Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/08/07/fbi_amerithrax_case/

FBI sets out case against anthrax 'rogue scientist'

Strong but circumstantial - is there still room for doubt?

By George Smith, Dick Destiny

Posted in Science, 7th August 2008 11:02 GMT

Yesterday the FBI published its search warrants and affidavits pertaining to the case of Bruce Ivins, the Ft. Detrick scientist fingered by the agency as the perpetrator of the 'Amerithrax anthrax mailings..

These documents contain no rigorous scientific evidence, but refer to it, and the FBI explains its rationale for accusing Ivins in overviews scattered through the documents.

The argument boils down to the anthrax being specifically traced to a spore-containing flask of which Ivins was the master. Called RMR-1029, it was also referred to by Ivins as "Dugway Ames spores - 1997," apparently from its original point of manufacture, at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, an Army biodefense center administered by a company called Battelle.

The source sample

RMR-1029 was genetically typed by the FBI through an independent company, and uniquely linked to the mailed anthrax in 2004-2005. However, part of the investigation was engaged in building a repository of Ames strain anthrax isolates from every laboratory in the United States in possession of samples. As part of the inventory, Ft. Detrick had to derive specific unique characteristics for all of its sources of Ames. Genetic testing allowed the FBI to distinguish special mutations unique to all isolates so as to be able to compare them with the signature derived from the anthrax mailings.

The FBI states in its documents that Ivins furnished two sets of samples in February of 2002 in complying with this part of the investigation, representing them as drawn from RMR-1029. This set was unusable, explains the FBI, at which point Ivins was asked to furnish a second set. Given to the FBI in April 2002, these samples did not genetically match the mailed anthrax.

In December of 2003, an FBI agent again surveyed the lab where RMR-1209 resided, identifying cultures of Ames which had not been submitted in the initial part of the investigation. Four months later Ivins furnished culture slants taken from these sources to the FBI. On the same day (although the statements are a bit unclear), the FBI returned to the lab and seized the original samples, as well as RMR-1029, which was eventually removed to the Navy Medical Research Center. When the seized RMR-1029 was tested, its genetic mutation profile matched with the mailed anthrax.

The upshot, indicates the FBI, was that Ivins had attempted to mislead the investigation. The scientist, claimed the agency, said there had been no omission on his part when he originally provided samples from RMR-1029. Clearly, the FBI did not believe him.

Since the RMR-1029 was confined to a high security lab to which only Ivins and a few others had regular access, the FBI mapped employee entry into it. The lab, called B3, was accessed by electronic badge reader. "A central security system monitors and records a time stamp for each... badge and keypad request," reads an FBI affidavit.

Pinning it to Ivins

The agency mapped Ivins' after hours usage of the B3 lab in 2000 and 2001, using the former as a control illustrating his regular pattern of evening work at the facility. In 2001, Ivins' use of the room containing RMR-1029 spiked on days just prior to the two rounds of mailings, the first in September, the second in October. While compelling, the results look a bit odd, since Ivins' night time visits to the lab just prior to the September mailings all clock in at precisely two hours and fifteen minutes. This unusual pattern of identical times spent in the lab disappears in the second set of FBI data.

Ivins habits were "significantly different" from those of other researchers at Ft. Detrick for the same period. Ivins explained his time in the B3 lab as resulting from a desire "to escape from his life at home," an answer the FBI believed to be inadequate.

The last bit of evidence pertaining to RMR-1029 and Ivins has to do with what the scientist knew and when he knew it, according to the FBI. Ivins was informed by the agency that RMR-1029 was genetically similar to the mailed anthrax in March of 2005. Ivins told the FBI he already knew it and had been so informed by an FBI special agent some time previously. The special agent denied ever telling Ivins. And the agency argues the agent could not have known when Ivins alleged the conversation took place, because the FBI's special task for did not know that RMR-1029 matched the mailed anthrax during the time frame in question.

"Over the course of this investigation, Dr. Ivins had been repeatedly interviewed and had open access to the law enforcement personnel responsible for investigating the anthrax attacks," wrote the FBI. "During none of these interactions did Dr. Ivins ever indicate that he had knowledge that RMR-1029 had phenotypic similarities to the material used in the anthrax attacks, nor did he suggest that investigators analyze RMR-1029."

As for motivation, the FBI selectively presented Ivins e-mails to make the case that his mental state was very fragile before the attacks. And he was very distressed that the support work his group was performing on an anthrax vaccine being made through BioPort, the company manufacturing it, was in jeopardy.

Anthrax contract under threat

Problems associated with BioPort's stewardship of the vaccine and controversy over its nature had led to a suspension of its production and a proposed canceling of its contract. But after the anthrax mailings, the FDA quickly re-approved it, "production at BioPort resumed and the anthrax research at [Ft. Detrick] continued without interruption," explained the agency.

Ivins had the means, the access, a suspicious history in the lab, the anthrax had been traced to a source in his custody, and he had misled the FBI during its investigation, the agency reasoned. Therefore he was the anthrax mailer.

However damning, the case is still only a circumstantial one. The FBI's narrative is, by definition, its story. Some of it, given the agency's history, is more than enough to disturb equanimity. Some of it displays varying degrees of stretch. For example, the FBI argues the language in an Ivins email uniquely resembles language used in the anthrax letters. It is a reaching claim. Ivins, it is claimed, harbored antipathies toward the mainstream media and Congressmen thought to be holding up passage of the Patriot Act, ergo the mailings to Congress and Tom Brokaw. These are not unique or surprising positions for an American citizen to hold. And, the FBI added n its public statement, Ivins was a prolific mailer of letters and packages, some under aliases. Was he? The FBI does not discuss what led it to disqualify from consideration all scientists who had or might have had access to RMR-1029 prior to the time frame in its narrative, back to 1997 when Ivins took control of it. There is no explanation as to why Ivins was allowed to continue work at Ft. Detrick after 2005, at which time the FBI had determined RMR-1029 was the parent for the anthrax mailings. (Tip of the hat to RMS for pointing this out.) It does not explain, other than a deranged mental state, why Ivins would select an anthrax isolate he might have known would point back to him.

Many of Ivins' colleagues at Ft. Detrick and in anthrax work will not be satisfied by the FBI's story. There will continue to be vigorous arguments over whether he could have made the lethal preparations in the mailings, perhaps hinging on qualities associated with the spores, qualities which have now taken on the shifting and ephemeral nature of legend.

Even with caveats, the FBI's story still points strongly at Bruce Ivins. But a vague unease with the unofficial and official way this has gone down isn't easily dispensed with. What if it really was the wrong man driven to suicide? ®

George Smith is a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense affairs think tank and public information group. At Dick Destiny, he blogs his way through chemical, biological, and nuclear terror hysteria, often by way of the contents of neighbourhood hardware stores.