropped that detail out when they picked up the story:

But, all I have to go on is Haigwood's word against the word of someone who can't weigh in right now. In the "Nature" article, she is reported to say that she met a dozen FBI agents and has no reason to disbelieve them. That in itself is interesting to me.

I never met Bruce Ivins and have no beef against the FBI but the little training the I allowed my teachers to pound into this brain tells me, the FBI has not been on the level and that there are good reasons to question their narrative.

Maybe he did do it. I don't see it.

Anonymous said...


I did not intend any disrespect.

And you are right about Haigwood. After reading the Nature interview, there appears much less to the "stalker" evidence than was advertised. Haigwood's experience is not much.

How about her being on a regular e-mail list from Ivins and she not blocking his addy or complaining?