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August 11, 2008

Still No Word on That "New Science" Proving Ivins' Guilt

The FBI either needs to put up or confess its conclusions about Ivins are merely a best guess.

It gets a bit worse. It might be that the FBI's statements are garbled or not being understood, but this reading of their statements suggests that there was not one but sixteen flasks of RMR-1029 around the country, and that the FBI claims it has positively determined that the mailed anthrax came from Ivins' lab not based on "genetic fingerprinting" but based upon the supposed print defects in the envelopes the anthrax was mailed in:

As early as 2002 CDC and the government knew that the letter anthrax organisms were all from a specific strain (Ames) that is used in many biodefense laboratories. The problem with obtaining a genetic fingerprint of anthrax is that unlike most other microorganisms, Bacillus anthracis is remarkably stable, i.e., its genetic fingerprint doesn't change much from one generation to the next. What was needed was some distinguishing characteristic, like the distinctive marks on a bullet, that allow guns that otherwise look almost exactly alike to be distinguished. In 2002 CDC scientists published a paper that did identify the sameness of all the isolates from the attack and distinguished them from other virulent anthrax isolates (interestingly, out of 20 citations in that article, Ivins's name is on 3 of them). Was this technique sufficient in 2002 to provide the information the FBI says was only possible after scientific breakthroughs that didn't come until three years later? It's not clear. I looked at several papers on genotyping anthrax and it is clear that since 2005 techniques have been developed to allow high throughput of thousands of samples, something that might be necessary in a future event (we hope not) but wasn't needed in 2002. It sounds to me that the "new science" argument is mainly an excuse to explain what took the FBI so long.

But let's grant the case and even accept the FBI claim that the science allows them to trace all of the anthrax in the four letters (two to news media and two to political figures) back to a flask, designated RMR-1029, produced by Ivins and "in his custody." That's what was said at the press conference. Here's what the documents say:

Of the sixteen domestic government, commercial, and university laboratories that had virulent RMR- 1029 Ames strain Bacillus anthracis material in their inventory prior to the attacks, only one lab was located in Maryland or Virginia, where the relevant federal eagle envelopes were distributed and sold by the U.S. Postal Service: the USAMRID facility at Fort Detrick, MD. (Affidavit of Thomas F. Dellafera in support of request for search warrant)

This says there were sixteen such flasks around the country, not just the one in Ivins's laboratory. The FBI argument against Ivins requires additional evidence that the envelopes containing the anthrax were only sold in Maryland and Virginia...

More: This is written by a friend and colleague of Ivins, but that only makes him biased, not necessarily wrong.

As a scientist, however, I feel compelled to comment on what should have been the Federal Bureau of Investigationís strongest link between Dr. Ivins and the terrible crime ó deadly anthrax spores. In the summary of its findings, the F.B.I. states that investigators used four different genetic techniques to match the anthrax-laced attack letters to a unique DNA footprint of a single anthrax spore preparation in one flask that had been in Dr. Ivinsís custody.

Sounds reasonable. Yet the investigators present no details on the scientific methods they used to make this match or how they employed them. Thatís a problem, because without such detail it is hard to tell if they specifically ruled out a similar match between the anthrax in the letters and anthrax preparations with the same DNA footprint kept at a number of other labs around the country. The basic methods of genetic analysis are well known. Why not provide enough detail about their procedure to enable other scientists to tell whether they could actually single out Dr. Ivinsís spore preparation as the culprit?

The investigators fail to address another underlying problem with their anthrax match: that Dr. Ivins was an investigator in the case before he was a suspect. After the anthrax attack, Dr. Ivins himself worked directly with the evidence. The F.B.I. asked Dr. Ivins to help them with the forensics in the case by analyzing the contents of suspicious letters. And he did so for years, until the authorities began to suspect that the anthrax spores used in the mailings might have originated from his lab.

Dr. Ivins, for instance, was asked to analyze the anthrax envelope that was sent to Mr. Daschleís office on Oct. 9, 2001. When his team analyzed the powder, they found it to be a startlingly refined weapons-grade anthrax spore preparation, the likes of which had never been seen before by personnel at Fort Detrick.

He goes on to argue that Ivins' role in the investigation might have caused cross-contamination of Ivins' anthrax and the mailed anthrax, which I think is unlikely, but whatever.

It is interesting that Ivins was part of the investigating team. If he was guilty, perhaps all that stuff about "startingly refined weapons-grade anthrax spore[s]" was bullshit he faked colleagues into believing to take suspicions away from himself.



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posted by Ace at 04:58 PM

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