FBI admits missteps, but defends anthrax probe


By New Scientist staff and Reuters FBI officials defended on Monday the scientific evidence linking a US Army scientist who committed suicide to the deadly 2001 anthrax attacks, but acknowledged missteps occurred early in its investigation. The FBI marched out a panel of outside scientific experts in an effort to end lingering doubts over whether Dr Bruce Ivins was solely responsible for the attacks that killed five people. In briefings first for scientific journals and then for the news media, the FBI laid out what one official described as a “body of powerful evidence” after nearly seven years of investigation on the origin of the anthrax sent through the US mail system and on the alleged perpetrator. The FBI earlier this month released federal court documents that outlined its case against Ivins, a researcher and an anthrax expert at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases or USAMRIID in Maryland. Ivins killed himself late last month just as prosecutors prepared to charge him with murder for committing the attacks. His attorney has said he was innocent. Several prominent scientists have questioned the FBI’s case against Ivins and the scientific backing for it. “I want to see the data. I want to see the valid scientific links made,” said C. J. Peters, a virologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, who worked at USAMRIID until 1990. “The FBI needs to explain why it zeroed in on Ivins, how he could have made the anthrax mailed to lawmakers and the media, and how he (or anyone else) could have pulled off the attacks, acting alone,” Richard Spertzel, former head of the biological weapons section of the United Nations Special Commission and a member of the Iraq Survey Group, wrote in a commentary earlier this month in the Wall Street Journal. Critics have questioned the evidence against Ivins, partly because FBI investigators mistakenly focused for years on another scientist at Fort Detrick, Steven Hatfill. Hatfill was never charged and the government agreed in June to pay him $5.85 million to settle a lawsuit. Many of the questions at the briefing focused on the early part of the investigation in February 2002, when Ivins submitted an anthrax sample from his lab, but did not follow the proper protocol. The FBI then destroyed that sample. “Obviously, looking at it in hindsight, we would do things differently today,” FBI Assistant Director Vahid Majidi said when asked whether the FBI should have kept the sample. “Were we perfect? Absolutely not. We’ve had missteps. Those are the lessons learned.” FBI Laboratory Director D. Christian Hassell said of the sample, “In hindsight, it would have been useful to have saved it”. The FBI discovered several years later through genetic testing that the first sample was a unique strain of anthrax, like the strain used in the attacks. “The anthrax probe helped to found the field of bioforensics,” said James Burans, associate lab director at the National Bioforensics Analysis Center at the Department of Homeland Security. FBI officials said some of the initial sample provided by Ivins had been kept by one of the outside scientists used by the FBI. Majidi said the FBI had turned to Ivins, a microbiologist who had been working on an anthrax vaccine, for help in developing the protocol or procedures for the providing of the anthrax samples. Majidi said he doubted the FBI will ever be able to satisfy all of its critics with their suspicions about the case,
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