FBI formally closes anthrax case
Federal investigators "formally concluded" the 2001 anthrax murder case against bioweapons scientist Bruce Ivins on Friday, releasing a 92-page prosecutor's summary and some 2,700 pages of documents related to the case.
Ivins committed suicide on July 29, 2008, following two years of FBI agents focusing on him as the lead suspect in the "Amerithrax" investigation. The 2001 anthrax mailings killed five people, sickened 17, and paralyzed the nation's postal system.
"As disclosed previously, the Amerithrax investigation found that the late Dr. Bruce Ivins acted alone in planning and executing these attacks," the Justice Department said in a statement as it released the files. The files were released as part of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request brought by USA TODAY and other news organizations.
"I have been hoping for nearly nine years, that I would be in court presenting scientific evidence pointing towards a perpetrator," says anthrax scientist Paul Keim of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, who managed the FBI's repository of 1,000 anthrax samples taken during the investigation. "Closing the case without a trial is less than satisfying for me, but clearly the right action under the circumstances. I hope that there is some closure for the family and victims of the attack."
Q&A: Anthrax and Ivins case
BACKGROUND: Feds say anthrax suspect acted alone
Beginning Sept. 18, 2001, a series of anthrax-loaded letters began arriving at news organization and then the offices of Sen. Tom Daschle, D.-S.D., and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D.-Vt., forcing the closure of the Hart Senate Office building. The first anthrax mailings killed Robert Stevens, a photographer with American Media Inc. in Boca Raton, Fla., followed by four others, including postal workers whose workplace letter-sorting machinery likely crushed the spores, aiding their dispersal.
Following Ivins's suicide, FBI chief Robert Mueller said in Congressional testimony two months later that investigators had "eliminated every other person" as a possible culprit in the anthrax case. Genetic analysis of the attack anthrax tied it to the "RMR-1029" flask of anthrax solely in Ivins' care at the United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) in Frederick, Md.
The long-running case was marked by the misdirected Justice Department pursuit of another bioweapons lab scientist, Steven Hatfill— who received a 2007 apology and $5.8 million settlement from the U.S. government — and also the development of extensive genetic tools to investigate such attacks and establishment of large laboratory facilities to research biodefense questions.
The prosecutor's summary fills in various outstanding case questions:
•Ivins could not account for his weekend whereabouts in September and October of 2001, during the hours when the two batches of anthrax letters were dropped in post office boxes in Princeton, N.J., a six-and-a-half-hour drive from his home in Frederick, Md. He took four hours of leave from work on one Monday during the September window of time, not checking into his lab until 7 p.m. on Sept. 17, 2001, and leaving 13 minutes later.
•Ivins passed a lie detector, or polygraph, test in 2002. Investigators asked for "reassessment" of the results after they began honing in on Ivins in 2007, and they realized he had been taking "psychotropic drugs" for depression at the time of the exam. A 2002 National Research Council report criticized law-enforcement reliance on polygraphs.
•Genetic analysis of the RMR-1029 strain of anthrax exonerated Hatfill completely in 2007, as he had no access to their spore flasks.
•Investigators looked into at least 18 other researchers, including ones suspected of links to Al Qaeda during the case. Ivins repeatedly cast suspicion on other researchers, including two women co-workers at the lab who were his best friends there.
•Investigators linked the highlighted "A" and "T"' letters in the anthrax mailing messages to a code revolving around genetics. A clue came from the book Gödel, Escher, Bach by cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter, which contained discussion of hiding codes in messages. Ivins had thrown an annotated copy of the book out in the trash, emerging from his house in his long underwear in the night to ensure a trash truck had taken it away.
Ivins's attorney, Paul Kemp, maintains his late client's innocence, saying the evidence presented in the case documents remain circumstantial. "There is no evidence at all that he possessed any dried anthrax, traveled to New Jersey, or admitted any complicity in this. Nothing was recovered from his house that implicates him," Kemp said Friday, by e-mail.
The seven-year criminal investigation "expended over 600,000 investigator work hours, involving in excess of 10,000 witness interviews conducted on six continents, the execution of 80 searches, and the recovery of over 6,000 items of potential evidence," says the summary. Investigators issued more than 5,750 federal grand jury subpoenas and collected 5,730 environmental samples from 60 places, including overseas labs.
"I think we are in a much better position to take the first step if another attack, God forbid it happens, happens again," says investigation scientist Joseph Michael of Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, whose team used electron microscopes to debunk the widely-floated notion that the 2001 attack anthrax had been weaponized with a silicon coating. Instead, they found silicon that occurred naturally inside the spores.
Following Senate questioning of the FBI's handling of the case, and the evidence against Ivins, the Justice Department requested the National Academies of Science conduct a review of the research that tied Ivins to the exact bacteria used in the attacks. That review should be completed this year.
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