Scientists question U.S. anthrax attack evidence

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A panel of scientists on Tuesday cast doubt on FBI scientific evidence that a U.S. Army researcher, Bruce Ivins, committed a series of deadly anthrax attacks in 2001.

FBI and Army scientists began the process of opening an anthrax-laden letter sent to Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, hoping to find clues to help identify the source of germ attacks that have killed five people since October, FBI officials said December 5, 2001. REUTERS/STR New

A National Research Council committee report released on Tuesday questioned the link between a flask of anthrax bacteria in Ivins’ laboratory in Maryland and the anthrax-laced letters that killed five people and sickened 17 others.

The committee found it impossible to reach any definitive conclusion about the origins of the anthrax in the letters, based solely on the available scientific evidence.

The FBI concluded in 2008 that Ivins, who committed suicide that year as prosecutors prepared to charge him with murder for committing the attacks, acted alone in mailing the letters. His attorney has maintained that Ivins was innocent.

The letters, sent to the news media and lawmakers, jolted a nation that was at the time reeling from the September 11 hijacked-plane attacks and resulted in one of the FBI’s largest investigations ever.

The report challenged the FBI and U.S. Justice Department’s conclusion that a single-spore batch of anthrax maintained by Ivins at his laboratory at Fort Detrick in Maryland was the parent material for the spores in the letters.

Investigators agreed with the committee that the spores from the flask would have required one or more intermediary growth steps to become the material in the letters. The panel also said the contents of the New York and Washington letters had different physical properties.

After lawmakers in Congress and others raised questions about the investigation, the FBI asked the Research Council, part of the National Academy of Sciences, to review the facts from the scientific evidence.

The committee said it did not offer any findings on the possible guilt or innocence of any individuals. The scientists did not review classified materials about the case.

The FBI said in a statement that the scientific evidence alone did not solve the investigation.

“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,” the FBI said.