Anthrax Suspicions

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Friday, September 19, 2008

THERE'S NO better proof of the need for an independent review of the FBI's anthrax investigation than the words of Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.). Mr. Leahy was one of the intended recipients of anthrax-filled letters sent in 2001. Chairing a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday at which FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III testified, Mr. Leahy rejected the agency's assertion that government scientist Bruce E. Ivins acted alone in creating and dispensing the deadly spores that killed five people and sickened 17 others.

"I believe there are others involved, either as accessories before or accessories after the fact," Mr. Leahy said. "I believe there are others who can be charged with murder." Mr. Leahy's skepticism was echoed by GOP Sens. Arlen Specter (Pa.) and Charles E. Grassley (Iowa).

Mr. Mueller said this week that the FBI would turn to the National Academy of Sciences to review the novel genetic fingerprinting test the bureau developed to identify the unique spores used in the attacks. The bureau says that test enabled it to trace the spores to a vial in Mr. Ivins's lab at Fort Detrick in Maryland. Agreeing to a review of its lab work is a good if belated first step, but it does not go far enough: Even if the FBI got the science right, it still must explain how and why it eliminated from suspicion some 100 other people who had access to the vial.

Because Mr. Ivins committed suicide in July, as the government was close to indicting him, the evidence will not be tested in a court of law. Serious missteps throughout the investigation -- including the original identification of a different Fort Detrick scientist as the FBI's top suspect -- demand that all of the bureau's work be examined by an independent commission or the Justice Department's inspector general.

The FBI does not do itself or the public any favors by rolling out its evidence in the anthrax matter in a piecemeal fashion. If anything, its attempts to share pieces of information and justify its conclusion have raised more questions than they have answered. The FBI may very well be right that Bruce Ivins was the anthrax killer and that he acted alone. But the only way to ensure confidence is to subject its work to a comprehensive outside review. That is the right approach for victims, survivors and would-be victims such as Mr. Leahy; for Mr. Ivins's family; and for the public.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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