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

Posts Tagged ‘NPR’s John Dankowsky’

* 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 DXer 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.

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