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

* NPR’s John Dankowsky interviews Stephen Engleberg, Paul Keim and David Relman … RELMAN: the evidence linking the anthrax material in the letters to the material in the flask in Bruce Ivins’ lab was consistent with an association but was not conclusive or definitive … KEIM: there’s no scientific test that can prove that it came from Fort Detrick, Maryland.

Posted by Lew Weinstein on October 29, 2011



 NPR, October 28, 2011 … Army microbiologist Bruce Ivins, the FBI’s prime suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks, died before his trial in an apparent suicide, and the case is now closed. John Dankosky and guests discuss new investigations that question whether scientific evidence against Ivins was conclusive enough to hold up in court.


JOHN DANKOSKY, host: Last year, the FBI and the Department of Justice closed the case, concluding that the late Dr. Ivins acted alone in executing the anthrax attacks. But how conclusive was the scientific evidence against Dr. Ivins? Several recent investigations, led in part by two of our next guests, have asked that question. And that’s what we’ll be talking about this hour. Now let me introduce our guests.

  • Stephen Engleberg is a managing editor at ProPublica here in New York and a reporter on ProPublica’s anthrax series with McClatchy and PBS Frontline.
  • Paul Keim is a microbiologist and evolutionary biologist at Northern Arizona University and at the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Flagstaff, Arizona.
  • David Relman is professor of medicine and microbiology and immunology at Stanford. He’s also chief of infectious diseases at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System in Palo Alto.

DANKOSKY: Dr. Relman, you were vice-chair of the National Academy’s panel that investigated how scientific evidence was handled in the anthrax case. What was that panel’s conclusion? And was the scientific evidence against Ivins as thorough or conclusive as has been described by the FBI?

RELMAN: Well, first of all, we were asked to look at the scientific data and the conclusions that were drawn from it. We were not asked to comment upon or assess the probative value of the scientific data.

RELMAN: Our conclusion, our bottom line, was that

the evidence linking the material in the letters to the material in the flask

that happened to be found in Bruce Ivins’ lab

was consistent with an association, a relationship between the two,

but was not conclusive or definitive.

DANKOSKY: … I’m wondering, Dr. Relman: How much of the investigation of Bruce Ivins, the main target of this investigation, how much of this was really based on science, and how much was based on other things?

RELMAN: It’s an interesting question. It’s one that we really weren’t in a position to be able to answer. We were simply asked to look at the science.

KEIM: And what our investigation found was that as the case was built, they became less and less interested in doing things that might undermine the case. … My guess – and here it’s just a guess – is that they didn’t want to ask a question they didn’t have the answer to. They were afraid it would show something unexpected. And I think for scientists, that’s exactly what you’d want to do, is find something unexpected.

DANKOSKY: Dr. Relman, is it possible that there were key anthrax samples missing from the FBI repository from abroad, maybe from U.S. government labs?

RELMAN: It’s possible. I think in any case like this, you’re always going to be confronted with the problem of knowing what is the true universe within which one needs to search. We were told of a certain set of samples, and there were a large number that were collected from all over the world. And yet we did become aware, for example, of some environmental samples that were collected overseas which gave inconsistent results in the presence of Ames anthrax.

And these samples, because they didn’t yield a cultivated organism, never made their way into the repository, where the more formal, deliberate testing was undertaken. So that’s one bit of evidence or one indication that there may have been certain kinds of samples that never really made their way into the final repository.

DANKOSKY: And the security, Stephen Engleberg, you reported on Dr. Ivins’ lab – very, very lax.

ENGLEBERG: Yes, now in fairness, it has been significantly tightened since the case of the anthrax letters. But I think your caller’s point is well-taken. I did a book 10 years ago with Judith Miller and Bill Broad of the New York Times on this subject, and I was startled, as well, as to how easy it would be to do this. Now, you know, again, in this case what we’re talking about is supposedly is an insider who did it. But you can’t rule out other possibilities, because it is that easy.

DANKOSKY: So we’ve talked a bit about the circumstantial evidence and some of the science. Dr. Keim, I’ll ask you first: Do you think, in the end, that the scientific evidence here was solid enough to go to court to charge Dr. Ivins?

KEIM: Well, I can’t tell you whether it was enough to charge Dr. Ivins. I can only speak to the part of the investigation that I worked on, which was, really, the Ames strain.

So I would have gone to court and I would have been able to say quite precisely that this was a strain that came from a laboratory. It was very unlikely that it would have come from nature.

DANKOSKY: Dr. Relman, what do you think? Do you think that there was enough evidence to go to court?

RELMAN: I don’t think we should be expecting that a scientific experiment is going to reveal a result that points to a person. It may point to a possible source or an evolutionary history or a set of relationships.

KEIM: what we’re talking about is the question of whether or not a particular anthrax culture, the person who made the letters actually took this and grew it somewhere else. It’s not taken out of the flask and then dried. So they grew it someplace separately.

Did that person take it from this particular flask? If so, there are well over 200 people who had access to this particular flask.

But that’s not the end of the story, because this material, this very same material, was in other places. So, for example, to say that one of the research laboratories in Ohio did not contain the perpetrator, the FBI needed to look at those people and ask questions like: Did they have enough time to drive to the Princeton, New Jersey mailbox? And science can’t answer that question because it’s the same stuff.

KEIM: And so there’s no scientific test that can prove that it came

from Ohio or from Fort Detrick, Maryland.

DANKOSKY: do you think that Dr. Ivins had the capability to produce these dry spores, the ones that ended up in the letters in such a high quantity?

KEIM: I’m going to have to decline to answer that. I’m not a spore-production expert, and I, you know, really don’t know what Bruce had in his laboratory, and whether it would have been able to do that. That’s just beyond my area of expertise.

DANKOSKY: David Relman, you want to weigh in? … do you think that this is even possible to do what Dr. Ivins had at his disposal?

RELMAN: Well, you know, we actually were never presented with what we had at his disposal. And what there might have been at someone’s disposal in 2009 when we began our work could certainly have been something very different than what was at someone’s disposal in 2001. So there are a lot of unknowns. And we – and to be honest, we were not presented with a specific scenario, a set of resources and equipment and other reagents, you know, that might have been the, you know, the scenario through which these things were made.

ENGLEBERG: Now, that said, if you interviewed Dr. Ivins’ colleagues at Fort Detrick, there are one or two who say he could have done it and a larger number who say he couldn’t have done it. And frankly, none of the people speaking are really truly expert in the area of spore cultivation. So having spent some time interviewing people on this, I would say that it’s still a difficult question to answer.


3 Responses to “* NPR’s John Dankowsky interviews Stephen Engleberg, Paul Keim and David Relman … RELMAN: the evidence linking the anthrax material in the letters to the material in the flask in Bruce Ivins’ lab was consistent with an association but was not conclusive or definitive … KEIM: there’s no scientific test that can prove that it came from Fort Detrick, Maryland.”

  1. DXer said

    NAU Facing Fines Over Safety Standardsread more
    Posted: Friday, June 5, 2015 6:07 pm

    June 5, 2015 – NAZ Today reports on the issues NAU is facing after a lab did not maintain safety standards.

    NAU is facing sizable fines after Paul Keim’s genetics and genomics lab was found in violation of safety standards. The lab deals with dangerous material, including anthrax, and is being held accountable for lapses in inventory records and safety protocol.

    NAU spokesman Tom Bauer explains the situation and discusses what the lab has done since the violations were reported.

  2. DXer said

    Biologists Choose Sides In Safety Debate Over Lab-Made Pathogens
    August 13, 2014 3:25 AM ET


    David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University, thinks the risks of making a new strain of flu virus that has the potential to cause a pandemic are very real.

    “I don’t think we have adequately involved the public,” Relman says, “so that they understand the possible consequences of mistakes, or errors, or misadventures in performing this kind of science — the kinds of consequences that would result in many, many people becoming ill or dying.”


    Last month, Relman met in Massachussetts with others who are worried. They formed the Cambridge Working Group and issued a statement saying that researchers should curtail any experiments that would lead to new pathogens with pandemic potential, until there’s a better assessment of the dangers and benefits.

    By coincidence, they released their official statement just as the public started hearing news reports of various laboratory errors, such as a forgotten vial of smallpox found in an old freezer, and mishaps involving anthrax and bird flu at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    What’s more, the unprecedented Ebola outbreak has reminded the public what it looks like when a deadly virus gets out of control.

    All of this led a different band of scientists to also form a group — to publicly defend research on dangerous pathogens.

    “There are multiple events that have come together in a rather unusual convergence,” says Paul Duprex, a microbiologist at Boston University.

    He sees the recent reports of lab mistakes as exceptions — they don’t mean you should shut down basic science that’s essential to protect the public health, he says.

    “These viruses are out there; they cause disease, they have killed many, many people in the past,” Duprex says. “We bring them to the laboratory to work with them.”

    Duprex helped form a group that calls itself Scientists for Science. The group’s position statement emphasizes that studies on risky germs already are subject to extensive regulations. It says focusing on lab safety is the best defense — not limiting the types of experiments that can be done.

    Whenever questions about safety are raised, Duprex says, scientists have one of two options. They can keep their heads down, do their experiments, and hope it will all go away. Or, he says, they can proactively engage the public and provide an informed opinion.

    His group has taken the latter approach, “because ultimately we’re the people working with these things.”

    Each of these two groups of scientists now has a website, and each website features its own list of more than a hundred supporters, including Nobel Prize winners and other scientific superstars.

    One thing that almost everyone seems to agree on is that, to move forward, there needs to be some sort of independent, respected forum for discussing the key issues.

    The American Society for Microbiology has called on the prestigious National Academy of Sciences to take the lead. A representative of the Academy says NAS does plan to hold a symposium, later this year. The details are still being worked out.

    Tim Donohue, a microbiologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who is president of ASM, says a similar kind of debate happened back in the mid-1970s, when brand-new technologies for manipulating DNA forced scientists and the public to tackle thorny questions.

    “And I think that is a productive exercise,” Donohue says, “to have scientists and the public, sitting around the table, making sure each one understands what the benefits and risks are, and putting in place policies that allow these types of experiments to go on so that they are safe and so that society can benefit from the knowledge and innovation that comes out of that work.”


    In 2003 I beta tested a new version of the BioWeapons Prevention Project (BWPP) and currently post there. BWPP is “a global network of civil society actors dedicated to the permanent elimination of biological weapons and of the possibility of their re-emergence. It was launched in 2003 by a group of non-governmental organizations concerned at the failure of governments to fortify the norm against the weaponization of disease. BWPP monitors governmental and other activities relevant to the treaties that codify that norm.”

    Dr. Ebright is the second most frequent poster after Dr. Jean Zanders, whose website it is, and I am the third. Dr. Zanders has moved the forum and everyone will be expected to reregister under the new forum. (Approval by the moderator is required). There mainly is a posting of articles and materials rather than a debate as such.

    I’ve valued the forum because of its international audience.

  3. DXer said

    On June 12 and June 13, 2012, David Relman will be giving the welcoming remarks at a conference on THE SCIENCE AND APPLICATIONS OF MICROBIAL GENOMICS at the Institute of Medicine. He will also give summary remarks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: