Anthrax evidence not conclusive says NAS
February 16, 2011 9:27 AM   Subscribe

The National Academy of Sciences report on the FBI anthrax investigation. NAS briefing (video). Opening Statement with key points.

The most significant finding is #5: "The scientific link between the letter material and flask number RMR-1029 is not as conclusive as stated in the DOJ Investigative Summary."

The FBI responds. Brief interview with David Relman, the vice chair of the review committee. NYT,
WP and Salon chime in.

Many previous anthrax posts on Mefi.
posted by warbaby (49 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
So... ten years later, and we still haven't caught Bin Laden, and still don't know for certain who was sending anthrax to media and Democrats in congress?

Awesome.
posted by stenseng at 9:32 AM on February 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


"I believe there are others involved, either as accessories before or accessories after the fact," said Senator Leahy, who received an anthrax-tainted letter. "I believe that there are others out there. I believe there are others who could be charged with murder." (2008)
posted by The Emperor of Ice Cream at 9:37 AM on February 16, 2011


Don't know? Not exactly. It was probably Ivins, but the evidence would never convict him. There are reasonable doubts but no reasonable alternative theories of the case other than weak speculation.

That easily turns into unlimited grounds for tinfoilhattery in conspiracyworld.

And yes, I can't spell Ivins....
posted by warbaby at 9:41 AM on February 16, 2011


So... ten years later, and we still haven't caught Bin Laden, and still don't know for certain who was sending anthrax to media and Democrats in congress?

Ahem. I think you meant to say, "Mission Accomplished!!!"
posted by aught at 9:47 AM on February 16, 2011


but no reasonable alternative theories of the case other than weak speculation.

The question is whether all possible avenues of investigation were taken. Major doubts about the FBI resolution to this case have been expressed by virtually all the major news organizations, so throwing out the "tinfoil hat" canard serves only to discourage serious inquiry.
posted by The Emperor of Ice Cream at 9:50 AM on February 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


From the the interview with Dr. Reiman, vice-chair of the review committee:
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. 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.
Emphasis on that final 'alone', I think. As I recall there was a significant amount of other evidence linking Ivins to those letters. There is a fairly high standard for definitive scientific proof, and that standard doesn't necessarily have to be met for scientific evidence to be legally useful. Reiman does say in that interview that the FBI actually did a fairly decent job, given the tools they had available at the time.
posted by aiglet at 9:56 AM on February 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Amerithrax!
posted by Nelson at 9:56 AM on February 16, 2011


The question is whether all possible avenues of investigation were taken.

that's your classic unanswerable question. If anybody has a factual alternative theory of the case, then they should make the affirmative statement of that theory. Just raising theoretical doubts and blowing smoke is what I object to.

Carry on. I should butt out of my own thread.
posted by warbaby at 9:56 AM on February 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've always believed their were reasonable doubts about the strength of the FBIs case here, but I agree, there haven't been any particularly strong alternative explanations put forth yet. And it does seem as if the FBI was over-eager to call the case closed and dismiss outside questions or skepticism.

No doubt, the FBI were under a lot of political pressure from Republicans in congress to close the case, so that it wouldn't create anymore "Republicans are terrorists" bad press, since the targets in the attacks, conspicuously, were almost exclusively Democratic politicians and "liberal" media figures--which tends to make Republicans and their supporters look suspect.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:58 AM on February 16, 2011


Ivans was probably involved, but I'll bet there were others pulling his strings.
posted by vibrotronica at 9:59 AM on February 16, 2011


oops. "there were reasonable doubts" (like there are about my language skills).
posted by saulgoodman at 10:00 AM on February 16, 2011


Has the FBI even captured any terrorists since 9/11? I mean other than the ones who set fire to their underwear and such? It seems to me that the FBI is largely a total failure in terms of preventing or capturing terrorists these days. For all these freedoms we've given up via the Patriot Act and associated sky-is-falling shenanigans I don't think we can point to any positive return.

All we have to go on here is the FBI's word, and they don't seem to be any good at all at this stuff.
posted by y6y6y6 at 10:00 AM on February 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


If anybody has a factual alternative theory...

...there haven't been any particularly strong alternative explanations


I'm not sure I agree with the emphasis of finding alternative theories, which seems like arguing for the cart before the horse; instead, I think that, given many inconsistencies and neglected lines of inquiry, the emphasis should be on a new, thorough and probably non-FBI investigation.
posted by The Emperor of Ice Cream at 10:04 AM on February 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't get why a theory can only be false if other theories exist. The test is "reasonable doubt", not "reasonable alternative".

Has the FBI even captured any terrorists since 9/11?

This is September 10th thinking.
posted by DU at 10:06 AM on February 16, 2011 [5 favorites]


So, it could have been a different lone nut? Cause, these things are always done by lone nuts, right?
posted by iotic at 10:06 AM on February 16, 2011


and still don't know for certain who was sending anthrax to media and Democrats in congress?

The evidence is pretty overwhelming - not just the DNA evidence of the anthrax (and, by the way "not as conclusive" doesn't mean "incorrect"), but, if I recall correctly, matching things that Ivins wrote in his private journal to statements in the anthrax letteres. Plus the guy killed himself when he knew he was going to be charged - not the sort of thing that innocent people tend to do.
posted by Dasein at 10:08 AM on February 16, 2011


Has the FBI even captured any terrorists since 9/11?

Is Google broken for you today? There's a pretty long list of foiled plots here, many of which were broken up by the FBI.
posted by Dasein at 10:13 AM on February 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Plus the guy killed himself when he knew he was going to be charged - not the sort of thing that innocent people tend to do."

I don't think that's accurate at all. He and his family were actively and aggressively harassed for years by the FBI. No one denies he was a bit unstable and odd, and I think it's more accurate to say that years of psychological pressure by the FBI drove him to suicide.

There was nothing sudden about this. He knew for years he was the target and sole focus of a murder investigation, as did everyone who knew him. And the "not the sort of thing that innocent people tend to do" idea is bunk. Law enforcement talks innocent people into pleading guilty to murder all the time.
posted by y6y6y6 at 10:14 AM on February 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


the guy killed himself when he knew he was going to be charged - not the sort of thing that innocent people tend to do.

Well it certainly was convenient for the FBI that their prime suspect died before the actual case against him could be made.
posted by The Emperor of Ice Cream at 10:18 AM on February 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


Death by Tylenol.
posted by clavdivs at 10:20 AM on February 16, 2011


Also, what the hell was his motive? Sending fake-Islamic messages containing anthrax spores to the media and two democrat Congressmen, very shortly after 9/11, helping prompt the paranoia and invasions that followed. For why? Because he was a bit unstable and odd? He killed himself, so we'll never know, I suppose ...
posted by iotic at 10:23 AM on February 16, 2011


Has the FBI even captured any terrorists since 9/11? […] For all these freedoms we've given up via the Patriot Act and associated sky-is-falling shenanigans I don't think we can point to any positive return.

Well, my $100 bottle of shark repellent is still working.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:25 AM on February 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well it certainly was convenient for the FBI that their prime suspect died before the actual case against him could be made.

Not really, because that's exactly the sort of thing that would make the case look fishy and the FBI look weak.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:25 AM on February 16, 2011


"There's a pretty long list of foiled plots here, many of which were broken up by the FBI."

Okay, I've read your article at the "Creeping Sharia" website, and done some fact checking, and I don't come away with the same impression you seem to have. My take-away is that law enforcement, and to a very minor degree the FBI, is good at catching people who light their underwear on fire and people who talk about blowing shit up while drunk at a bar, or people who let themselves get worked up over religion by paid informants.
posted by y6y6y6 at 10:26 AM on February 16, 2011 [7 favorites]


Well it certainly was convenient for the FBI that their prime suspect died before the actual case against him could be made.

The case was made - there's been a lot of disclosure about it. Everyone agrees that there were only about half a dozen people in the world who could have been responsible for this attack. No one has any idea who might have done it if not Ivins. There's a huge amount of evidence leading to him, including, as I said above, writing that appeared in the anthrax letters - that's hugely powerful circumstantial evidence - in addition to the scientific evidence, which this new study is not saying was wrong.

Also, what's with implying that the FBI had the guy killed? Or is the truther-esque tone inadvertent?
posted by Dasein at 10:28 AM on February 16, 2011


Okay, I've read your article at the "Creeping Sharia" website

I hate it when people do this. Yeah, the website is obviously run by creeps. It's all factual information. They're just the people who happen to have put it together from the New York Times into a list. Your take-away from it seems to confirm exactly what you believed before reading it. Imagine my surprise.
posted by Dasein at 10:29 AM on February 16, 2011


I don't know, I generally find it believable that Ivins was the culprit. Most of the stories I've read about him indicate that he was pretty nutso.
posted by electroboy at 10:32 AM on February 16, 2011


Everyone does not agree about the "only a half-dozen people in the world" part.
posted by zippy at 10:34 AM on February 16, 2011


"Also, what's with implying that the FBI had the guy killed? Or is the truther-esque tone inadvertent?

Just my opinion, but I think the goal of the FBI harassment was to break him and make him plead guilty, regardless of any evidence. Well, they did break him, and he killed himself.

Imagine the FBI basically tries to destroy your life and your family over the course of many years, since they can't make an actual criminal charge. Imagine endless nightmare eventually drives you to suicide. Is the FBI complicit in your death? In my humble opinion, yes.

Dude might have been guilty. But the FBI never charged anyone. They just hounded someone to suicide.
posted by y6y6y6 at 10:37 AM on February 16, 2011


Okay, I've read your article at the "Creeping Sharia" website
...
I hate it when people do this. Yeah, the website is obviously run by creeps.


He wasn't saying anything about creeps; "Creeping Sharia" is the name of the website.
posted by Greg Nog at 10:38 AM on February 16, 2011


There's a pretty long list of foiled plots here, many of which were broken up by the FBI.

I think this list reflects a wholly different reality of "foiled plots."
posted by The Emperor of Ice Cream at 10:39 AM on February 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


In all fairness to the FBI, they could do a much better job investigating if they weren't surrounded by a damp unbleached paper-fiber enclosure.
posted by perhapses at 10:42 AM on February 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


He wasn't saying anything about creeps; "Creeping Sharia" is the name of the website.

I understand; I was acknowledging that people who spend all day going on about how Muslims are trying to take over the West are creeps. I suppose I subconsciously chose "creeps" over "paranoid assholes" because of the word "Creeping."
posted by Dasein at 10:49 AM on February 16, 2011


"It's all factual information."

Yes. And it's largely things like the cops, not the FBI, getting things done. Or people lighting their underwear on fire. Or "groups" Lackawanna Six where nothing was ever going to happen. Or people better labeled "dangerous asshole" rather than terrorist.

Meanwhile, people are still flying planes into buildings and and going on murder sprees.

I'm happy if the FBI can stop people from murdering large numbers of innocent people or flying planes into buildings. I just don't think they are very good at that, especially given the new powers in the Patriot Act.
posted by y6y6y6 at 10:50 AM on February 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Meanwhile, people are still flying planes into buildings
Cite?

o_0
posted by clavdivs at 10:58 AM on February 16, 2011


Cite -
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2010_Austin_plane_crash
posted by y6y6y6 at 11:02 AM on February 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Emphasis on that final 'alone', I think. As I recall there was a significant amount of other evidence linking Ivins to those letters.

IIRC there were only two extremely circumstantial things: 1) He was a conservative nutter and 2) He was supposedly obsessed with some sorority that was near the mailbox that was used to send the letters.

But, a lot of that could just be character assassination. You know, you take the worst attributes about someone, distort them just a little and you can make anyone seem like Hitler.

Remember, the FBI was totally obsessed with another scientist until their tests ruled him out as the source. They harassed that guy constantly until they switched over to Ivins. Basically, he was just the scientist who was second most likely (in their eyes) to be the one who did it.
"Plus the guy killed himself when he knew he was going to be charged - not the sort of thing that innocent people tend to do."
Unless they and their families are being harassed and slandered by the FBI, right?
I hate it when people do this. Yeah, the website is obviously run by creeps. It's all factual information.
Is it? Kind of hard to tell when it's a website dedicated to the proposition that Muslims are taking over the world.
posted by delmoi at 11:06 AM on February 16, 2011


The FBI's case was circumstantial in that there was no direct evidence and no witnesses. All the available facts of the case were indicative, but not conclusive. One of the weirder bits of circumstance was the TA letter code in at least one of the letters.

A defense attorney could argue that Ivins was obsessed by the case and wanted to exonerate himself. So all the circumstantial evidence about the letter codes only meant that he figured it out independently and then grew frightened that it could be used against him and wouldn't exonerate him. Note that I'm making up all sorts of unsupported assumptions in order to make that argument. Circumstantial evidence can point in any direction, if cloaked in enough rhetoric.

Most federal prosecutions require witness testimony and direct evidence. Without that, even if a grand jury would return an indictment, the prosecution would have little or no chance of getting a conviction.

One new bit of information in the next to last paragraph of the NYT article:

"The academy report calls for another look at tests that indicated the possible presence of anthrax at a primitive lab used by Al Qaeda; the report does not give its location, but such a lab was found in Afghanistan after the American invasion. The anthrax investigators said an exhaustive review, including interviews with Qaeda operatives who used the facility, found no evidence that it was capable of producing the anthrax powder in the mailings."

As an aside, there's a standing joke about the next to last paragraph in NYT articles being where the writer puts the stuff that most important because the copy editor is least likely to stay busy to the end.
posted by warbaby at 11:28 AM on February 16, 2011


Oh yeah. The FBI could have talked this man down from his suicidal situation.
posted by clavdivs at 11:34 AM on February 16, 2011


"FBI and Secret Service investigators plan to pore over Federal Aviation Administration records to determine what the FAA's radar showed, whether it seemed to indicate a potential threat, and what was done with the information, federal sources said."

-Sept 13, 1994

Homeland Security officials said the act was not connected to terrorism, but that the F16 Air Force jets had been scrambled “due to an abundance of caution".



See a pattern emerging?

yes, more PC friendly watch lists.
posted by clavdivs at 12:00 PM on February 16, 2011


Well, my $100 bottle of shark repellent is still working.

Man, that's a lot more than I paid for mine. Did you get the kind that was supposed to keep Gary Condit away, too?
posted by steambadger at 1:51 PM on February 16, 2011


The "other guy" that the FBI tried to frame and also severely harrassed but couldn't break is Steven Hatfill. Ivins' innocence was strongly maintained by those knew and worked with him:
Asked by reporters after his testimony whether he believed that there was any chance that Dr. Ivins, who committed suicide in 2008, had carried out the attacks, the microbiologist, Henry S. Heine, replied, “Absolutely not.” At the Army’s biodefense laboratory in Maryland, where Dr. Ivins and Dr. Heine worked, he said, “among the senior scientists, no one believes it.”
It isn't a question of which of the 5-10 Anthrax scientists could have synthesized the exact strain (which already assumes a single-actor theory) but who could have gained access. The "evidence" for the AQ "anthrax" lab was obvious cooked.

Serious doubt cast on FBI's anthrax case against Bruce Ivins Glenn Greenwald - In August, 2008, The New York Times documented "vocal skepticism from key members of Congress." One of the two intended Senate recipients of the anthrax letters, Sen. Patrick Leahy, flatly stated at a Senate hearing in September, 2008, that he does not believe the FBI's case against Ivins, and emphatically does not believe that Ivins acted alone. Then-GOP Sen. Arlen Specter, at the same hearing, told the FBI they could never have obtained a conviction against Ivins in court based on their case -- riddled, as it is, with so much doubt -- and he also demanded an independent evaluation of the FBI's evidence.

From last March:
Obama Veto Is Threatened on 2010 Intelligence Budget Measure - Businessweek President Barack Obama probably would veto legislation authorizing the next budget for U.S. intelligence agencies if it calls for a new investigation into the 2001 anthrax attacks, an administration official said.

Greenwald
The NAS panel is "review[ing] the bureau's scientific work on the case, though not its conclusion on the perpetrator’s identity." There has been, and apparently will be, no real investigation of the FBI's case against Ivins because President Obama has threatened to veto any such investigation on the ground it "would undermine public confidence" in the FBI's case. In a rational world, with a President committed to transparency and accountability, that would be a reason to have an investigation, not a reason to obstruct one.
So the "other alternatives" which we tinfoil-wearing Mefites are supposed to produce if we're going to doubt the admittedly flawed/false evidence, existed but were purposely not explored. The Panel was set up not to explore certain questions. The questions it was allowed to explore showed the FBI's science didn't support their conclusions.

And then you have the problem of who had the real motive to scare the public, the media, and Democratic members of Congress as we were preparing to go to war on lies, fear and cooked information.

Case closed.
posted by psyche7 at 3:26 PM on February 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


President Obama has threatened to veto any such investigation on the ground it "would undermine public confidence" in the FBI's case

No, no, it's a budget cost-saving measure. You know how expensive Congressional investigations are these days? You can't ask the American taxpayer to foot the bill for this kind of reckless investigatorianism. 4th graders might not get their school lunches because of budget items cut to pay for these fruitless endeavors. 4th graders. Won't somebody think of the oh never mind.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:32 PM on February 16, 2011


One of the weirder bits of circumstance was the TA letter code in at least one of the letters.

The letter codes thing is fucking crazy town. It's like the "bible codes" or some nonsense.
posted by delmoi at 12:48 PM on February 17, 2011


Crazy, except for the fact that Ivins secretively threw out a book and a magazine that described how to do those codes a week after the FBI searched his house.
posted by msalt at 12:50 PM on February 17, 2011


Serious doubt cast on FBI's anthrax case against Bruce Ivins
Glenn Greenwald: In addition to reigniting doubts, the report has also reignited calls for an independent investigation into the entire FBI case. Yesterday, Rep. Holt re-introduced his legislation to create a 9/11-style Commission, complete with subpoena power, with a mandate to review the entire matter. Sen. Grassley told the Post: "There are no more excuses for avoiding an independent review." Ivins' lawyer added that the report confirms that the case against his client is "all supposition based on conjecture based on guesswork, without any proof whatsoever." All of that has been clear for some time, and yesterday's report merely underscored how weak is the FBI's case.
This is what Obama was trying to avoid, especially the subpoena power. So if we can think the unthinkable: that Ivins didn't do it, who did? And why is our President trying to make sure we don't find out?
posted by psyche7 at 2:41 PM on February 17, 2011


Crazy, except for the fact that Ivins secretively threw out a book and a magazine that described how to do those codes a week after the FBI searched his house.

Right, but the point is that the so-called letter codes don't actually say anything. Either "PAT" or "FNY", just three letters which you could read anything into to associate with him. It's also not clear to me that the supposed "highlighted" letters are actually that highlighted.

The problem with this kind of "analysis" is that you can "decode" anything to produce whatever information you want. Just like those 9/11 jokes where they something like
take the phrase "Crazy, except for the fact that" where you take the nth letter of the nth word and get CXRT which is 3 + 24 + 17 + 19 = 63 and 6+3 is nine, and then bla bla bla bla to get 9/11. This proves msalt did 9/11!!!!!
posted by delmoi at 5:53 AM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I agree generally, for numerology of the type in those 9/11 jokes. This particular case, though, might be the exception that proves the rule, because there is strong evidence to believe that Ivins intended the codons code (the magazine he discarded), and because there are precisely two solutions to the puzzle. The joke with numerology is that you can slice it 1,000 ways and find 1,000 answers, so it's more like a rorsach test.

Personally, I think the highlighting is 85-90% likely, not certain, but pretty clear. Also, as public access tv-looking as that guy's website is, his argument that Ivins sent the anthrax but did not intend to hurt anyone felt pretty convincing to me. Again, no way to be certain, just a gut feeling.
posted by msalt at 9:36 PM on February 18, 2011


Ivins (or the mystery attacker if you like) wanted to kill people. The first batch of anthrax killed one person. That wasn't enough, so a much more potent batch was prepared and that killed the rest. If the anthrax killer didn't mean to kill, he would have stopped after killing the first person in Florida.
posted by warbaby at 4:13 PM on February 19, 2011


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