I’ve been looking at the documents deposited online by the Department of Justice making their case against Dr.Bruce E. Ivins, the Army scientist they allege is the lone anthrax attack culprit. My perusal of their case leaves a mixed impression. If their portrayal of his mental condition is at all accurate – and it is difficult to judge on the basis of the highly selected quotes from emails and hearsay evidence of unnamed sources — then Ivins certainly is a plausible suspect. Selected leaking of information, not all of it verified could also make him a convenient and plausible patsy. I have no way of judging that part of the case at the moment. But the scientific part of the case, supposedly their strongest argument, looks incredibly weak to me.
As early as 2002 CDC and the government knew that the letter anthrax organisms were all from a specific strain (Ames) that is used in many biodefense laboratories. The problem with obtaining a genetic fingerprint of anthrax is that unlike most other microorganisms, Bacillus anthracis is remarkably stable, i.e., its genetic fingerprint doesn’t change much from one generation to the next. What was needed was some distinguishing characteristic, like the distinctive marks on a bullet, that allow guns that otherwise look almost exactly alike to be distinguished. In 2002 CDC scientists published a paper that did identify the sameness of all the isolates from the attack and distinguished them from other virulent anthrax isolates (interestingly, out of 20 citations in that article, Ivins’s name is on 3 of them). Was this technique sufficient in 2002 to provide the information the FBI says was only possible after scientific breakthroughs that didn’t come until three years later? It’s not clear. I looked at several papers on genotyping anthrax and it is clear that since 2005 techniques have been developed to allow high throughput of thousands of samples, something that might be necessary in a future event (we hope not) but wasn’t needed in 2002. It sounds to me that the “new science” argument is mainly an excuse to explain what took the FBI so long.
But let’s grant the case and even accept the FBI claim that the science allows them to trace all of the anthrax in the four letters (two to news media and two to political figures) back to a flask, designated RMR-1029, produced by Ivins and “in his custody.” That’s what was said at the press conference. Here’s what the documents say:
Of the sixteen domestic government, commercial, and university laboratories that had virulent RMR- 1029 Ames strain Bacillus anthracis material in their inventory prior to the attacks, only one lab was located in Maryland or Virginia, where the relevant federal eagle envelopes were distributed and sold by the U.S. Postal Service: the USAMRID facility at Fort Detrick, MD. (Affidavit of Thomas F. Dellafera in support of request for search warrant)
This says there were sixteen such flasks around the country, not just the one in Ivins’s laboratory. The FBI argument against Ivins requires additional evidence that the envelopes containing the anthrax were only sold in Maryland and Virginia:
Four envelopes used in the attacks were recovered. The four envelopes were all 6.75-inch federal eagle envelopes, about 45 million of which were manufactured between Dec. 6, 2000, and March 2002.
These envelopes were sold solely by the U.S. Postal Service between Jan. 8, 2001, and June 2002.
After the attacks, an effort was made to collect all such envelopes for forensic examination, the documents state.
Envelopes with printing defects identical to those used in the attacks were collected from the Fairfax Main, Cumberland and Elkton post offices.
Given that the printing defects are present on only a small number of the envelopes and that those used in the attacks were recovered from post offices serviced by the Dulles Stamp Distribution Office, investigators said it is reasonable to conclude the envelopes used in the attacks were purchased from a post office in Maryland or Virginia.
Of the 16 government, commercial and university laboratories that have virulent Ames strain anthrax material in their inventory, only one lab was in Maryland or Virginia: USAMRIID. (Fredrick News)
Thus the envelope evidence, as presented in the documents, says the Dulles Stamp Distribution Office (SDO), located in Dulles, Virginia distributed the envelopes in Maryland and Virginia, including post offices near Fredrick, Maryland where Ivins lived, the documents don’t say the envelopes were sold only in Maryland and Virginia, only that the FBI thought it was reasonable to assume that because these envelopes were only a small proportion of all envelopes. The documents also seem to say there were 45 million envelopes manufactured by the same company in the relevant time period. It isn’t clear if all 45 million had the same printing defect but it seems to imply they did. If not, we don’t know the proportion that did have the defect.
Furthermore, the FBI acknowledges the anthrax in the two sets of letters (one set to the media and one set to the Senate) were grown separately. One was contaminated with Bacillus subtilis and the other wasn’t. Both had an unusual silicon treatment, presumably to make them more easily dispersible. This isn’t something you add with conventional laboratory equipment of the kind the FBI says Ivins had access.
The case, as laid out in the FBI documents, has some fairly cogent sounding evidence Ivins had something to hide and tried to hide it, for whatever reasons. But it certainly doesn’t lay out a tight science case. A half way decent defense attorney would have had a field day with the alleged science evidence against Ivins and it is hard to believe prosecutors really thought they had enough to convict “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
I still have plenty of doubt. And I think it’s reasonable doubt.