A National Research Council committee on Tuesday questioned the scientific approaches and conclusions in the FBI's investigation of the 2001 anthrax mailings, saying that while the bureau's scientific data provided leads to the deadly chemical's origin, it could not rule out other possible sources.
The committee's lengthy report said it was "not possible to reach a definitive conclusion about the origins of the anthrax in letters mailed to New York City and Washington, D.C.," which the FBI said led directly to Bruce Ivins. The 52-year-old federal researcher committed suicide in 2008 when the bureau began to focus on him as the suspect in the attacks, which left five people dead.
The FBI had identified Ivins, a vaccine researcher at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) in Frederick, Md., as the killer, based on a match investigators made of the spores in his lab to ones discovered in the envelopes.
The committee, convened by the National Academy of Sciences, said the genetic analysis "did not definitively demonstrate" that the anthrax in the letters was grown from a sample taken from Ivins' laboratory.
It said spores in the mailed letters and in a flask found at USAMRIID shared a number of genetic similarities consistent with the FBI findings, but the committee said other possible explanations for the similarities were not definitively explored during the bureau's investigation.
The committee said that Flask RMR-1029, identified by the Justice Department as the "parent material" for the anthrax in the attack letters, was not the immediate source of spores used in the letters. It said one or more derivative growth steps would have been required to produce the anthrax in the attack letters and that the contents of the New York and Washington letters had different physical properties.
"Further development and validation of methods for analyzing environmental samples might have benefited this investigation and will be important in future investigations," the committee said.
The FBI asked the National Research Council to conduct an independent review of its anthrax investigation in September 2008, and the committee was appointed and began its work in 2009. The Justice Department closed its anthrax investigation in January 2010 — concluding that Ivins had carried out the attacks.
The committee recommended further review of the investigation of overseas environmental samples and of classified investigations carried out by the FBI and Justice Department.
In a statement, the FBI criticized the National Research Council report as too narrow in scope.
The bureau said that while the emerging field of "microbial forensics" proved significant in establishing a critical lead to the origins of the anthrax used in the 2001 attacks, other methods also helped determine that Ivins was the perpetrator of the deadly mailings and the FBI and the Justice Department were preparing for prosecution at the time of his death.
"As the report recognizes, this was an investigation of almost unprecedented scope, complexity and duration. Its origins were in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, when the FBI was unsure of possible links to those attacks and concerned about follow-on attacks," the FBI said.
"The investigation necessarily moved at a rapid pace, proceeding on two parallel fronts: a traditional investigation, involving tracking leads and conducting interviews, and a scientific one, led by the FBI lab and included scientists from outside of law enforcement," it said.
The FBI said the committee's report reiterates what is and what is not possible to establish through science alone in a criminal investigation of the magnitude of the anthrax attacks. It said the panel's focus was on the "more novel scientific approaches used in this investigation and did not review the traditional forensic methods and techniques employed or the significant body of evidence gathered through traditional law enforcement techniques.
"Although there have been great strides in forensic science over the years, rarely does science alone solve an investigation," the FBI said. "The scientific findings in this case provided investigators with valuable investigative leads that led to the identification of the late Dr. Bruce Ivins as the perpetrator of the anthrax attacks."
Ivins, an Army microbiologist worked at the Fort Detrick facility for 35 years. He died after taking a fatal overdose of prescription-strength Tylenol mixed with codeine. The 2001 anthrax letters killed five people, sickened 17 others and terrorized Congress and the nation in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
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