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February 23, 2010

Anthrax Case Closed

Investigation: FBI concludes that government biodefense researcher Bruce Ivins was the culprit in the attacks

William G. Schulz

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Sandia National Laboratories
An SEM image of spores of Bacillus anthracis, the bacterium that causes anthrax.

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The FBI has closed its case on the infamous 2001 anthrax mailings, known as the Amerithrax investigation. Government biodefense researcher Bruce Ivins, who killed himself after being identified as a suspect, "was responsible for the death, sickness, and fear brought to our country by the 2001 anthrax mailings," said an FBI official in a statement released on Feb. 19.

The FBI's extensive, more than eight-year investigation included the development of pathbreaking technology to "fingerprint" the DNA of the anthrax spores used in the attacks. According to the FBI statement, that work "allowed investigators to pinpoint the origins of the anthrax. The FBI Laboratory, in conjunction with the best experts in the scientific community, developed four highly sensitive and specific tests to detect the unique qualities of the anthrax used in the 2001 attacks. This took several years to accomplish, but in early 2005, the groundbreaking research successfully identified where the anthrax used in the mailings had come from."

A National Academies panel is reviewing the science the FBI used to reach its conclusion in the case (C&EN, Aug. 17, 2009, page 34). The panel has said it will not produce an opinion on the guilt or innocence of anyone identified as a suspect by the FBI, but will restrict its work to an evaluation of the science.

A frequent critic of the FBI's investigation, Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), blasted the FBI's conclusion. He called the investigation "close minded" and said the bureau's evidence would not stand up in court.

Because Ivins is dead and a court case is thus impossible, the FBI seems "satisfied with barely a circumstantial case," Holt said. "The National Academy of Sciences review of the FBI's scientific methods in this case won't be released until summer," he added, "but the FBI doesn't seem to care."

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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