Sunday, October 5, 2008

NAS Study May Fail to Settle Anthrax Case: Science Magazine

The October 3 article by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee (below) discusses the FBI's request to NAS. How can the National Academy of Sciences answer whether the scientific work would meet evidentiary standards in a court of law? They are scientists, not lawyers.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has provided the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) with a list of 15 questions that it wants the academy to consider in its review of the scientific evidence in the FBI's case against Bruce Ivins, the Army microbiologist implicated in the anthrax letter attacks of 2001. Besides asking whether the genomic analysis carried out to trace the source of the anthrax was valid, the questions address aspects such as the source of silicon found in the spores and whether the attacker needed specialized equipment to grind the spores into an easily dispersible powder.

But even before the academy frames the scope of the study and seeks approval from its governing board, members of Congress and bioterrorism experts are voicing concerns that a purely scientific review won't counter skepticism that Ivins, working solo, was the perpetrator of the attacks. One expert calls the FBI's request "a nice little jujitsu move" to deflect attention from nonscientific questions about the investigation, such as how the FBI ruled out all the other individuals who had access to RMR-1029, the flask of anthrax under Ivins's control. Last week, those concerns prompted Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ) to introduce legislation proposing a commission--similar to the one that investigated the 11 September 2001 terrorist strikes--that would review all the evidence in the case.

Since Ivins committed suicide on 29 July, FBI officials have unsealed court documents that detail part of the scientific evidence linking the anthrax in the letters to the flask under Ivins's control at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland. By requesting the NAS study, the FBI is essentially subjecting that evidence to peer review in lieu of a jury trial. The last question on the FBI's 15 September list is whether "testimony regarding the methods used to link the mailed anthrax to RMR 1029" would meet evidentiary standards in a court of law.

Gregory Koblentz, a biodefense researcher at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, says even for a scientific review, the questions posed by the FBI don't go far enough. He and Alan Pearson of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, D.C., want the academy to ask more probing questions about the science as well as undertake a broader investigation; they are submitting their suggestions to NAS. For example, says Pearson, referring to a question on the FBI's list, it isn't pertinent to ask whether "Bacillus anthracis samples dried with a rudimentary methodology can pose an inhalation hazard resulting in pulmonary anthrax. Of course they can. The question is whether [this method] can produce anthrax like that found in the letter."

"Our aim here is to lay out the facts gathered in this investigation and be as transparent as we can," says FBI spokesperson Paul Bresson. "That is all we can do and all we can control. As we have stated previously, we would have preferred to have brought this case to trial."

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