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On Wednesday 6 August 2008, the FBI and Justice Department briefed the world on the conclusions of its anthrax investigation. This particular sleuthing began in the shadow of 9/11, when anthrax laced letters were found on Capitol Hill and in post offices in the eastern US. 6 people died, and many others were sickened.
In the beginning, the Bush Administration was quick to point the finger toward Al Qaeda and Iraq. The Administration believed its own hype, that terrorists had weaponized anthrax virus sprung from Saddam Hussein or some similar source. As the attacks continued through September and October of 2001, it seemed almost certain that America had fallen into another well-planned assault from afar.
Yet as the weeks wore on, the Justice Department made repeated announcements that the anthrax was not from some foreign source, but had come from a strain originally culture in Ames Iowa (from a dead Texas cow as it turned out), and it was similar to a stock pile the Army had been doing work on at Fort Detrick, MD. Painstaking detective work eventually lead them to an Army bioweapons researcher, who is believed to have committed suicide the day he was to meet with prosecutors who would have offered him a plea deal. Sadly, if he did it, and the evidence seems strong, we’ll never know why.
From a scientific perspective, however, this case is interesting for a whole host of other reasons. This was the first real investigation of a “loose” biological weapon in the U.S., and so it tested many parts of the law enforcement scientific enterprise. The investigation also occurred at the start of what history may call the Genetic Age – a time when our understanding of evolution, ecology, and human impacts was greatly expanded because of increasing use of genetic technology.
Since 2001, the biological sciences have seen a veritable explosion of genetic sample analysis equipment and methods. Current editions of Science, for instance, are full of ads for rapid genotyping machines, high-resolution electrophoresis gels, and a myriad of other genetic based sampling and testing equipment. Geneticists have also mapped the complete human genome, along with the gene sequences of many other animals. Genetic testing is revealing all sorts of links to diseases, and gene therapy is now no longer the stuff of science fiction legends. In short, genetic work is becoming as commonplace in science as measurements of sea surface temperature from satellites, and the wealth of data this generates is still not fully understood.
In a rare move, the FBI quickly grasped the potential of genetic sampling and identification techniques then in their infancy. They also grasped that they were not equipped to learn all the protocols and purchase the equipment. So they outsourced to a number of labs around the country, and I have a sneaking suspicion that their demands for certain types of information helped drive innovations in genetic identification and testing.
This appears to be a case where science was moved along by government needs, and where government agency personnel recognized and affirmed the utility of private scientific actions. And, when combined with dogged old-fashioned police work, the Justice Department broke a major case wide open. Science won the day. All without the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and extraordinary rendition. But that’s another story I suppose.