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Expert Panel Is Critical of F.B.I. Work in Investigating Anthrax Letters

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By Scott Shane
Published: February 15, 2011 at

NYTimes.com

WASHINGTON — A review of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s scientific
work on the investigation of the anthrax letters of 2001 concludes that the
bureau overstated the strength of genetic analysis linking the mailed anthrax
to a supply kept by Bruce E. Ivins, the Army microbiologist whom the investigators
blamed for the attacks.

The review, by a panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences, says the
genetic analysis “did not definitively demonstrate” that the mailed anthrax
spores were grown from a sample taken from Dr. Ivins’s laboratory at Fort Detrick
in Frederick, Md. It does add, however, that the evidence is “consistent with
and supports an association” between Dr. Ivins’s flask and the attack anthrax.

The academy’s report faults the F.B.I. as failing to take advantage of
scientific methods developed between the mailings in 2001 and its conclusion
after Dr. Ivins’s suicide in 2008 that he was the sole perpetrator.

“In subsequent years, the investigators did not fully exploit molecular
methods to identify and characterize” anthrax samples, the report said.

Nothing in the 170-page academy report directly refutes the conclusion of what
was by most estimates the most expensive and manpower-intensive criminal investigation
in American history. The academy panel, which was paid $1.1 million by the F.B.I.
for its review, assessed only the scientific aspects of the investigation and
not the traditional detective work.

Alice P. Gast, chairwoman of the 16-member scientific panel and president of
Lehigh University, said Tuesday at a news conference that it “could be
fruitful” for any future review to consider both scientific and police
work. But Dr. Gast said the exclusive scientific focus permitted her panel to
go into depth on the role played by science in the “national emergency”
set off by the anthrax attacks.

Dr. Gast, a chemical engineer, said the panel reached no conclusion as to Dr.
Ivins’s guilt or innocence.

The academy said the 9,600 pages of F.B.I. documents it used in its review
would be made available to the public on request. The last 500 pages were provided
by the F.B.I. only in November, after the bureau was given the final draft of
the report for review and objected to some conclusions, leading to some changes
to the report.

In a joint statement, the F.B.I. and the Justice Department did not directly
dispute the weaknesses the academy identified. Instead, the statement said the
panel of scientists “reiterates what is and is not possible to establish
through science alone in a criminal investigation of this magnitude.”

The F.B.I. “has long maintained that while science played a significant
role, it was the totality of the investigative process that determined the outcome
of the anthrax case,” the statement said. It said Dr. Ivins “was
determined to be the perpetrator of the deadly mailings.”

Representative Rush D. Holt, a New Jersey Democrat and physicist who has followed
the case, said he thought the academy’s review showed that “the
F.B.I. attached too much certainty to the scientific parts of the case.”

“I also think it shows the case was closed prematurely,” Mr. Holt
said.

He said he was reintroducing a bill to create a national commission, similar
to the Sept. 11 panel, to take a more comprehensive look at the anthrax case
and its implications.

In an interview, three investigators who spent years on the case expressed
frustration with the academy’s findings but said the report raised no
questions that change the conclusion about Dr. Ivins. The investigators, who
were not authorized to speak on the record, said the academy report merely underscored
the difference between pure science and the reality of gathering evidence in
a criminal case.

“The totality of the evidence incriminating Dr. Ivins is overwhelming,”
one investigator said.

He noted, among a long list of circumstantial evidence, the unusual late hours
Dr. Ivins spent alone in his lab in the days leading up to the two anthrax mailings
and a recorded conversation with a colleague in which Dr. Ivins made equivocal
statements about whether he was involved in the anthrax mailings.

Dr. Ivins’s guilt has been adamantly denied by many of his colleagues
at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases,
where he was seen as an eccentric but popular character. The academy’s
report is likely to renew claims by the F.B.I.’s critics that the bureau
merely took advantage of Dr. Ivins’s suicide to close the case.

The academy report calls for another look at tests that indicated the possible
presence of anthrax at a primitive lab used by Al Qaeda; the report does not
give its location, but such a lab was found in Afghanistan after the American
invasion. The anthrax investigators said an exhaustive review, including interviews
with Qaeda operatives who used the facility, found no evidence that it was capable
of producing the anthrax powder in the mailings.

The anthrax letters were dropped in a Princeton, N.J., mailbox in September
and October of 2001, and killed five people and sickened at least 17 others.
Coming shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, the letters set off a national scare
over bioterrorism and led to a huge increase in government spending on biodefense.