Scientists’ Analysis Disputes F.B.I. Closing of Anthrax Case – FRONTLINE Investigative Broadcast
Scientists’ Analysis Disputes F.B.I. Closing of Anthrax Case
By WILLIAM J. BROAD and SCOTT SHANE
October 9, 2011
The New York Times
A decade after wisps of anthrax sent through the mail killed 5 people, sickened 17 others and terrorized the nation, biologists and chemists still disagree on whether federal investigators got the right man and whether the F.B.I.’s long inquiry brushed aside important clues.
Now, three scientists argue that distinctive chemicals found in the dried anthrax spores — including the unexpected presence of tin — point to a high degree of manufacturing skill, contrary to federal reassurances that the attack germs were unsophisticated. The scientists make their case in a coming issue of the Journal of Bioterrorism & Biodefense.
F.B.I. documents reviewed by The New York Times show that bureau scientists focused on tin early in their eight-year investigation, calling it an “element of interest” and a potentially critical clue to the criminal case. They later dropped their lengthy inquiry, never mentioned tin publicly and never offered any detailed account of how they thought the powder had been made.
The new paper raises the prospect — for the first time in a serious scientific forum — that the Army biodefense expert identified by the F.B.I. as the perpetrator, Bruce E. Ivins, had help in obtaining his germ weapons or conceivably was innocent of the crime.
Both the chairwoman of a National Academy of Science panel that spent a year and a half reviewing the F.B.I.’s scientific work and the director of a new review by the Government Accountability Office said the paper raised important questions that should be addressed.
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Frontline’s ‘Anthrax Files’ takes hard look at FBI role in suicide of Ft. Detrick scientist
Report asks if FBI overstated case against Frederick resident Bruce Ivins
October 10, 2011
By David Zurawik
The Baltimore Sun
Nobody does investigative journalism on TV like Public Television’s “Frontline” — nobody, and that includes “60 Minutes.”
And Tuesday night at 9, the venerable series revisits Ft. Detrick in Frederick, Maryland, and the case of anthrax researcher Bruce Ivins who killed himself in 2008 as the FBI zeroed in on him as its prime suspect in the case of deadly envelopes of anthrax sent through the mail.
According to this hard-edged report done in partnership with McClatchy Newspapers and Propublica, the FBI did more than zero in. Under tremendous pressure to solve the case that started in 2001 with anthrax mailed to U.S. senators and network anchors, the agency squeezed Ivins hard — using every trick in the book to get a confession out of him even as he insisted on his innocence to the end.
Ivins was a troubled guy with some distinctive kinks, the report acknowledges, but even FBI consultants in the case now admit that the agency overstated its evidence and never found a smoking gun to prove the researcher’s guilt. In fact, evidence was revealed last summer that shows Ivins did not have the equipment needed to make the powdery kind of anthrax sent through the mail. That didn’t stop the FBI then — or now — in acting like it found its man.
“The Anthrax Files” is a chilling report on several fronts.
First, it is a reminder of what paranoid and scary times have been living though since 2001 when the envelopes first appeared — and the horrible events we just commemorated took place on September 11. These are indeed dark times, and with the economy getting worse and worse, there seems to be no light anywhere in sight.
Second, the report shows how a federal agency can shred an individual’s life — with or without the proper evidence to convict. “The Anthrax Files” suggests that anyone with the psychological issues Ivins had might have cracked under the weight of the FBI invading his privacy, exposing his secrets and ultimately getting him kicked out of the community of researchers that he called home at Ft. Detrick.
And finally, this is a chilling report, because if Ivins was not the person who sent the anthrax, then that killer is still on the loose. And we are left with an FBI that not only failed to solve such a huge case, but overstated and maybe lied about what it did accomplish.
“The Anthrax Files’ premieres at 9 p.m (Eastern). Tuesday.
New Evidence Adds Doubt to FBI’s Case Against Anthrax Suspect
October 10, 2011
by Stephen Engelberg ProPublica; Greg Gordon, McClatchy; Jim Gilmore and Mike
WASHINGTON — Months after the anthrax mailings that terrorized the nation in 2001, and long before he became the prime suspect, Army biologist Bruce Ivins sent his superiors an email offering to help scientists trace the killer.
Already, an FBI science consultant had concluded that the attack powder was made with a rare strain of anthrax known as Ames that’s used in research laboratories worldwide.
In his December 2001 email, Ivins volunteered to help take things further. He said he had several variants of the Ames strain that could be tested in “ongoing genetic studies” aimed at tracing the origins of the powder that had killed five people. He mentioned several cultures by name, including a batch made mostly of Ames anthrax that had been grown for him at an Army base in Dugway, Utah.
Seven years later, as federal investigators prepared to charge him with the same crimes he’d offered to help solve, Ivins, who was 62, committed suicide. At a news conference, prosecutors voiced confidence that Ivins would have been found guilty. They said years of cutting-edge DNA analysis had borne fruit, proving that his spores were “effectively the murder weapon.”
To many of Ivins’ former colleagues at the germ research center in Fort Detrick, Md., where they worked, his invitation to test the Dugway material and other spores in his inventory is among numerous indications that the FBI got the wrong man.
What kind of murderer, they wonder, would ask the cops to test his own gun for ballistics?
To prosecutors, who later branded Ivins the killer in a lengthy report on the investigation, his solicitous email is trumped by a long chain of evidence, much of it circumstantial, that they say would have convinced a jury that he prepared the lethal powder right under the noses of some of the nation’s foremost bio-defense scientists.
FRONTLINE, McClatchy and ProPublica have taken an in-depth look at the case against Ivins, conducting dozens of interviews and reviewing thousands of pages of FBI files. Much of the case remains unchallenged, notably the finding that the anthrax letters were mailed from Princeton, N.J., just steps from an office of the college sorority that Ivins was obsessed with for much of his adult life.
Was FBI’s Science Good Enough to ID Anthrax Killer?
October 10, 2011
by Stephen Engelberg and Gary Matsumoto, ProPublica; Greg Gordon, McClatchy; Mike Wiser, FRONTLINE
WASHINGTON — In March 2007, federal agents convened an elite group of outside experts to evaluate the science that had traced the anthrax in the letters to a single flask at an Army lab in Maryland.
Laboratory work had built the heart of the case against Bruce Ivins, an Army researcher who controlled the flask. Investigators had invented a new form of genetic fingerprinting for the case, testing anthrax collected from U.S. and foreign labs for mutations detected in the attack powder.
Out of more than 1,000 samples, only eight had tested positive for four mutations found in the deadly germs sent to Congress and the news media.
Even so, the outside scientists, known as the “Red Team,” urged the FBI to do more basic research into how and when the mutations arose to make sure the tests were “sound” and the results unchallengeable.
Jenifer Smith, a senior manager at the FBI’s laboratory, shared the team’s concerns. Smith recalled that she was worried the FBI didn’t have a full understanding of the mutations and might see a trial judge throw out the key evidence.
“The admissibility hearing would have been very difficult,” Smith recalled in an interview. “They had some good science, but they also had some holes that would have been very difficult to fill.”
The FBI rebuffed the Red Team’s suggestion, describing it as “an academic question with little probative value to the investigation.”
The Anthrax Files: The Essential Documents
October 10, 2011
FRONTLINE closely examined more than 27,000 pages of FBI documents for this investigation. Here are some of the key documents and significant reports on the investigation and the government’s conclusion that Dr. Bruce Ivins was the perpetrator of the attacks. Click on the image to view the document.