The investigation into the 2001 anthrax attacks (dubbed "Amerithrax" by the FBI) is now closed. Yesterday, the Department of Justice released a 92-page summary [pdf]
of their investigation. Their conclusion -- that USAMRIID
scientist Bruce Ivins was the culprit -- was backed by an impressive amount of evidence, including microbiological detective work (p. 23 ff). But some of the investigation was downright bizarre....
On page 59, the FBI starts deconstructing the language of the (very short) anthrax notes, and soon devolves into a Bible-Code-like hunt for hidden messages in the NBC note
. After having read Douglas Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach
, a copy of which Ivins had tossed in the garbage can, the FBI concluded that Ivins had hidden either the message "FNY" or "PAT" in his letter.
Of course, the FBI misunderstood GEB
, interpreting a whimsical demonstration of Cantor's diagonal argument
for a steganographic how-to. Even Hofstadter himself says that the supposed connection was a "red herring."
This is not the only example of how the FBI, even when it has highly-sophisticated scientific techniques at its disposal, can't let go of pseudoscientific, mystical thinking. Their reliance on the polygraph
, for example, will continue undiminished even though Ivins, like other high-profile criminals before him
, passed a polygraph test