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FBI to Show How Genetics Led to Anthrax Researcher

A member of a decontamination team works at the Hart Senate Office Building after the 2001 anthrax attacks.
A member of a decontamination team works at the Hart Senate Office Building after the 2001 anthrax attacks. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
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By Marilyn W. Thompson, Carrie Johnson and Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The FBI today will begin to unveil how it exploited the rapidly advancing science of genetics to link a single bioweapons researcher to samples taken from the victims of the 2001 anthrax attacks and to powder from the letters that killed them.

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The bureau scheduled briefings with Senate leaders who were among the targets and with survivors and relatives of those who died after anthrax-laced mail passed through their hands. It also plans to release about 50 pages of documents offering some details of the case.

The FBI said it will share those details with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, including Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who was the addressee on one of the letters that set off panic on Capitol Hill.

Former Senate majority leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), who was also a target, received a phone call Monday from FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III to set up a meeting, one day after Daschle questioned "the overall caliber and quality of the investigation." Daschle said Mueller cited "grand jury limitations" in what he could discuss. It will be Daschle's first briefing on the attacks in five years.

Much of what the FBI will say will involve the scientific trail, which included 19 outside laboratories at a cost of $10 million, that led investigators to bacteriologist Bruce E. Ivins, a noted anthrax researcher at the Army's bioweapons laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md. The evidence gave them enough confidence to move toward charging Ivins with murder before he committed suicide last week. The Justice Department yesterday continued to discuss whether it can shutter one of the most perplexing investigations in FBI history and unseal the bulky case files.

"We crossed a number of scientific barriers in this case," said one senior FBI official who has been ordered not to talk about the case publicly. "We literally were inventing science as we went along."

Law enforcement sources and published scientific papers indicate that the investigation gained traction through technological and scientific advances that dramatically speeded up the process of differentiating the genetic makeup of hundreds of distinct but closely related strains of bacteria.

Coupled with a fresh scientific understanding of the subtle differences between the strains and a new system for analyzing them, the rapid "sequencing" machines made it possible to detect the minuscule differences and link the one used in the attacks to a single laboratory.

At the time of the attacks, the knowledge to accomplish this in less than decades of laborious work did not exist. But the science of reading and analyzing DNA was on the verge of an explosion, one that the anthrax attacks may have helped to speed up.

Bruce Budowle, an FBI scientist at its lab in Quantico, reported to an international conference in September 2003 that a new field of forensic science -- known as microbial forensics -- had evolved as a result of the investigation. The letter attacks, he said, showed the "need to enhance our capabilities for forensic attribution."

The FBI has boasted publicly only in general terms about the scientific accomplishments in the case. Laboratories and researchers involved in the work under FBI contracts signed agreements not to discuss their contributions, but some relevant insights have emerged in scientific papers published over the past six years as work progressed on decoding the genetic composition of Bacillus anthracis, the anthrax bacterium.

Still, many details of the FBI's work remain fuzzy. The bureau shared none of the details that its consultants reported back, even among the other trusted laboratories.

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