By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told skeptical lawmakers yesterday that the bureau will enlist an expert panel to assess the quality of scientific evidence in its widespread anthrax investigation.
Deflecting calls for a special congressional inquiry, bureau leaders are reaching out to the National Academy of Sciences to evaluate the advanced genetic tests that investigators used to trace lethal anthrax spores back to a single flask in an Army lab at Fort Detrick, Md.
Prosecutors used the groundbreaking DNA fingerprint analysis, which took years and cost more than $10 million, to brand bioweapons researcher Bruce E. Ivins as the sole culprit in the 2001 anthrax mailings. Ivins committed suicide in July, before he was charged with a crime, leaving questions about his role in attacks that killed five people and sickened 17.
Mueller told the House Judiciary Committee yesterday that agents and prosecutors are continuing to review documents and follow leads in the case. In recent days, authorities have unsealed a July 11 search warrant for Ivins's work locker and lab space as well as a warrant to search a pair of computers in the Frederick public library that he used in late July, shortly before he overdosed on acetaminophen. Neither search uncovered relevant evidence.
More information, Mueller testified yesterday, will be released when the investigation is closed.
"For the time being, this case remains open while certain investigative activity winds up," he said.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) asked Mueller to explain discrepancies in bureau accounts of the potency of the anthrax spores in letters that were sent to lawmakers and media organizations. At one point, FBI officials said the substance was "weaponized," a step that made the powder more airy and required special scientific know-how. But in a briefing last month, government scientists said that silicon in the spores was a natural byproduct of the environment, not the result of deadly engineering.
Nadler demanded information on the amount of silicon found in the spores as well as more insight into how investigators ruled out the involvement of scientists at other labs and CIA contracting facilities.
Separately, Mueller fielded questions from House Judiciary Committee members who expressed concern that new ground rules for FBI agents investigating national security threats could compromise civil liberties.
The proposals would give agents the power to use physical surveillance, deploy informants and conduct "pretext" interviews in which they disguised their identities without specific evidence of a crime. The new rules could take effect as soon as Oct. 1, despite warnings from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Arab American Institute and an array of privacy groups that they could encourage racial and ethnic profiling.
Yesterday the groups called on Justice Department officials to make the 45-page draft public before Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey signs it. Without reviewing the language in the proposal, they said, it is difficult to evaluate the significance of the changes and how they will work in practice.
"Even if they're adopted, what assurance will the American people have that they're being complied with?" asked Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.).
Added Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.): "The problem, as we know, lies with how individual agents may take the new grant of authority. If you lower the standard, they're going to engage in more aggressive conduct."
Responding to questions about the bureau's scrutiny of mortgage fraud schemes, Mueller said FBI task forces are pursuing more than 1,400 local scams involving appraisers and brokers, as well as 24 targeted investigations of large financial institutions that may have played down their losses in housing-sector investments or inflated estimates of their real estate assets.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.