Thursday, July 2, 2009

National Academy of Science forms committee to review the science of FBI's anthrax investigation

The National Academies today announced its committee membership to review the FBI's scientific analysis of anthrax. In an unusual move, the NAS has issued a 20 day comment period in which the public may dispute proposed committee members on the basis of bias.

Why was the NAS committee formed? The first mention of such a committee was made by FBI Director Mueller at a House Judiciary Oversight Committee hearing last September. I attended the hearing. Mueller only brought up the subject of a National Academy of Science investigation to sidetrack his Congressional questioners. Here is what I wrote at the time:
... responding to Rep. Nadler's question of whether the FBI would cooperate with an independent investigation, Mueller attempted to confuse the issue of an independent investigation, saying FBI was requesting this from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). However, the NAS will only be asked to review FBI's "microbial forensic" science. (FBI's M.O. is to keep trotting out the genomics, no matter what question is asked.) And NAS didn't even know they were going to get this gig until today's hearing, suggesting NAS' study might just be a bone thrown to the committee to head off a truly independent investigation of the letters case.
The NAS will determine whether FBI's genomics work used acceptable science. I certainly hope it did, given the national security implications if it didn't, let alone the time and expense to complete the FBI-sponsored research program.

However, the very best the committee and FBI can do with all the scientific data is to determine whether the progenitor anthrax used in some of the anthrax letters came from a flask used by deceased scientist Bruce Ivins. Yet over 100 other people also had access to this flask, and might have been involved.

Therefore, what this committee finds will be entirely tangential to who sent the anthrax letters. To solve that problem requires old-fashioned police work, which includes developing a logical theory of the crime. Means, motive, opportunity and evidence will then assume their rightful places in this case.


Ed Lake said...

Dr. Nass,

While the investigation of the anthrax attacks of 2001 was a single investigation, from the very beginning two different approaches were taken: (1) the scientific investigation and (2) the criminal investigation.

The criminal investigation went nowhere until the scientific investigation made a break-throughs with the discovery of the mutations.

The NAS has been asked to review the scientific investigation. It's new territory and the work needs to be formally validated.

There are key scientific questions the NAS can resolve. The question of whether or not the attack anthrax was "weaponized" is the prime example. Some people (including scientists) are still claiming the spores MUST have been "weaponized," even though it's been made clear that the spores were NOT "weaponized."

And the NAS can determine if a single person could have made the attack anthrax using equipment available in Dr. Ivins' lab. Some people (including scientists) continue to claim that is "IMPOSSIBLE" (mostly because they also believe the spores were "weaponized" in some supersophisticated way).

Any question of WHO did it may rest upon the question of "Could one person do it alone?" So, that question needs to be answered first.

The NAS won't address WHO prepared the anthrax, because that isn't a scientific question. And, the case needs to be CLOSED before anyone outside the investigation can see the actual evidence against Dr. Ivins.

The DOJ and FBI should be closing the case fairly soon. It's been almost a year since Ivins' suicide. It's my understanding that the only delay is the paperwork. Closing the case will mean that the case will be open for FOIA requests. Before that can happen, tons of documents need to be reviewed and redacted to eliminate names of informants, details about "persons of interest," details about the FBI and USPIS agents involved, etc.

The case documents probably won't show how each and every person who had access to flask RMR-1029 was eliminated - or, if they do, they won't identify each and every person.

But there doesn't seem to be any point in arguing about who did it until we've seen the evidence the FBI compiled against Dr. Ivins. And the case has to be closed before that can happen.

If there are congressional hearings to review the legal case, we still need the NAS to review the scientific evidence. Politicians are the LAST people we'd want to make scientific evaluations.

And, there's also the possibility that the Amerithrax case documents will so clearly show that Dr. Ivins was the anthrax mailer that any Congressional hearing will be nothing but a hearing about preventing such a thing from happening again.

Ed at

Ross said...

What lab did Abdur Rauf visit in 1999 after he reported that had "successfully achieved his targets." The facility had a confidential room with thousands of pathogens.

Was it LSU? Was it USDA Iowa? Was it ATCC? Was it USAMRIID? Porton Down? Some other lab?

The Defense Intelligence Agency should now provide an unredacted copy of the correspondence between Abdur Rauf and Ayman Zawahiri describing his visit to the lab and consultation with the lab director. An exemption to production is inappropriate all the circumstances. Rauf attended conferences in 1999 and 2000 with scientists such as Bruce Ivins, Peter Turnbull, Les Baillie, Martin Hugh-Jones and other nternationally known anthrax experts.

Old Atlantic Lighthouse said...

Ross good point. After all, if Ayman Zawahiri can know, why can't we? Zawahiri got copies, why can't we? We are below Zawahiri in the eyes of the FBI?

In a FOIA request, people should point this out.