DEC. 19, 2014
A congressional inquiry into the F.B.I.’s scientific work on the anthrax mailings of 2001 has identified major gaps in genetic evidence that purportedly links the germs to Bruce E. Ivins, the Army microbiologist blamed for attacks that killed five people, sickened 17 others and shook the nation.
The Government Accountability Office study, requested in 2010 and made public on Friday, echoes earlier criticism from the National Academy of Sciences. In 2011, its expert panel found that the bureau’s analysis of the genetic evidence “did not definitively demonstrate” a firm link between the mailed anthrax spores and a sample taken from Dr. Ivins’s laboratory at Fort Detrick in Maryland, and more generally was “not as conclusive” as the bureau had asserted.
The G.A.O. had better access to F.B.I. records and deepened the genetic critique, finding that the bureau’s investigation “lacked several important characteristics” that could have strengthened its case. “A key scientific gap,” the 77-page report said, was the bureau’s failure to investigate whether samples of anthrax spores could naturally mutate enough to obscure their putative links to Dr. Ivins.
In 2008, shortly after he killed himself, the bureau laid out a sweeping but circumstantial case against Dr. Ivins, an Army microbiologist, saying he had acted alone in conducting the nation’s first major bioterrorist attack. It called the case Amerithrax and said that unique mutations in the anthrax spores had helped put Dr. Ivins under the spotlight.
In an interview, Timothy M. Persons, the G.A.O.’s chief scientist, credited the bureau with working hard to correct some of its science deficiencies but said its evidence fell short in the anthrax case, which was officially closed in 2010. “They needed better science and measurement in order to be more conclusive,” he said. “It sounds nitpicky, but that’s important in building up the scientific evidence for an important case.”
The bureau said it agreed with the G.A.O.’s advice on improving its forensic science.
On Friday, Representative Rush D. Holt, a New Jersey Democrat and physicist who requested the study, said the report “confirms what I have often said — that the F.B.I.’s definitive conclusions about the accuracy of their scientific findings in the Amerithrax case are not, in fact, definitive. The United States needs a comprehensive, independent review of the Amerithrax investigation to ensure we have learned the lessons from this bio attack.”
Mr. Holt has repeatedly called for a national commission on the anthrax mailings that would serve as a kind of scaled-down version of the panel that studied the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The anthrax letters were sent from a mailbox in Princeton, N.J., which is in his district.
The deadly wisps of anthrax, coming just after the September attacks, set off new waves of panic. Over the years, a growing number of outside expertshave asked whether federal investigators got the right man and whether the F.B.I.’s long inquiry brushed aside important clues.
To the regret of independent scientists, the report made no mention of an issue beyond genetics: whether the spores displayed signs of advanced manufacturing. They have pointed to distinctive chemicals found in the dried anthrax spores that they say contradict F.B.I. claims that the germs were unsophisticated.
Evidence of special coatings, they say, suggests that Dr. Ivins had help in obtaining his germ weapons or was innocent.
Martin E. Hugh-Jones, an authority on anthrax at Louisiana State University, said the report was disappointing.