A long-awaited review of the scientific evidence relating to the investigation of the 2001 anthrax letter attacks is finally getting off the ground. The study, to be conducted by the National Academies, will check the validity of the scientific techniques used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in solving the case. What the study will not do, as spelled out in the academies’ official description of the study, is issue a verdict on whether U.S. Army researcher Bruce Ivins was indeed guilty of the crime, as concluded by FBI officials.
The FBI has been under pressure to disclose its full case against Ivins since 29 July 2008, when the researcher committed suicide. The death precluded a trial and prompted accusations from some quarters that the FBI had hounded an innocent man to a tragic end. FBI officials responded with press conferences detailing some of the facts of the case including the scientific methods used to trace the anthrax in the letters to a flask under Ivins’s charge at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Frederick, Maryland. At a September hearing last year before the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, FBI Director Robert Mueller announced that the agency would ask the academies to vet the science behind the conclusion.
The FBI will pay the academies $879,550 for the study, which is expected to take up to 15 months. According to a statement of task from the academies, the areas of scientific evidence to be studied include but may not be limited to:
1. genetic studies that led to the identification of potential sources of B. anthracis recovered from the letters;
2. analysis of four genetic mutations that were found in evidence and that are unique to a subset of Ames strain cultures collected during the investigation;
3. chemical and dating studies that examined how, where, and when the spores may have been grown and what, if any, additional treatments they were subjected to;
4. studies of the recovery of spores and bacterial DNA from samples collected and tested during the investigation; and
5. the role that cross contamination might have played in the evidence picture.
The committee will not, however, undertake an assessment of the probative value of the scientific evidence in any specific component of the investigation, prosecution, or civil litigation and will offer no view on the guilt or innocence of any person(s) in connection with the 2001 B. anthracis mailings, or any other B. anthracis incidents.