A plethora of questions still remains unanswered in the investigation of a U.S. Army scientist who the FBI believes was responsible for the anthrax attacks in late 2001. A forum held Sept. 10 at the University of Maryland School of Law shed light on the case from the perspectives of science and journalism.
The event, "Did the Researcher Do It? The FBI's Anthrax Case Against Dr. Ivins," was the eighth annual Sept. 11 commemoration presented by the Center for Health and Homeland Security (CHHS). Scott Shane, a reporter from The New York Times, and Claire Fraser-Liggett, PhD, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (SOM) and the director of the Institute of Genome Sciences at the SOM, served as panelists. Michael Greenberger, JD, a professor at the School of Law and director of CHHS, gave opening remarks and moderated the forum.
Shane, formerly a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, has followed and enterprised the anthrax story since 2001 when investigators first pointed the finger at a different suspect - Steven Hatfill - who has since been exonerated and awarded millions of dollars in damages from the government. And now, despite the FBI's assertion that the late Bruce Ivins was the anthrax killer, Shane continues to try to uncover as many details as he can about the government's would-be case.
For a Sept. 7 article, Shane interviewed two dozen bioterrorism experts, investigators, and members of Congress who "expressed doubts about the [FBI's] conclusions." A group of lawmakers have asked FBI Director Robert Mueller to address some of their concerns.
"[The investigators], at the end of last week, did tell me they did not have any single piece of evidence, any smoking gun ý that absolutely linked Ivins to the letters," Shane told an audience of more than 100 students, faculty, and media representatives who attended today's forum.
But scientific evidence that led the FBI to the Ft. Detrick lab where Ivins worked came from research conducted by Fraser-Liggett. Through genomic tests that began in 2002, she was able to trace samples of anthrax from crime scenes back to a single-source flask that had been in the custody of Ivins. But co-workers of Ivins have asserted that hundreds of people had access to that flask, which is why Fraser-Liggett believes that scientific conclusions are the only sure thing right now.
"I have a great deal of confidence that the dried powders in the letters has likely been traced back to the source flask with a high degree of certainty, but like any forensic work this really is more a question of exclusion rather than an issue of making attribution in the absolute," Fraser-Liggett said.
"The case is very circumstantial," said Greenberger.
Ivins committed suicide in July, allegedly days before he was to be indicted for masterminding the anthrax attacks. The U.S. Department of Justice had said the case would be closed in August, but now the department says it could stay open into next year. Today's panel of experts is hardly surprised.
"I never felt that the science alone would ever solve this investigation," Fraser-Liggett concluded.
To view a video of the hour-long program, click here. Real Player is required.