Another shoe drops

>> Wednesday, February 16, 2011

I don't know if readers will recall this, but back in 2008 I wrote two posts (here and here) about my qualms about the FBI identifying researcher Bruce Ivins as the individual who mailed several envelopes containing anthrax to news outlets and political offices, resulting in several deaths. I was unconvinced by the allegations and troubled by the claims that (1) Ivins was the culprit and (2) that the culprit acted alone, finding the first claim shaky and the second frankly implausible and completely unsupported by the proffered evidence.

Being a bad blogger, I said I'd follow up on it, then I never had a chance to invest myself in the documents I downloaded from the DOJ. Other things came up and I moseyed along and pretty much let it drop.

Sadly, I still don't have time to get too much into it now, but I did want to pass along the news if you somehow missed it: the National Academy of Sciences has released their report on the biological aspects of the FBI investigation, and concluded that the FBI's biological claims are unsupported by the evidence.

Two particular things should be emphasized. First, that the NAS panel did not review other forensic evidence, scientific or quasi-scientific or non-scientific, nor did the panel review any of the other evidence in the case--witness statements, circumstantial evidence, etc. Second, the NAS panel was not in a position to reach a conclusion regarding Ivins' guilt or innocence, and didn't try. Flaws in the FBI investigation do not exculpate Ivins and other evidence in the DOJ's possession might be sufficient to establish guilt--or not, but it seems one needs to put things that way because it's likely some folks will overstate the significance of the NAS conclusions with regard to Ivins' innocence.

But this also needs to be said: although the DOJ is now downplaying the relative importance of the DNA analysis of the anthrax bacillus collected and comparisons to the Ames strain available to Dr. Ivins for his research, and emphasizing that they had additional circumstantial evidence pointing to his guilt, the actual fact is that the DNA analysis was the linchpin of their case against Ivins. Lots of people have access to mailboxes in New Jersey or harbor grudges against United States Senators or comment semi-anonymously on message boards or liked The DaVinci Code; indeed, there are probably a lot of people who match all of these and others. The rug that really tied the room together was the claim that the bacillus delivered to the victims of the assault probably or almost had to come from Ivins' laboratory, narrowing the entire list of primary suspects down to people with access to the lab.

The NAS panel couldn't corroborate that claim and concluded the FBI overstated its evidence on that score. Indeed, the NAS panel couldn't conclude that the original investigation was right to exclude as a source an Al Qaeda site in Afghanistan (in addition to the NAS statement linked above, see also) or reach a conclusion about the time or skill needed to produce the spores used by the attacker. Nor could they conclude that the silicon samples found in the anthrax letters--described by DOJ as a "dispersant" and indicator of the attacker's expertise--was there on purpose.

The NAS calls for the investigation to be reopened and some members of Congress are echoing that. This is reasonable, not just for the sake of Ivins' reputation (indeed, a thorough investigation may provide conclusive evidence of his guilt), but because the possibilities remain that (1) if Ivins is guilty, he acted in concert with one or more individuals who may be at-large and dangerous, and who need to be brought to justice, and (2) if Ivins isn't guilty, we need to know who the actual perpetrators are and whether they're still out there. Furthermore, a third reason for re-opening the investigation is that it would absolutely be helpful, even if a re-opened investigation confirms Ivins' guilt and that he acted alone, to answer questions the FBI investigation failed to resolve, such as the actual difficulty of staging a biological attack via the U.S. Mail (if the original FBI conclusion that the attack required some technical skill and hardware is correct, it's certainly reassuring).


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