'Spore on the Grassy Knoll'

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

OFFICIALS AT the Federal Bureau of Investigation presented more evidence this week that they say identifies Bruce E. Ivins as the lone culprit in the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five people and sickened 17 others. But even they acknowledged that the evidence is unlikely to win over skeptics. "I don't think we're ever going to be able to put the suspicions to bed," said Vahid Majidi of the FBI's Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate. "There's always going to be a spore on the grassy knoll."

In fact, the FBI's latest disclosure raised more questions than it answered. For example, the agency disclosed that in February 2002, Dr. Ivins provided a sample of anthrax from a flask in his lab labeled RMR-1029; the FBI destroyed the sample, though, because Dr. Ivins allegedly did not submit it using proper protocols. The FBI now says that the spores found in a duplicate sample of RMR-1029 provided by Dr. Ivins at the same time, but stored at a university in Arizona, are almost identical to the spores used in the attack. The agency again acknowledged this week that more than 100 individuals could have had access to RMR-1029; it has not yet explained how it eliminated everyone but Dr. Ivins as a suspect.

The case against Dr. Ivins will never be tested in court; Dr. Ivins committed suicide last month as the Justice Department was preparing to indict him. And while the FBI and Justice Department are right to share information with the public, the slow rollout and the selective nature of what the agency is able or willing to share are not the best way to assess the validity of its claims. To that end, an independent commission or the Justice Department inspector general should review the investigation as a whole. This examination should review the methods used by the FBI in investigating Dr. Ivins and, before him, Dr. Steven J. Hatfill, who was exonerated by the Justice Department this month. It should also examine how Dr. Ivins was able to maintain his security clearance at Fort Detrick despite apparently suffering from serious mental illness. Any review must also scrutinize the FBI's forensic evidence, especially its use of a new test that is said to identify specific strains of anthrax through genetic "fingerprinting." This review would best be done outside of the political arena by scientists with expertise in biological weapons.

Congressional hearings and a commission probe are likely to mean many more months of investigation and a concomitant investment of taxpayer money. Given the skepticism surrounding the FBI's investigation, that is not too much to ask to try to get definitive answers about one of the country's most traumatic episodes in recent times.

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