Volume 89 Issue 8 | p. 8 | News of The Week
Issue Date: February 21, 2011

Uncertainty Plagues Anthrax Probe

Investigation: Molecular techniques don't identify the source of anthrax used in 2001 attacks, NRC report says
Department: Government & Policy
Keywords: FBI, Anthrax, NRC
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A technician at the Army's Fort Detrick biomedical research laboratory in Maryland opening a letter suspected of containing anthrax in December 2001.
Credit: AFP PHOTO/FBI
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A technician at the Army's Fort Detrick biomedical research laboratory in Maryland opening a letter suspected of containing anthrax in December 2001.
Credit: AFP PHOTO/FBI

Science alone does not pinpoint the source of the anthrax used in a string of deadly bioterrorism attacks launched via the U.S. mail in 2001, concludes an expert committee of the National Research Council (NRC) in a report released on Feb. 15 in Washington, D.C.

On the same day, Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) reintroduced the Anthrax Attacks Investigation Act that would establish a congressional investigation of the FBI's work and consider a wider scope of evidence than did the NRC committee, which was limited to a review of the scientific work that traced the origins of the anthrax to a flask under the control of government biodefense researcher Bruce E. Ivins. The anthrax mailings themselves originated from a postal box in Holt's central New Jersey district.

While it casts doubt, the carefully worded NRC report—and its stoic delivery at a press briefing the same day—avoids making any judgment about the FBI's conclusion that Ivins masterminded and carried out the attacks. Ivins killed himself once he became the chief suspect in the FBI probe. Amidst heavy criticism, the bureau closed its case against Ivins a year ago, only months after the NRC committee began its work (C&EN Latest News, Feb. 23, 2010).

"We will not offer any view on the guilt or innocence of any person," committee chair Alice P. Gast, a physical chemist who is also president of Lehigh University, said at the press briefing, echoing previous statements. She said the committee did not review any other forensic evidence developed by the FBI, focusing solely on the molecular techniques the FBI used to identify and characterize the spores and then trace their origin. On that basis, the committee could not rule out other sources of the anthrax used in the attacks.

"The NAS report makes clear there are still questions to be answered and still lessons to be learned about the FBI's investigation into the attacks," Holt said in a statement. "It would take a credulous person to believe the circumstantial evidence that the FBI used to draw its conclusions with such certainty."

In response to the report, the FBI notes that "the scientific findings in this case provided investigators with valuable investigative leads." The bureau says it was the totality of evidence gathered, however, that led to its ultimate conclusion about Ivins.

 
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