By Joby Warrick and Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 1, 2009
A key congressional critic of the FBI's investigation of the 2001 anthrax attacks called Friday for a broader inquiry into the government's handling of the case, saying he remained deeply skeptical of the bureau's claim that a Maryland scientist acted alone in carrying out the country's worst bioterrorism attack.
"Our government -- and specifically, the FBI -- suffers from a credibility gap on this issue," Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.) told an expert panel that convened in Washington this week to begin reviewing the scientific methods the FBI used to link the attacks to Bruce E. Ivins, a microbiologist who worked in the Army's chief biodefense lab at Fort Detrick, Md.
The 15-member panel was appointed by the National Academy of Sciences, at the FBI's request, to provide an independent review of the high-tech genetic analysis that ultimately led investigators to Ivins. The review is expected to last up to 18 months.
The start of the panel's work coincided with the first anniversary of the death of Ivins, who had been the FBI's prime suspect in the attacks before he committed suicide July 29, 2008. Friends and colleagues of the scientist and some independent experts have sharply criticized the bureau's handling of the seven-year investigation, which for years focused on another Army scientist, whom the FBI later acknowledged was innocent.
The FBI hopes that the scientific review will help dispel at least some of the skepticism. But Holt, whose central New Jersey district includes postal facilities that were used to mail some of the letters containing anthrax bacteria, said the panel's focus was too narrow. He has called for an independent commission to go beyond technical findings in reviewing the FBI's methods.
"I have fundamental concerns about how this was conducted and lingering doubts about the conclusions -- and a lot of others do," Hold said in an interview. "I'd like to be able to assure my constituents in New Jersey that there is no longer a murderer at large, and that we're prepared to deal with the next bioterrorist attack."
FBI Assistant Director Chris Hassell told the panel that he believed the review would validate the bureau's efforts to identify the source of the anthrax bacteria used in the attack. Bureau scientists identified a unique series of genetic mutations in the attack strain that were later positively matched to anthrax spores Ivins kept in his lab.
"We at the FBI laboratory are confident in our conclusions," Hassell told the panel.
Five people died and 17 others were sickened when anthrax bacteria were sent through the mail to media companies and U.S. Senate offices in the fall of 2001.
Federal prosecutors in the District and agents in the FBI's Washington Field Office had been planning to close the case in recent weeks, but the process has been delayed because of a host of legal and privacy questions.
"The Justice Department and the FBI continue working to conclude the investigation into the 2001 anthrax attacks," department spokesman Dean Boyd said. "We anticipate closing the case in the near future."