Sept 6, 2011
A ranking Republican Senator has written to the Justice Department demanding to know why it quickly retracted court papers that called into serious question a key pillar of the criminal case against Bruce Ivins, the FBI’s prime suspect in the 2001 anthrax mail attacks.
Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, who has long questioned the legitimacy of the FBI’s findings in the case, wrote Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller this week, regarding a filing by Justice Department civil lawyers in July that noted that the Army’s biodefense center at Fort Detrick, Md., “did not have the specialized equipment in a containment laboratory that would be required to prepare the dried spore preparations that were used in the letters.”
In other words, the filing noted that Ivins’ lab, often referred to as the “hot suite”, did not contain the equipment needed to turn liquid anthrax into the refined powder that ended up being mailed to members of the Senate and reporters in the fall of 2001.
Ivins, who was found dead in 2008 from an apparent suicide at the same time the government was about to indict him, was identified by the FBI’s “Amerithrax Task Force” as the lone perpetrator of the attacks that killed five people and infected 17 others in the weeks immediately following 9/11.
The FBI based it’s entire case against Ivins on the fact that the microbiologist had access to the necessary equipment in the government lab at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases where he worked.
When the Justice Department realized that its recent court filing cast serious doubt on these claims, following media coverage, it did a 180 flip flop and sent the court a “list of corrections” to conform with the FBI’s conclusion that Ivins did have equipment available to do the job.
In his letter, Sen Grassley notes that this turn of events “has produced a new set of questions regarding this unsolved crime.”
“My concern is accentuated by the apparent contradiction of the DOJ court documents to the original FBI investigation, the subsequent attempt to retract that information and the federal judge’s ruling that the DOJ Civil Division “show good cause” to justify a modification to the original court filing.” Grassley writes.
“The DOJ original court filing seemingly eliminated the FBI’s previous circumstantial evidence associated with Dr. Ivins without providing any additional insight as to the means and methodology he may have used to create the anthrax powder.” The Senator adds.
Grassley, the most senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, also called for a briefing to “determine why it appears, at the least, that the right hand and left hand of the (Justice Department) do not know what the other is doing.”
The July court filing was made as part of a government defense against a lawsuit brought by the family of Robert Stevens, Photo Editor of The Sun in Florida and the first victim who died as a result of the Anthrax attack. The court papers containing the Justice Department contradiction were discovered and reported by a researcher for the PBS program Frontline, which is working on a forthcoming documentary on the case with McClatchy Newspapers and ProPublica.
What the filing should have said, the department wrote in its retraction, was that while the Army lab did not have a lyophilizer, a freeze-drying machine, in the space where Dr. Ivins usually worked, there was a lyophilizer and other equipment in the building that he could have used to dry the anthrax into powder.
Even if this was the case, which is still highly questionable, it still significantly weakens the case against Ivins as the lone assailant, because it means he would have had to have access different areas of the building and use the equipment in those areas for some time without being noticed.
It also means that the fact that others who worked in the lab were not sickened becomes even more of a key indicator that Ivins did not prepare the anthrax spores as the FBI and the government has claimed he did.
Paul Kemp, Ivins’ lead defense attorney, noted that the department’s concession that the equipment wasn’t available “is at direct variance to the assertions of the government on July 29, 2008,” the day Ivins died, thus “invalidating one of the chief theories of their prosecution case.”
This latest contradiction adds to the already voluminous unanswered questions and contradictory evidence surrounding the case.
Earlier this year a report produced by a panel of independent scientists asserted that there was not enough scientific evidence for the FBI to convict Ivins, vindicating those who have consistently pointed to a deeper conspiracy behind the case.
The $1.1 million report, commissioned by the FBI and produced by The National Academies of Sciences, concluded that the FBI overstated the science in its investigation into the microbiologist.
Senator Grassley writes in his letter to the Attorney general that this report coupled with the latest botched attempt by the government to tie up loose ends in the case is “particularly troubling” to him.
The report cast doubt on the supposed link between a flask of anthrax found in Ivins’ office and letters containing the bacterial spores that were mailed to NBC News, the New York Post, and the offices of then-Sen. Tom Daschle and Sen. Patrick Leahy.
“The scientific link between the letter material and flask number RMR-1029 is not as conclusive as stated in the DOJ Investigative Summary,” the 190 page report stated.
“Although the scientific evidence was supportive of a link between the letters and that flask, it did not definitively demonstrate such a relationship, for a number of reasons,” said Dr. David Relman, a bioterrorism expert at Stanford University School of Medicine who served as vice chair of the review committee. “Our overarching finding was that it is not possible to reach a definitive conclusion about the origins of the B. anthracis in the mailings based on the available scientific evidence alone.”
“This shows what we’ve been saying all along: that it was all supposition based on conjecture based on guesswork, without any proof whatsoever,” lawyer Paul Kemp told The Washington Post.
“For years, the FBI has claimed scientific evidence for its conclusion that anthrax spores found in the letters were linked to the anthrax bacteria found in Dr. Ivins’s lab,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa). The report “shows that the science is not necessarily a slam-dunk. There are no more excuses for avoiding an independent review.”
Of course, there will not be an independent review any time in the near future because, as Glenn Greenwald of Salon has pointed out, all efforts to move in that direction have been aggressively blocked by the Obama Administration:
President Obama — in what I think is one his most indefensible acts — actually threatened to veto the entire intelligence authorization bill if it included a proposed bipartisan amendment (passed by the House) that would have mandated an independent inquiry into the FBI’s anthrax investigation.
Indeed, the veto threat issued by the Obama White House was refreshingly (albeit unintentionally) candid about why it was so eager to block any independent inquiry: ”The commencement of a fresh investigation would undermine public confidence in the criminal investigation and unfairly cast doubt on its conclusions.”
Ivins’ death provided a neat tie up to the case, which was officially closed last year by The Justice Department. However, a clear motive was never determined, and no one ever reported seeing Ivins prepare anthrax spores or mail the supposed letters.
Previous assertions by a former colleague and friend of Bruce Ivins, and the original suspect in the FBI’s investigation into the attacks, have also raised serious questions.
Shortly after Ivins’ death, Dr. Ayaad Assaad, an Egyptian-born toxicologist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, declared that Ivins did not kill himself and was not behind the attack at all.
Assaad made the comments in an interview with a local Fort Detrick newspaper in September 2008.
The Frederick News Post reported:
Assaad, who worked in a U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease lab at Fort Detrick from 1989 to 1997 developing a vaccine for ricin, said in an interview Saturday he does not believe Ivins was guilty.
“He’s a great man. He’s honorable, sincere, honest and most important, he didn’t kill five people and he didn’t kill himself,” Assaad told the newspaper.
Assaad knew Ivins well, not only were they colleagues but their four children were all classmates In Frederick.
Assaad was extensively questioned by the FBI On October 1, 2001, a fortnight after the first anthrax letters were mailed. It later emerged that the FBI’s lead, a letter from an unidentified person who claimed Assaad was planning a biological terrorist attack, was false.
The mystery letter identified Assaad as a former USAMRIID microbiologist and also pinpointed his time at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County, indicating that whoever sent it had access to detailed army records.
The anonymous letter was sent shortly after 9/11 but before anyone knew about the anthrax-laced letters. On October 5, 2001, about 10 days after the anonymous letter was mailed, Robert Stevens became the first of five individuals to die from an anthrax infection, indicating that someone had wanted to frame Assaad for the attacks.
“This anthrax issue is part of a much bigger issue,” Assaad also commented. “The roots of corruption are so deep in (USAMRIID), and this is the thing that the people in Frederick don’t understand.”
Former government biological weapons legislator Dr Francis Boyle shares Assaad’s view that Ivins has been used as a patsy in a larger cover up.
“Ivins is only the latest dead microbiologist.” Boyle has previously stated, “You also have to tie into this the large numbers of dead microbiologists that have appeared since around the summer before these events, when the New York Times revealed the existence of the covert anthrax weapons programs run by the CIA, and that too is in the public record.”
In September 2007, Ivins sent an e-mail to himself, in which he said he knew of the identity of the anthrax killer, without actually stating who he believed it to be. It is not known why he did this. Prior to his death in 2008, he told friends that government agents were hounding him and his family.