Wednesday, August 20, 2008

FBI's Anthrax Case Will Be Elaborated on in Peer Reviewed Scientific Publications

I am asking you to understand that this is the first step toward broader dissemination of the scientific information surrounding this case. Additional information will be available through peer reviewed publications and I ask you to please respect the integrity of this process. In fact, several research projects related to the FBI’s investigation have already resulted in peer reviewed publications and we will provide you with that list. Additional publications will be available for peer review as more information from the investigation is released.---Dr. Vahid Majidi, Assistant Director responsible for the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate

The NYT (8-15-08) reports that the FBI presented more information about their case against Dr. Bruce Ivins last week in closed door hearings for Congressional and government officials. The Los Angeles Times (8-15-08) explains why the FBI initially missed some early clues that eventually led them to Dr. Ivins.

CNN (8-19-08) reports that the FBI gave a second briefing to reporters on Monday, August 18, 2008. The Los Angeles Times (8-19-08) has also reported on Monday's briefing.
An FBI press release (8-18-08) introduces the scientists who worked on the anthrax case.

Speaking for the FBI, Dr. Vahid Majidi, the Assistant Director responsible for the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, stated:

[T]his is the first step toward broader dissemination of the scientific information surrounding this case. Additional information will be available through peer reviewed publications and I ask you to please respect the integrity of this process. In fact, several research projects related to the FBI’s investigation have already resulted in peer reviewed publications and we will provide you with that list. Additional publications will be available for peer review as more information from the investigation is released.

The NYT (8-15-08) reported last Friday:

Growing doubts from scientists about the strength of the government’s case against the late Bruce E. Ivins, the military researcher named as the anthrax killer, are forcing the Justice Department to begin disclosing more fully the scientific evidence it used to implicate him.

In the face of the questions, Federal Bureau of Investigation officials have decided to make their first detailed public presentation next week on the forensic science used to trace the anthrax used in the 2001 attacks to a flask kept in a refrigerator in Dr. Ivins’s laboratory at Fort Detrick, in Maryland. Many scientists are awaiting those details because so far, they say, the F.B.I. has failed to make a conclusive case...

F.B.I officials say they are confident that their scientific evidence against Dr. Ivins, who killed himself last month as the Justice Department was preparing an indictment against him, will withstand scrutiny, and they plan to present their findings for review by leading scientists. But the scrutiny may only raise fresh questions.

The bureau presented forensics information to Congressional and government officials this week in a closed-door briefing, but a number of listeners said the briefing left them less convinced that the F.B.I. had the right man, and they said some of the government’s public statements appeared incomplete or misleading.
For instance, the Justice Department said earlier this month in unsealing court records against Dr. Ivins that he had tried to mislead investigators in 2002 by giving them an anthrax sample that did not appear to have come from his laboratory.


But F.B.I. officials acknowledged at the closed-door briefing, according to people who were there, that the sample Dr. Ivins gave them in 2002 did in fact come from the same strain used in the attacks, but, because of limitations in the bureau’s testing methods and Dr. Ivins’s failure to provide the sample in the format requested, the F.B.I. did not realize that it was a correct match until three years later.

In addition, people who were briefed by the F.B.I. said a batch of misprinted envelopes used in the anthrax attacks — another piece of evidence used to link Dr. Ivins to the attacks — could have been much more widely available than bureau officials had initially led them to believe...

Naba Barkakati, an engineer who is the chief technologist for the Government Accountability Office and who also attended this week’s briefing, said of the F.B.I.’s forensics case against Dr. Ivins: “It’s very hard to get the sense of whether this was scientifically good or bad. We didn’t really get the question settled, other than taking their word for it.”

...With the main suspect in the anthrax killings now dead, F.B.I. officials say they realize they will again face tough scrutiny over the strength of their scientific evidence against Dr. Ivins. Indeed, conspiracy theories are already flourishing on many Web sites, with skeptical observers asking whether the Maryland scientist was set up to take the fall for the attacks or, worse yet, was a murder victim. The fact that the bureau pursued another scientist, Steven J. Hatfill, for years before agreeing to pay $4.6 million to settle a lawsuit he had filed and then later exonerating him has only fueled the skepticism...

(Page 2 of 2)

In its case against Dr. Ivins, the F.B.I. developed a compelling profile of an erratic, mentally troubled man who could be threatening and obsessive, as in his odd fascination with a sorority from his college days. But investigators were never able to place him at the New Jersey mailboxes where the anthrax letters were dropped, and the case against him relied at its heart on the scientific evidence linking the anthrax in Dr. Ivins’s laboratory to the spores used in the attacks.

It took the F.B.I. several years to develop the type of DNA testing that allowed them to trace the origins of the “attack strain,” as it was called, and they concluded that the anthrax that Dr. Ivins controlled was the only one of more than 1,000 samples they tested that matched it in all four of that strain’s genetic mutations.

Dwight Adams, a former director of the F.B.I. laboratory who was deeply involved in managing the anthrax genetic research until he left the bureau in 2006, said he was confident that the groundbreaking forensic effort would be validated by the broad scientific community...

[to be continued]

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