Science and the anthrax case: not enough

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.


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The issue is not with the fancy-ass science. All that can do is indentify the "weapon" used to commit the crime. As in any murder, the real issue is demonstrating that it was, indeed, the accused who used that weapon to commit the murder. All the fancy-ass anthrax science in the world cannot address that question.

The FBI is trying to dazzle with fancy-ass bullshit.

Agreed all around, revere(s). I really appreciate you keeping on this case because we need to have serious science *and* serious sleuthing to get to the bottom of what I find might be a real case of "framing."

Scientific publications may indeed "dazzle" the public and press but they will do little or nothing toward esatblishing causality between Ivins and the attacks. Scientific publications will not, for example, place Ivins in the vicinity of Princeton post offices at the time of the mailing.

As my Mom is wont to say, this stinks to high heaven.

They have some of the method, partial opportunity and very poor motive.
The fact that there were two quite different powders and one contaminated with Bacillus seems glossed over but may be important in further constraining the method and opportunity.

I trust it is not too far off topic to raise a rather surprising issue regarding Dr. Ivins.

Isn't it astonishing that there appears to be not a single instance either from the governmental or in the mainstream media referring to o the FBI's official perpetrator, Dr. Ivins as a "terrorist"?

The amount of discipline required to achieve this seems amazing given the previous uniform reference to the anthrax attack which killed five people as "an act of terrorism".

Can anyone furnish a parsimonious hypothesis to explain this anomaly? Am I mistaken? I would welcome citations from either source which characterizes Dr. Ivins as a terrorist or alternatively characterizing his alleged acts as acts of terrorism. I'm confess to being baffled and would genuinely welcome enlightenment.

Alternatively can someone furnish any government statement or mainstream media assertion describing Dr. Ivins as a terrorist?


P.s. Years ago I failed in my attempt to receive a reply regarding the fact that terrorism was defined by the government and its contractors , not by the nature of the act, but rather the employer of the perpetrators.

I asked why the same act, e.g. blowing up a civilian building was classified as "terrorism," if the alleged perpetrators were not in the direct employment of any recognized government, although an identical act was classified as terrorism if the alleged perpetrators were thought to be affiliated with a non government entity.

Such coding seems based, not on logic, but based on a rather self-serving definition of terrorism formulated by the U.S. government.

In the case of Dr. Ivins, the alleged actions should have been called "terrorism" even using this illogical classification scheme.

The fact that Ivins was employed at Fort Detrich at the time of the attacks would surely be trumped by the fact that his alleged production and distribution of anthrax was done in a private rather than official capacity.

Again, I welcome clarification or refutation. Has anyone challenged the sensational claim, constantly repeated by persons such as the politically powerful Anthony Cordesman and in a recent Wall Street Journal article by Mr. Amis that on a clear night, a plane dropping anthrax over a city such as Washington D.C. would/could(?) produce from one to three million fatalities? While this is a horrific prospect, the basis of the claim seems unconvincing -- an old study by the now defunct Office of Technology Assessment. While I managed to locate the study cited at the FAS website, the study itself fails to explain the the calculations leading to the "1-3 Million" Again, any enlightenment would be appreciated.

tom: You raise an extremely interesting question. I confess I hadn't thought about it. Of course we all realize that blowing up and terrorizing civilians if you are a state actor isn't terrorism. It's the terrorists houses that you are blowing up, right? Ask the Israelis and the Americans and the Russians and the Georgians, etc.

The question of what could be accomplished by an anthrax attack we don't know. It depends critically on the delivery vehicle, since evidence suggests that a person can contract inhalation anthrax with as few as a handful of spores. That is the burden of the Meselson/Guillemin work on Sverdlovsk, at any rate. Probably the calculation is based on the assumption of uniform distribution of all the spores over the population, something highly unlikely. OTOH, while the number might not be 3 million it could conceivably be thousands, which would be pretty bad.

Tom, that is a very interesting observation. There have been other civilians labeled as "terrorists". Steven Kurtz and Robert Ferrell come to mind, as does Thomas C. Butler. There was that lawyer misidentified as one of the Madrid bombers.

Maybe because the anthrax terrorist was a "compassionate terrorist". He/she/they did warn the victims to take antibiotics and told them to use a type that was effective against that strain.