Not many scientists were convinced the FBI had a solid science case against accused anthrax attacker Dr. Bruce Ivins. So the FBI held a telephone conference call between journalists and their scientific back-up to answer outstanding questions. Some questions were answered by promising the science would be submitted for peer review to the scientific literature but many others remain, some scientific but mostly about how the science fits in to what would have had to have been “evidence beyond a reasonable doubt” in what the FBI says would have been a death penalty case. An Editorial and accompanying newsarticle in the world’s most prestigious scientific publication, Nature (published in the UK), lays out some of the scientific questions that remain:
Only full disclosure can lift suspicions that the FBI has again targeted an innocent man.
For example, many of the documents are just search warrants — a reminder that, despite extensive searches of Ivins’s house and cars, the FBI failed to come up with any physical evidence directly implicating him in the attacks. Similarly, the bureau has no evidence to place Ivins at the postboxes in Princeton, New Jersey, from which the anthrax-laden letters were sent.
The core of the case against Ivins, as released so far, is contained in just a couple of dozen pages of affidavits — only four paragraphs of which discuss what the FBI says is the smoking gun: the genetic analysis of the anthrax powder from the letters. The FBI says it found four distinctive genetic mutations in the anthrax used in the attacks. It tested for these mutations in isolates of the Ames anthrax strain from 16 domestic, government and university laboratories, alongside ones from labs in Canada, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
In all, more than 1,000 samples were collected, only 8 of which had the 4 mutations, according to the affidavit. Each of these isolates, it says, was directly related to a strain batch named RMR-1029, which was created in 1997 and held in a flask at the US Army research facility in Fort Detrick. The affidavits describe Ivins as the “sole custodian” of that batch. Many other researchers had access to it, but the FBI claims to have eliminated them as suspects. (Editorial, Nature doi:10.1038/454917a; Published online 20 August 2008
The Nature Editors seem satisfied the organisms used in the attack came from a common source. But for this to be conclusive the FBI needed to rule out many other people who might have had access to this flask or spores derived from it. They have only asserted they have done so. In a court of law the assertion would have been vigorously challenged. Ivins is now deceased, allegedly dead by his own hand. Some suspect suicide is a very convenient conclusion (we think an accidental poisoning is as or more likely), and we have raised questions about it here (and here and here). We know very little about whether an autopsy was done or whether the body was cremated. Either way it sounds like the evidence is being buried. Literally.
The science is only part of the evidence, although the scientific evidence was said to be the smoking gun by the FBI. Scientists on the conference call acknowledged the FBI’s claim that cracking the case awaited development of “completely new science” was not true. This was application of existing science to the forensics of the anthrax investigation. It could have been done anytime and one suspects — because the FBI has given plenty of reason to suspect — that the “new science” argument is a red herring to cover the tracks of a botched investigation.
Now there remain loose ends all over the place. The FBI would love to forget about them. Ivins is dead. Case closed. Nature asserts the case isn’t closed:
The FBI should explain why it thinks the scientific evidence implicates Ivins himself, and not just the flask. As [Ivins's lawyer] aptly puts it: “In this country, we prosecute people, not beakers.” The absence of such a full disclosure can only feed suspicions that the FBI has again targeted an innocent man in this case — as it did with former Fort Detrick researcher Steven Hatfill.
This case is too important to be brushed under the carpet. The anthrax attacks killed five people, infected several others, paralysed the United States with fear and shaped the nation’s bioterrorism policy. Science and law share a conviction that conclusions require evidence, and that the evidence be debated openly. The FBI says it regrets that Ivins’s untimely death has denied it the chance to have its day in court. So presumably the bureau would welcome a full congressional or independent enquiry into this case, as has been called for by Senator Chuck Grassley (Republican, Iowa) and several other lawmakers. It is essential that such an enquiry takes place.
We agree and would add some other reasons. As Glenn Greenwald has been pointing out for some time (long before the Ivins episode), the Bush administration tried to tie the attacks to Iraq and used the this as another reason to go to war. If the US government was involved in any way, for example in a provocative stunt that went horribly wrong, we need to know. Until we do, doubts will linger.
Yes, it is essential there be an independent inquiry, not just publishing a dozen papers in the scientific literature. We need that, too, but it isn’t sufficient.