At a tense congressional hearing yesterday, FBI Director Robert Mueller announced that an independent panel will review the scientific evidence that the FBI says proves government scientist Bruce Ivins’ guilt in the anthrax mailings of 2001. As Ivins killed himself in August before he could be indicted, the FBI has been forced to present much of its evidence to the public and has received criticism from some scientific experts and lawmakers who say the FBI hasn’t proved its case.
At the hearing, Senator Pat Leahy (who was a target of the anthrax attacks) told Mueller categorically that he simply does not believe that Ivins was the prime culprit if he was a participant at all, and said he is absolutely convinced that there were others involved in the preparation and mailing of the anthrax [Salon blog]. Leahy argued that the biodefense facility where Ivins worked, Ft. Detrick, didn’t have the capacity to produce the strain of anthrax found in the letter that was sent to him.
Mr. Mueller, echoing scientific evidence that the bureau has released, said forensic testing of samples of the anthrax used in the attacks provided “clear identification” linking the strain to a flask in Dr. Ivins’s laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md., where he studied anthrax vaccines [The New York Times]. However, the FBI says it can’t release all of its information, as the case against Ivins is still technically open and because Ivins was never officially charged with a crime. Mueller’s announcement of the independent review, which will be conducted by experts from the National Academy of Sciences, is meant to put lingering questions about the investigation to rest.
One of the most pressing questions is whether the anthrax found in the letters was “weaponized” with added silicon to make it more easily dispersed in the air. In 2001 the FBI reported that it had been weaponized, but when the agency presented its case against Ivins some experts said that the scientist didn’t have the necessary equipment for that process. But now government scientist Peter Jahrling says that he was mistaken when he advised the FBI that the anthrax had been weaponized.
“I believe I made an honest mistake,” Jahrling said… adding that he had been “overly impressed” by what he thought he saw under the microscope. “I should never have ventured into this area,” said Jahrling, who is a virologist, referring to his analysis of the anthrax, which is a bacterium…. Although Jahrling was careful in 2001 not to implicate Iraq or any other regime in the mailings, others used his analysis to allege that the silicon perhaps linked the letters to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein [Los Angeles Times].
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