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

Posts Tagged ‘GAO review of FBI anthrax investigation’

* FBI Lab Director defends FBI anthrax science … NAS & GAO beg to differ

Posted by Lew Weinstein on February 9, 2015


February 1, 2010

Letters to the Editor
The Wall Street Journal
1211 Avenue of the Americas,
New York, NY 10036

Dear Editor:

Monday’s opinion piece, “The Anthrax Attacks Remain Unsolved,” was filled with inaccuracies and omitted several relevant facts that are necessary for a balanced discussion of the science applied in the anthrax investigation.

From the outset, the FBI’s scientific work in the anthrax case has had a foundation in validation and verification of its approach and conclusions. This process began within weeks of the initial events of 2001 and has included:

  • consultation with numerous subject matter experts in technical panels;
  • collaboration with partner laboratories in government, academia and the private sector throughout the course of the investigation;
  • ongoing efforts to publish our work and that of our partner labs in peer-reviewed technical journals; and
  • analytical data and reports provided to the National Academy of Sciences so they can evaluate the scientific analysis applied to the evidence in the anthrax investigation.

The FBI is confident in the scientific findings that were reached in this investigation.

We utilized established biological and chemical analysis techniques and applied them in an innovative manner to reach these findings.

D. Christian Hassell, Ph.D
FBI Laboratory


* The GAO report has confirmed what the NAS said two years ago, which is that the FBI’s allegation that Dr. Bruce Ivins was the sole perpetrator of the 2001 anthrax attacks – or even involved in any way – is not supported by the scientific evidence the FBI has presented.            ...

* Selected extracts from the NAS Report on the FBI’s anthrax science:  RMR-1029 was not the immediate source … Other sources not ruled out … the FBI’s public scientific conclusions were not the same as those provided to NAS …



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Meryl Nass, M.D. … The FBI botched its investigation, never had even the shred of a case against Ivins

Posted by Lew Weinstein on December 20, 2014

The analysis below was posted by Dr. Meryl Nass at …

Friday, December 19, 2014

GAO Report echoes NAS report that FBI’ s study of anthrax letters leaves much to be desired, including lack of validation of the methods used/GAO

Here is the GAO report released today, two years in the making, a study done for unnamed “congressional requesters.” In past years, the requesters have been listed, but in this case, they are not. This most likely reflects the sensitivity of this matter. Why so sensitive?
Because the FBI botched its investigation, never had even the shred of a case against Ivins, and this is not the first time they were called out on it.
The 2011 National Academy of Science (NAS) report pointed out the same things as this GAO report: that FBI and its contractors developed methods that were not validated. They never proved that the anthrax in the letters actually grew from parent spores in Ivins’ flask, as FBI purports. This failed claim forms the linchpin of the FBI’s entire case.
Here is the 2011 WaPo editorial on the need for a comprehensive investigation, following release of the NAS report. Today’s GAO investigation did not fulfill the WaPo’s request to include an investigation of the case against Ivins himself.
Following the NAS report, in October 2011, veteran investigative reporters at McClatchey (Greg Gordon, who is amazing), PBS’ Frontline and ProPublica dug deeper into the case than anyone so far had done, and created a TV show, a huge online cache of documents on the case, and several journalistic pieces, like this one.  Their work revealed new pieces of evidence that further undercut the FBI’s case, like this and this. One article explored the validity of the FBI’s scientific evidence.UPDATE: These reporters write about the new GAO report here.

The National Academy of Science panel couched its conclusions in extremely polite, even deferential language toward the FBI. The NAS committee created new definitions for old words that could only have been intended to confuse readers of the report. (See my detailed discussion of this, below)

If you actually say, out loud, that the FBI faked its search for the anthrax criminal(s), flushed $100 million down the toilet in its most expensive case to date, and deliberately avoided conducting a credible investigation to find the anthrax letters perpetrators, then you question the entire edifice of US law enforcement and imply a conspiracy around an anthrax letters coverup at the highest levels of government, as suggested in Professor Graeme MacQueen’s recent book.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, you are simply not permitted to do.

Step back from the abyss, get a limited GAO report that still took 2 years of review to see the light of day, and close the door on the anthrax letters case. Got it?

Here is what I wrote about the NAS report following its 2011 release:

Muddying the waters: contradictory NAS Report interpretations, and how the report itself asks to be read

Professor Paul Keim, an anthrax genetics expert at Northern Arizona University and FBI contractor, is claiming the NAS report supports the FBI’s case.  It doesn’t.  Please review the report and judge for yourself.The NAS report has many confusing aspects.  But it basically says:

  • The FBI totally screwed up its data collection of anthrax samples, and it should not be considered comprehensive.
  • FBI failed to give the committee needed information, although it provided some response (sometimes “tersely”) to every request for information.
  • FBI found a number of morphologically unusual mutants (“morphotypes”) in some letters, then chose some morphotypes to study further, but FBI provided no explanation for why only some morphotypes and not all letters were selected.
  • NAS pointed out that one could not say what expertise and equipment were required, nor how long it would take to produce the amount of spores used, absent that information.  (This conclusion challenged FBI claims that Ivins had the equipment and expertise needed, and also challenged the importance made of Ivins’ late nights in the lab.)
  • The assertion that Ivins tried to fool the FBI with the samples he submitted is unsupported.
  • FBI was chided for failing to use the newest molecular techniques, which could have speeded up the research and helped to clarify the relationship between the letter spores and Ivins’ flask of spores.

For example, from page 26 of the report:

“No written explanatory materials were provided with these documents that would fully
inform the committee as to why the analyses were done and how these documents contributed to the FBI investigations and conclusions. The material regarding analyses of the FBIR specimens was coded, often with different numbers for the same sample set. Consequently, the committee spent a considerable amount of time sorting through and attempting to interpret the available materials before it could begin to evaluate the science and consider the scientific conclusions. In addition, much of the information provided to the committee was compartmentalized and sections of some documents were redacted.
When the committee posed questions to the FBI for clarification, the agency was always
responsive; however, responses to questions were sometimes minimal or terse, or were deflected as intruding into the criminal investigation and beyond the purview of the committee despite the committee’s explanation that the questions were of a scientific nature.”

And excerpts from page 119:

“The first challenge with the repository was the lack of independence among samples and an incomplete understanding of the provenance of samplesdue to the known history of sharing…  FBI scientists and investigators sought to determine the history of shipments among institutions and the genealogical relationships among samples in the repository, but they never obtained a complete record.

Another challenge with the repository was that, since the importance of the mutant genotypes was not fully understood when the subpoena protocol was written, the document was vague (e.g., “use an inoculum taken across multiple colonies”), and was not written in a way that would maximize the chance that variant genotypes in a mixed stock population would be submitted… After the importance of the mutant genotypes became known, there was no request for additional samples using a revised protocol that might have improved the sampling.

A final challenge was that the repository collection process was based on the integrity of the individuals asked to provide samples. If the motive for the repository was to identify the source of the letter material, standards of custody of evidence would dictate that agents of the FBI should have obtained the samples. In most instances, holders of the material were asked to provide samples and send them in. The sender could have been the instigator and may not have complied with instructions, as the FBI alleges with respect to Dr. Ivins.”

Yet the report was otherwise couched in the most conciliatory language.  FBI was praised whenever possible.

The committee was barred from commenting directly on the guilt or innocence of suspects.  In order to get around this restriction and create a report that complied with its contract, while being as specific as possible about whether the science indicted Ivins, the NAS report included tables that presented FBI and DOJ statements, verbatim.  Then the report commented on whether the committee agreed with the statements.

Using this method, NAS’ report was able to say (page 15):

The results of the genetic analyses of the repository samples were consistent with the finding that the spores in the attack letters were derived from RMR-1029, but the analyses did not definitively demonstrate such a relationship. The scientific data alone do not support the strength of the government’s repeated assertions that “RMR-1029 was conclusively identified as the parent material to the anthrax powder used in the mailings” (USDOJ, 2010, p. 20), nor the role suggested for the scientific data in arriving at their conclusions, “the scientific analysis coordinated by the FBI Laboratory determined that RMR-1029, a spore-batch created and maintained at USAMRIID by Dr. Ivins, was the parent material for the anthrax used in the mailings” (USDOJ, 2010, p. 8).

The report created new definitions to specify strength of association.  This goes to the heart of the report’s meaning.  Here’s what the report says, rather oddly, about how its language conveys the strength of an association (see page 41):

“Quantifying an association, as well as the degree of certainty (or uncertainty) in that association, involves statistical methods (see Chapter 6). Common language involves qualifiers, rather than quantifiable measures, of this association and the degree of confidence in it, which can cause confusion among practitioners from different fields that use the terms. Since the interpretation of these qualifiers and the ways in which they are used differ across disciplines (e.g., statistics, science, law, common language), their use by the committee is clarified here. In the chapters that follow, the committee uses the following four qualifiers of association, listed in order of increasing certainty (decreasing uncertainty):

  • consistent with an association
  • suggest an association
  • indicate an association
  • demonstrate an association

The expression “consistent with” is frequently used in this report and conveys the weakest level of certainty (greatest amount of uncertainty). In general, when the term “consistent with” is used, it means that an association may or may not be present; the available data can neither rule out nor confirm an association. The term “suggests” denotes a greater level of certainty for an association than “consistent with,” but even here the normal use of the word in science denotes a weaker level of certainty than is implied by the word in everyday parlance. That is, the potential for an association is stronger, and the evidence for the absence of an association is weaker, but both are still possible. In contrast, the terms “indicate” and “demonstrate” denote higher degrees of certainty and these are usually reserved for strong scientific conclusions (i.e., less uncertainty, or less likelihood of an absence of an association). All four levels could potentially be quantified with measures of “statistical significance,” but the committee does not assign such measures in most instances because the data at hand are generally not appropriate for such precise quantification of the degree of uncertainty. 

In summary, the reader is cautioned to consider carefully the terminology in this report in light of the fact that the qualifiers of certainty used here are those used most commonly in the scientific literature and that these words can carry different weight in common language and in the courtroom.”

So the term “consistent with an association” in the NAS-FBI context, implies the weakest possible association.  Got that?   Keim and the FBI have taken “consistent with” to mean the NAS Report supports the FBI claims, when the report’s own definitions state that “consistent with” implies “the greatest amount of uncertainty” about the association.  UPDATE:   Keim is quoted in the 2/17/11 Global Security Newswire with the following (disingenuous) statement:

Keim disputed news reports suggesting that this week’s analysis questions the FBI for naming Ivins as the perpetrator of the attacks.  “The committee isn’t saying that. … All the major conclusions that the FBI came to, the committee said, ‘Yeah, the evidence is consistent with that.'”

[Sorry for all the mumbo-jumbo, but this level of detail helps explain how opposing sides may each cite this report to claim victory–Nass]

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* GAO Anthrax Report: Agency Approaches to Validation and Statistical Analyses Could Be Improved

Posted by Lew Weinstein on December 20, 2014




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* NYT: Inquiry in Anthrax Mailings Had Gaps, Report Says

Posted by Lew Weinstein on December 20, 2014



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.

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* FRONTLINE: New Doubt Casts Doubt on FBI’s Anthrax Investigation

Posted by Lew Weinstein on December 20, 2014

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* update from GAO … 9/15/14 … report “sometime this fall” … NOTE: fall ends Dec 20, 2014 … two weeks until the end of fall … will GAO deliver?

Posted by Lew Weinstein on December 6, 2014

I’m told by GAO the report will be issued the week of Dec 15


GAO, FBI, Ivins

emails to/from Chuck Young,

Managing Director, Public Affairs, 

Government Accountability Office (GAO)


Lew to Chuck … Any update now that summer is over? … Any comment on why it has taken so long? My guess is that the FBI has been fighting you every step of the way … LEW

Chuck to Lew … Sometime this fall and no, we wouldn’t comment on the report or information access issues until after it is released. Thanks, Chuck


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* It has now been 13 years since the 2001 anthrax attacks. The GAO report promised for “this fall” is probably the last chance we will ever have to know the truth.

Posted by Lew Weinstein on November 20, 2014

GAO, FBI, Ivins

The FBI case against Bruce Ivins would be a joke, if it wasn’t so serious. Every element of proof the FBI has offered to support its 2008 assertion that Ivins was the sole perpetrator (or even involved) in the 2001 anthrax attacks has been thoroughly demolished in this blog.

GAO has promised to report “sometime this fall” on its review of the FBI investigation. Let’s hope they keep that promise. The GAO report is probably the last chance we will ever have to know the truth.

In the meanwhile, I think there are only three possibilities to explain the FBI’s continued assertion of charges they have not proven …

1. The FBI has more evidence against Ivins that has not been released.

2. The FBI does not know who committed the 2001 anthrax attacks.

3. The FBI does know but are not willing to say.

It has now been 13 years since the 2001 anthrax attacks. The American people deserve to know the truth.

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* DXer draws the links between several recent posts

Posted by Lew Weinstein on November 16, 2014

GAO in its forthcoming report should pick up where this blog has now left off and chronicle Rauf Ahmad’s participation at the 1999 and 2000 conferences, to include producing the full copies of Rauf Ahmad’s authored presentations and video of the presentations.

In 2000, MI5 stopped Rauf Ahmad leaving the Dangerous Pathogens 2000 conference with samples.

But in 1999, Rauf Ahmad had already visited a lab with thousands of samples, and was given B3 training before being permitted access.

Abdur Rauf’s “I have successfully achieved” letter to Ayman al-Zawahiri
was posted on this blog on July 4, 2009 …

A sharp female CIA analyst in December 2001 noticed the Rauf Ahmad correspondence with Zawahiri that had been seized in Afghanistan.

By December 2001, the FBI knew that after the second lab visit in 1999, Rauf Ahmad wrote Ayman Zawahiri that the targets had been achieved. Rauf Ahmad had arranged the second visit (described in the typed letter) after the first lab did not have the pathogenic strain he sought. (The FBI had Rauf Ahmad’s research on killing the mice with anthrax, which was uploaded by DTIC in 2000.)

And so the question is: What strains did Rauf Ahmad obtain in 1999? He was stopped by MI5 with the samples in his luggage only in 2000 — he had already succeeded in 1999 upon his visit to the second lab.

If the FBI were to disclose who gave Rauf Ahmad the samples in 2000, we might learn the identity of the lab he visited in 1999 for the purpose of getting samples.

And then consider whether that lab had virulent Ames.

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* the holes in the FBI case against Ivins are huge … will GAO point this out? … when will GAO report?

Posted by Lew Weinstein on September 10, 2014

The FBI has no case against this man ... but meanwhile he is dead and the real perpetrators are still out there.

The FBI has never had a case against this man … but meanwhile he is dead and the real perpetrators are still out there.

from a recent DXer comment …

DOJ: Although USAMRIID had equipment that could be used to dry liquid anthrax in the same building where anthrax research was conducted, USAMRIID did not have a lyophilizer in the specific containment laboratory where RMR-1029 was housed to prepare the dried spore preparations that were used in the letters.

Many of Ivins’ former co-workers have questioned the government’s theory about him using a lyophilizer elsewhere in the building to dry his stockpile of liquid anthrax. He would have had to carry anthrax outside the contained areas of the building, meaning anthrax spores would likely have dispersed and sickened people in the lab building, they said.

In seeking to prove the anthrax attacks were not foreseeable, the Justice Department notes that it is unclear when preparation for the anthrax attacks began.

The Justice Department then highlighted the very points that many have said prove that Ivins could not have committed the attacks:

• That the anthrax used in the attacks originated from but did not come directly from Ivins’ flask.
• That the government’s anthrax was “genetically similar, but dissimilar in its form, to the anthrax that resulted in the death of Robert Stevens.”
• That “it would also take special expertise (even among those used to working with anthrax) to make dried material of the quality used in the attacks,” expertise that many of Ivins’ former co-workers said they didn’t believe he had


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* Labor Day has come and gone … summer is over … no GAO report

Posted by Lew Weinstein on September 2, 2014



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