Published: February 15, 2011
The scientific evidence alone is not enough to prove that microbiologist Bruce Ivins was the perpetrator of the anthrax attacks that killed five people in 2001, according to an independent review panel.
The panel of scientists was convened by the National Research Council of the National Academies to review the science that the FBI used in its investigation into the attacks.
Starting a week after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, letters containing anthrax bacterial spores were mailed to NBC News and the New York Post. Letters were also sent to the offices of then-Sen. Tom Daschle and Sen. Patrick Leahy.
After the attacks, the FBI created the "Amerithrax Task Force" to conduct an investigation that the FBI has called "one of the largest and most complex in the history of law enforcement."
During the next seven years, the task force expended more than 600,000 investigator work hours, interviewing thousands of witnesses on six continents and evaluating a mountain of evidence. In the end, however, the agency's case against Ivins was largely circumstantial.
Ivins killed himself in July 2008, just as the Justice Department was about to formally indict him.
Before his death, Ivins was a microbiologist and researcher at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, the federal facility that develops countermeasures for potential biological weapons agents.
The evidence gathered against him confirms that there were anthrax spores in Ivins' laboratory, and Ivins made a series of unusual, after-hours visits to his lab just before the attacks occurred. But no one reported seeing him mail the letters; no one said they saw him prepare the anthrax spores found in the letters; and no one could provide a clear motive for why he would carry out such an attack.
The FBI and Justice Department have maintained that a scientific analysis of the particular batch of anthrax spores found in the letters and the spores found in a flask in Ivins' lab showed that they were identical.
But after carefully reviewing the evidence, the committee of independent scientists convened by the National Research Council concluded that it was not possible to rule out other sources for the anthrax.
"Although the scientific evidence was supportive of a link between the letters and that flask, it did not definitively demonstrate such a relationship, for a number of reasons," said Dr. David Relman, a bioterrorism expert at Stanford University School of Medicine who served as vice chair of the review committee. "Our overarching finding was that it is not possible to reach a definitive conclusion about the origins of the B. anthracis in the mailings based on the available scientific evidence alone."
The expert panel also disputed the FBI's claim that Ivins was the only person with the specialized knowledge needed to prepare the spores that were used in the attack.
The committee was not asked, and did not attempt to determine, whether Ivins was indeed the perpetrator of the attacks. As the National Academies' website notes, "The new report is limited to an evaluation of the scientific evidence and does not assess the guilt or innocence of anyone connected to the case."
In a written response to the findings, the FBI and Justice Department said, "The FBI 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." [Copyright 2013 NPR]
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Now, new questions about the 10-year-old case of the anthrax attacks. Today, a panel convened by the National Academies of Science released a critique of the science the FBI used in its investigation. The panel was asked by the FBI to review its methods. And while the panel did not reject the FBI's science, it said it wasn't as definitive as the bureau had claimed.
This story gives us the opportunity to talk with two of our reporters, NPR's Joe Palca on the science, and NPR's Dina Temple-Raston on the investigation. Welcome to both of you.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Thank you.
JOE PALCA: Thanks.
NORRIS: Dina, I'm going to start with you. Can you remind us again about the broad outlines of this case?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Sure. Well, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, there were a number of envelopes filled with anthrax that were mailed to lawmakers and to members of the media. In all told, there were five people who died and another 17 who got sick when they opened these envelops that were filled with this white powder. And the investigation, as you recall, went on for years. Initially, the FBI zeroed in on a government scientist that wasn't Bruce Ivins. And eventually they ended having to pay him millions of dollars in damages.
And then the suspect that they decided on, Bruce Ivins, they started investigating him in 2007. And the FBI says that just as agents were preparing to indict him, Ivins killed himself. And that was in July of 2008.
NORRIS: Joe, I'm going to get you in just a minute. But just tell us a bit about Bruce Ivins.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Bruce Ivins was a scientist who actually worked with anthrax at Fort Detrick. And he had access to this and that was one of the reasons they started zeroing in on him. And then there were other sort of circumstantial evidence that came in.
NORRIS: So, Joe, what did this review panel say?
PALCA: Well, the review panel was trying to answer the question: How definitively could you say that the anthrax that was in Bruce Ivins' lab was the same as the one that was found in the letters? Because that would be a key connection between Ivins and the letters. All the other evidence in this case, or most of it, has been circumstantial. So that would be a pretty strong piece evidence. And the FBI concluded that that was the same strain. But the academy panel says, well, yes, but.
And the reason they're saying yes, but, is that this is a very new branch of science being able to type a strain of bacteria. And the question is: Was it really for certain? And the academy panel said not necessarily for certain, probably, could be consistent with, but not certain.
NORRIS: Probably consistent with, not certain. So does it possibly mean that the FBI might have had the wrong guy?
PALCA: The scientific evidence doesn't speak to that exactly. What the scientific evidence says is - or what the science says is, if you're going to base your entire case on the science, it's not airtight. Right? You need to have other pieces of evidence. And, of course, the FBI says, well, sure, we have other piece of evidence.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, that's exactly right. I mean the FBI is saying that it wasn't science alone that led them to believe that Bruce Ivins was behind the attacks. And the FBI says it has lots of old-fashioned, gumshoe investigations that narrowed it down to Ivins. You know, they interviewed literally hundreds of people to account for the anthrax. They asked questions about how much did they use, and when did they use it, and what did you use it for.
And there's all this circumstantial evidence. For example, Ivins had a history of mailing things under false names and addresses. And he had mailed things to both lawmakers and media outlets under these false names and addresses. And these are the two groups, of course, that got these anthrax letters.
And he also had this obsession with the Kappa Kappa Gamma Sorority. And it turns out that the mailbox from which some these anthrax letters were posted was about 60 feet away from the Princeton Chapter of Kappa Kappa Gamma. Now, that doesn't exactly put him there at the mailbox mailing things, but it adds to this whole narrative.
NORRIS: It sounds that it was hoped that this panel would provide definitive answers. Is this over now?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the FBI people that I spoke to said they have absolutely no intention of reopening the case. So in that respect, yes, it's over. But because Bruce Ivins took his life before they could actually indict him, there's always going to be some controversy and conspiracy theories around this case.
NORRIS: And, Joe, Congressman Rush Holt is still planning something with this.
PALCA: That's right. He represents the district where the letters were mailed from. His office was one of the ones that was contaminated by the letters that were sent to Capitol Hill. And he says, look, these are questions, scientific questions that are still open, maybe not proving that Ivins wasn't guilty, but still open scientific questions. And he thinks that neither the FBI or the academy want to say this publically, but they're still significant questions about this case and he wants a national commission to investigate.
NORRIS: Joe Palca, Dina Temple-Raston, thanks to both of you.
TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.
PALCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.