- The Washington Times - Monday, July 27, 2009

A year after government scientist Bruce Ivins killed himself while under investigation for the lethal anthrax letters of 2001, the Justice Department is on the verge of closing the long, costly and vexing case.

Several law enforcement officials told the Associated Press that the department tentatively planned last week to close the case but backed away from that decision after government attorneys said they needed more time to review the evidence and determine what further information can be made public without compromising grand jury secrecy or privacy laws.

The anthrax letters were sent to lawmakers and news organizations as the nation reeled in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. With childish, blocky handwriting and chilling scientific expertise, the letters spread death through the mail.

The spores killed five people: two Washington postal workers, a New York City hospital worker, a Florida photo editor and a 94-year-old Connecticut woman who had no known contact with any of the poisoned letters. Seventeen other people were sickened.

Officials told AP that the decision to close the case has been put off for what may be weeks, as the FBI and Justice Department continue to wrestle with an investigation that has led many to question the quality of their work and the certainty of their conclusions.

The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss internal deliberations about the case.

Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd declined to comment on the discussions but said the agency and the FBI continue working to conclude the investigation. “We anticipate closing the case in the near future,” Mr. Boyd added.

For years, the FBI chased leads. Authorities tried to build a case against biowarfare scientist Steven Hatfill, but ultimately had to pay him a multimillion-dollar settlement.

Then, last year, authorities announced that the mystery had been solved but that the suspect was dead. In the days before the mailings, they said, Mr. Ivins had logged unusual hours alone in his lab at the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md. They also say he threw investigators off his trail by supplying false leads as he ostensibly tried to help them find the killer.

As the FBI closed in on Mr. Ivins last summer, the 62-year-old microbiologist took a fatal overdose of the painkiller acetaminophen and died on July 29. After Mr. Ivins’ suicide, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said the investigation found that Mr. Ivins was the culprit, and prosecutors said they were confident he acted alone. Officials insisted they were on the verge of indicting Mr. Ivins and could have convicted him.

Skeptics — including prominent lawmakers — pointed to the bureau’s long, misguided pursuit of Mr. Hatfill, and noted that no evidence suggested that Mr. Ivins was ever in New Jersey when the letters were mailed there.

This week, the National Academy of Sciences is set to begin a formal review of the FBI’s scientific methods in tracing the particular strain of anthrax used in the mailings to samples Mr. Ivins had at his Fort Detrick lab.

Closing the case, even if some new details are released, seems unlikely to do much to sway Rep. Rush D. Holt, New Jersey Democrat, whose district is home to some of the stricken postal workers.

“Most people affected — the families, the post office workers — will not feel there’s closure in this case, and the people of New Jersey will not be able to be confident that there isn’t still a murderer in their midst,” Mr. Holt said.

He said the FBI built an “entirely circumstantial” case against Mr. Ivins.

“I watched as they went off on wild goose chases and then conveniently have a suspect who isn’t around to defend himself,” Mr. Holt said. “Dr. Ivins was an oddball, no question, but you don’t build a case on that.”

In preparation for an announcement that prosecutors had decided to close the “Amerithrax” case, investigators wrote a 110-page summary of their work, laying out the timeline of events over the past eight years, officials said.

That 110-page review was pared down to about 40 pages and then a still-shorter version. Now it’s unclear whether any of those documents will be released.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, who was the target of one of the letters, has said he does not think Mr. Ivins acted alone.

Mr. Ivins’ attorney, Paul Kemp, has long maintained that the scientist was innocent and would have been cleared at any trial. Some of Mr. Ivins’ colleagues also doubt the FBI’s conclusions.

Plenty of questions remain unanswered, whenever they close the investigation, Mr. Kemp said.

“The case continues to remain an open sore with no conclusive evidence, and it is still devastating to [Mr. Ivins’] family,” Mr. Kemp said.

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