CASE CLOSED … what really happened in the 2001 anthrax attacks?

Archive for August 2nd, 2009

* Experts urge panel to deepen forensic understanding

Posted by DXer on August 2, 2009

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Adam Behsudi writes in the Frederick News Post (8-1-09)

A panel of experts convened for a second day Friday to examine the scientific process employed by the FBI to identify the anthrax used in the deadly 2001 mailings.

The meeting featured presentations from three experts who worked on the case. Scientific methods were explained, and the 15-member panel was asked to use the study as a means to prepare for future attacks.

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SEE RELATED POST – OPINION … * LMW: The end of the NAS trail, I suspect, will be that the FBI’s anthrax science was a mess that couldn’t convict Bruce Ivins or anyone else

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A lawmaker also addressed the group, criticizing the FBI’s handling of the country’s first widespread bioterrorism event.

“If the technical and scientific procedures are as flawed as the nontechnical procedures, they certainly deserve a look,” said Rep. Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat from whose district the letters were mailed.

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SEE RELATED POST … * Congressman Rush Holt meets with NAS panel, says their work is important but their mandate is too narrow; calls for passage of Anthrax Investigation Commission legislation he introduced in March 09

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Holt said the study sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences would be useful for answering some key questions but was too narrow in scope.

Investigators last year determined that Fort Detrick scientist Bruce Ivins was the primary suspect in the attacks that killed five people and sickened 17. A flask of anthrax under Ivins’ control was identified as the origin of the bacteria used in the letters.

Ivins, who had a record of serious mental health issues, died July 29, 2008, of an intentional overdose of Tylenol after learning he was to be indicted in the mailings.

Holt has submitted legislation to form a special commission to examine the FBI’s eight-year investigation highlighted by a multimillion-dollar settlement after investigators wrongly accused Fort Detrick scientist Steven Hatfill.

“Simply stated, the government suffers from a credibility gap on this issue,” he said.

The FBI has not yet formally closed the case.

One of the experts who made a presentation at the meeting led a genetic study to sort through more than 1,000 samples of anthrax. The method found the anthrax in the letters matched eight samples that could be traced to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, where Ivins worked.

Claire Fraser-Liggett, a professor of medicine at the University of Maryland, performed the analysis while director of the Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville.

The positive samples were isolated through the identification of four specific mutations. Those were genetically matched with anthrax gathered from the envelopes and the spinal fluid of the first victim, Robert Stevens, a photo editor at a Florida tabloid.

Fraser-Liggett said the work to find a match began in late 2001, but the successful method was not completed until 2007, when agents began to seriously investigate Ivins.

“I was hopeful that perhaps genomics would provide sufficient amount of information to be able to track the material to its source, but I then, and have always, asserted that in no way did I ever believe that this kind of genomics-based investigation was ever going to lead to the perpetrator,” Fraser-Liggett said.

“That was going to require much more traditional police investigation.”

The 18-month academy study will affirm the validity of the investigative science but will stop short of explaining how the FBI sorted Ivins from the dozens of people who had access to RMR-1029, the strain of anthrax used in the mailings.

Jennifer Smith is a retired FBI agent and biochemist who now leads BioForensic Consulting. Smith was involved in the agency’s DNA unit when the investigation began.

“I want to say that I hope this committee is able to see information that was shared … even if that information might currently be housed within the classified files,” she said.

Bruce Budowle was a senior FBI scientist before his current post as director of the Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas.

He said no new methodology was used in the case, but it significantly advanced the field of microbial forensics.

He advised the government to capitalize on relationships with the private and academic sectors to prepare a structure for examining microbial forensics.

“Get those experts ready today for the next event that occurs,” Budowle said. “We would know who to go to in the process instead of having to search them out.”

The committee will likely meet again next month.

Alice Gast, the committee chairwoman and president of Lehigh University, said the academy has the ability to pursue classified materials. The study will deepen as the group learns more and asks additional questions, she said.

“Really it remains to be defined — the scope of all materials we’ll receive,” Gast said.

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