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The anthrax scare: Case and flask closed

But conspiracy theories still very much open

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But certainly many people who read the government summary will find it fascinating and lucid. Obviously, much of the evidence against Ivins is circumstantial. The FBI admits as much. Unsurprisingly, with any case as famous, drawn out, terrifying and fraught with initial blind alleys as Amerithrax, there are a large number of people - in separate groups - who will never be able to accept that Ivins was the anthraxer. There are those with a professional interest in exonerating him in argument - colleagues at Ft. Detrick.

Ivins's anthrax mailings from the heart of the country's biodefense research establishment impeaches it on many levels, and it is human nature that such a verdict is unacceptable. Ivins throws into question the very need for its work, exploding the trust, reliability and impeccable reputation that such an institution must have.

In the days that followed the release of the Ivins case summary, the 'Clear Bruce' lobby immediately showed in the press. Ivins could not have done it, his colleagues knew him too well. However, to read the news is to know America has no shortage of those who do horrifying things, with their family and colleagues attesting complete ignorance of it. Ivins could not have done it because he did not either have the time or the professional skills needed to make the 'weaponized' dry spore preparation, particularly those found in the second set of anthrax mailings.

The FBI persuasively argues that he did have the time, that he in fact took the time and expended extra effort in his preparations just before sending off the second mailing; and that other microbiologists indicated to the investigation that the anthraxer certainly would have been able to dry a spore preparation to the mailed standard using a lyophilizer, something Ivins really did know how to do.

The FBI's argument is technical but not unreasonable at all. It is consistent, for example, with this author's scientific experience with bacterial preparations. Arguments to the contrary rely on equally technical details.

The press, of course, cannot evaluate independently, being only able to deliver arguments from authority - all depending on who it believes to be authority. It is also said the National Academy of Science will get around to exonerating Ivins by blowing the FBI's methods out of the water. The case is closed but the conspiracy industry surrounding it will only increase.

Paradoxically, Bruce Ivins - this very strange and unstable boffin who was one of the foremost experts on anthrax and the anthrax vaccine in the country, and whose motive in the mailings was apparently to rescue a vaccine research effort which was his life's work but which was headed for failure prior to the attacks - initially accomplished his aim.

The "program was suddenly rejuvenated", writes the FBI. But Ivins' vaccine research has now been used as an argument by a small number within the US military who believe the vaccine in the national stockpile is not safe or approved, and that the scientist's work in connection with it constitutes fruit of the poison tree.

And while the anthrax mailings caused explosive growth in the biodefense research industry in this country, it severely taints Ft. Detrick - the research institution that is seen as the beating heart of it.

This leads to the rejoinder, arrived at by tarring through the company you kept, whenever an expert from somewhere within it emerges to recommend ever more spending against the danger of bioterrorism: "You would say that."

The executive summary page is here, and more about the anthrax flask of death is here (pdf). ®

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