Saturday, August 9, 2008

Holes in the Anthrax Case?

See Brad Friedman's piece at The Guardian, UK, and this Washington Post Editorial

Holes in the Anthrax Case? The nation and the FBI would benefit from an independent review of the investigation.

Saturday, August 9, 2008; A14

ON WEDNESDAY, the federal government made public much of its case against accused anthrax killer Bruce E. Ivins. On Thursday and yesterday, scientists, reporters and others poked holes and raised questions about the FBI's case. On Monday, the attorney general should order an independent review of the FBI's investigation and its conclusion. Such a review would serve the interests of the country and of the FBI itself.

The mailing of anthrax spores in 2001 to offices in Congress and elsewhere killed five people, injured 17 and trau matized a nation reeling from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. After a long and winding inquiry, the FBI says it is now certain that Mr. Ivins, a scientist at Fort Detrick, was solely responsible for the attacks. The case it put forward Wednesday was compelling, both as to Mr. Ivins's mental instability and his access to anthrax spores; computers seized from a public library in Frederick and materials from the Ivins house may yield more evidence. But the FBI's conclusions will never be tested in court because Mr. Ivins died July 29 of a Tylenol overdose in what has been ruled a suicide. The case is admittedly circumstantial, and questions have been raised about the reliability of the FBI's scientific evidence, the inability to tie Mr. Ivins to the handwritten notes included with the mailed anthrax, the process by which the FBI excluded as suspects others who had access to the anthrax, and more.

"There are a lot of armchair detectives and instant experts out there formulating opinions not based on a full set of the facts," an FBI official objected on Thursday. True enough -- and all the more reason to give a full set of the facts to someone who can get out of the armchair. But to whom?

Congress definitely has a role to play. Investigative hearings could shed light on Fort Detrick's security policies and on how Mr. Ivins managed to hold on to his clearance. They could look at policy issues, such as whether the expansion of bioterrorism research has perversely increased the risk of an accident or attack. They could examine FBI methods in the agency's investigation of both Mr. Ivins and Steven J. Hatfill, another scientist who came under FBI suspicion and who eventually won a $5.8 million settlement from the government.

But Congress may not be best positioned to review the scientific and forensic details of the FBI investigation. An independent inquiry that can work painstakingly outside the limelight is called for. The Justice Department's office of inspector general, although overworked already, has shown under Glenn A. Fine that it can conduct such sensitive probes with thoroughness and fairness. Alternatively, a retired judge could be appointed to lead a commission, which could in turn draw on the National Academy of Sciences and other experts. In either case such an inquiry, if it found holes in the investigation, could document them without taint of politics. If it validated the FBI's work, it would reassure the nation that no killers were still at large and put conspiracy theories to rest.


Anonymous said...

Dr. Nass, I (and I'm sure many others) greatly appreciate the in-depth expert information that you're providing.

However, it appears that the blog posts seem to have the same mindset as the FBI's investigation -- "I've made up my mind about the truth, so I'll tailor the discussion accordingly." Granted, their conclusion about the truth seems to be the exact opposite of yours, and I agree that their case appears to have serious flaws, but I think it's fair to ask -- if additional facts and evidence are uncovered (e.g. today's story that Ivins possibly stalked a KKG fraternity sister for years) would you reach a point where you'd reconsider whether he was the perpetrator? I'm asking hypothetically, and in the spirit of objective discourse.

Meryl Nass, M.D. said...

In response:

Although there is a lot of missing information, which could change my opinion, at this point it seems that no one person could have carried out the various tasks required for this crime, and be at the mailboxes at the appropriate times.

I also think the crime was exceedingly well-planned, not a crime evolving out of mental illness or passion.

I further suspect the perpetrators had at least one of the powerful motives I outlined at the end of a recent post.

I continue to believe the crime was designed to scare, not to kill anyone. But the possibility there might be deaths was accepted by the perpetrators.

It looks like the FBI either deliberately failed to conduct an appropriate investigation, or is an entirely inept law enforcement agency.

Bruce Ivins would be a poor choice of conspirator, given his many weaknesses. But that does not mean he did not play some role in this.

The case so far presented by the FBI against Ivins lacks 3 major elements: motive, location at the mailbox during the required time period, and access to the anthrax preparation used in the Daschle and Leahy letters.

I look forward to the release of more information, which might allow a more detailed analysis than this one.

Meryl Nass, MD

Anonymous said...

Suppose that Steven Hatfill had convieniently died when he was "the suspect". We would probably be in the same position, with the FBI eager to move on and a few "conspiracy nuts" questioning whether Hatfill was really the perp.

The FBI could be right. But they are guessing, since there's no evidence that directly ties Ivins to the crime. No physical evidence and no confession.

At best, the FBI may be able to prove that Ivins could have done it - which is not the same as proving that he actually did. And it's very difficult to prove that nobody else could have done it. "He's our only suspect, therefore he must be guilty" doesn't quite cut it.

Washingtons Blog said...

Dr. Nass,

This essay amplifies on your point that "it seems that no one person could have carried out the various tasks required for this crime, and be at the mailboxes at the appropriate times."

Anonymous said...

After seeing the blatant partisanship that Congress used in investigating the baseball steroid hearings, and how they shamelessly fawned over Roger Clemens, I have no faith at all in congress to investgate this, or anything.

Special Commissions, or special prosecutors, seem to work best.

daedalus2u said...

A question, how many different strains did Ivins have access to? How many different strains did other people have access to? I presume that number is at least hundreds or even thousands.

Since the perpetrator warned at least some of the victims to take antibiotic, the strain was not selected for high virulence, lethality or antibiotic resistance. Since the perpetrator expected no one to get infected, any strain would have been as good as any other.

Anyone sophisticated enough to do this, knows that DNA techniques are sufficient to identify different strains. It seems obvious to me that the strain was deliberately selected by the perpetrator, knowing that it would be identified.

It seems clear to me that the Ames strain was selected to focus attention on those who had access to it. Many other aspects of the case were selected to set-up certain individuals, it would be wildly implausible to assume the strain selection was at random or one of simple convenience.

Anonymous said...

In response to anon post #1:

I myself would like to hear more details of the alleged "stalking" of Ms. Haigwood to see if it has been distorted and padded as have all the rest of the leaks out of FBI.

For example, the first iteration of the spray painting story said the painting was done carefully to avoid damage to the care. That bit of information drops out on following iterations.

For example, Haigwood says Ivins would have had to stalk her to know where she lived. Yet, Ivins is in residence two blocks away. Perhaps all he had to do was walk in his own neighborhood. Ms. Haigwood's boyfriend was unaware Ivins was their neighbor: how insistent a "stalker" could Dr. Ivins be if you don't know he's there?

The "stalking" article says Haigwood's 2002 email correspondence with Ivins was "brief and cordial". Stalkers escalate over time, they don't get more respectful and less demanding.

Dr. Ivins isn't here to give his side of the story so it is now our responsibility to take these considered FBI leaks with something like skepticism as the man can no longer speak for himself.

As Richard Clarke said before the 9/11 Commission: "The FBI doesn't know what it knows".

Elizabeth Ferrari
San Francisco