View Full Version : Anthrax Case Not Closed: Panel Reviews Bruce Ivins, Mail Probe

08-04-2009, 08:17 AM
Anthrax case not closed: Panel reviews Bruce Ivins, mail probe


By Dan Vergano, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — A year and a day after the death of anthrax mailing suspect Bruce Ivins, a panel met here at the National Academy of Sciences to dissect the investigative science behind the FBI case against him.

"The committee will only review and assess the scientific information," said Alice Gast of Lehigh University, head of the review panel. "We will offer no view on the guilt or innocence of any person or persons."

Just such questions, however, surround the still-open case, said Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., who spoke before the panel, which met Thursday and Friday. "This was the only documented bioterror attack on the U.S.," Holt said. "Simply stated, the government suffers from a credibility gap that raises questions about the guilt of Dr. Ivins."

An anthrax vaccine researcher at the United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Md., Ivins died of a drug overdose July 29, 2008. One week later, U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Taylor formally announced Ivins was "the sole suspect" in the 2001 mailings that killed five people, shut congressional offices and paralyzed the U.S. Postal Service.

The first evidence listed against Ivins was "the genetically unique parent material of the anthrax spores used in the mailings," Taylor said, the now-famous "RMR-1029" flask of Ames strain anthrax spores, "created and solely maintained by Dr. Ivins at USAMRIID." In briefings, scientific meetings and publications over the last year, outside scientists engaged by investigators, such as Claire Fraser-Liggett of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, reported that four mutations in the genetic code of the anthrax used in the attack served as markers traceable back to the flask.

"We thoroughly investigated every other person who could have had access to the flask, and we were able to rule out all but Dr. Ivins," Taylor said, since the link between flask and scientist first became clear in 2005.

Proclaiming his innocence
One year later, "the department and the FBI continue working to conclude the investigation into the 2001 anthrax attacks," the Justice Department's Dean Boyd said in a statement. "We anticipate closing the case in the near future."

The case against Ivins rests largely on a traditional police investigation, revealed in search warrant affidavits. Ivins acted strangely, worked late lab hours before the attacks, had sent packages under assumed names "throughout his adult life," Taylor said, and faced job worries because of a failing anthrax vaccine program in fall 2001.

Ivins' lawyer, Paul Kemp, has maintained his late client's innocence. The FBI said it long had suspicions about Ivins based on the strain of anthrax detected. But if the RMR-1029 flask link mattered so much, why didn't the FBI arrest him in 2005? Kemp asked.

Those kinds of questions emerged about the science behind the investigation, which led the FBI last year to request the panel, which is expected to produce a final report by next summer. The National Academy of Sciences' William Kearney said the $879,000 contract for the review involved negotiation between the academy and Justice Department over its scope and access to information. The committee is charged with examining at least five scientific questions:

The validity of the genetic studies of the attack anthrax.
Certainty that the four mutations identified in the attack anthrax are truly unique.
Chemistry studies dating the growth time of the attack anthrax to times Ivins was working late hours in his lab.
The validity of anthrax-collecting techniques used by investigators.
The risks of cross-contamination in labs where analyses were performed.

"I think this review is a really good first step," said biological policy expert Cheryl Vos of the Federation of American Scientists. "What I would really like to know is how much did the scientific conclusions drive the investigation, and vice versa. There is a clear intersection between the two."

Calls for a broader review
"We're just getting started. We have a broad scope of experts, both on the panel and who we are getting information from," said Gast, the panel chief. Gast added she was "confident" of the panel receiving investigation background information.

A tension emerged at the panel between its narrow mandate to investigate the science linking Ivins' anthrax flask to the 2001 attack anthrax and calls for wider reviews. Holt, in particular, called for a look at the entire investigation.

Former FBI scientists Bruce Budowle of the University of North Texas and Jennifer Smith of BioForensic Consulting asked the panel to assess "lessons learned" for the next bioterror attack investigation.

"There was a bit of a tug of war in the FBI. Investigators had a desire to use whatever possible" science might yield clues, Smith said. Bad science, however, would yield false leads or exclude suspects wrongly, she said. Because the investigation will serve as a model for any future bioterror investigation, Smith added, "it's critical you assess how the bureau did."