By Gerry Andrews, an assistant professor of microbiology at the University of Wyoming (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 10/08/08):
On Wednesday, the United States Justice Department revealed its evidence that Dr. Bruce E. Ivins, on his own, committed the worst act of bioterrorism in the country’s history. This 18-year veteran scientist of the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md., is accused of killing five people and sickening 17 others in the fall of 2001. Dr. Ivins died on July 29 of an apparent suicide without a chance to give his side of the story.
After reading the affidavits and listening to the Justice Department briefing, I was both disheartened and perplexed by the lack of physical evidence supporting a conviction.
Dr. Ivins was a friend and colleague of mine for nearly 16 years. We worked together at Fort Detrick. He was a senior scientist, and I was, first, a bench scientist and, from 1999 to 2003, the chief of the bacteriology division.
The Justice Department has presented different types of evidence to support its argument that Dr. Ivins was the person who mailed anthrax to Tom Brokaw, Tom Daschle and others in September and October of 2001. Much of this evidence is outside the realm of science: Dr. Ivins’s alleged fixation with a sorority; strange comments in excerpts from his e-mail messages; a connection to a Greendale school that might or might not explain the fictitious return address on anthrax mailings. I will not address these points beyond noting that they are highly circumstantial.
As a scientist, however, I feel compelled to comment on what should have been the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s strongest link between Dr. Ivins and the terrible crime — deadly anthrax spores. In the summary of its findings, the F.B.I. states that investigators used four different genetic techniques to match the anthrax-laced attack letters to a unique DNA footprint of a single anthrax spore preparation in one flask that had been in Dr. Ivins’s custody.
Sounds reasonable. Yet the investigators present no details on the scientific methods they used to make this match or how they employed them. That’s a problem, because without such detail it is hard to tell if they specifically ruled out a similar match between the anthrax in the letters and anthrax preparations with the same DNA footprint kept at a number of other labs around the country. The basic methods of genetic analysis are well known. Why not provide enough detail about their procedure to enable other scientists to tell whether they could actually single out Dr. Ivins’s spore preparation as the culprit?
The investigators fail to address another underlying problem with their anthrax match: that Dr. Ivins was an investigator in the case before he was a suspect. After the anthrax attack, Dr. Ivins himself worked directly with the evidence. The F.B.I. asked Dr. Ivins to help them with the forensics in the case by analyzing the contents of suspicious letters. And he did so for years, until the authorities began to suspect that the anthrax spores used in the mailings might have originated from his lab.
Dr. Ivins, for instance, was asked to analyze the anthrax envelope that was sent to Mr. Daschle’s office on Oct. 9, 2001. When his team analyzed the powder, they found it to be a startlingly refined weapons-grade anthrax spore preparation, the likes of which had never been seen before by personnel at Fort Detrick.
It is extremely improbable that this type of preparation could ever have been produced at Fort Detrick, certainly not of the grade and quality found in that envelope.
But even leaving that aside, there are important questions left unanswered. First, isn’t it possible that the manipulation of the contents of the anthrax letters in Dr. Ivins’s laboratory might have contaminated the work environment enough to potentially jeopardize the integrity of subsequent samples taken from the lab? Might that perhaps explain why the anthrax powder used in the attacks was later found to have the same DNA footprint as the other anthrax preparations in Dr. Ivins’s lab? At the very least, wouldn’t this call his guilt into doubt?
It was as if a gun used in a murder was unintentionally returned to the scene of the crime several days after the murder. What are the legal implications of such a possibility? Wouldn’t a court be especially cautious in considering evidence involving a weapon in such circumstances?
This case is apparently closed with Dr. Ivins’s death. But until the F.B.I. discloses its scientific testing methods and data, many questions will remain unanswered.