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Anthrax report casts doubt on scientific evidence in FBI case against Bruce Ivins
The 190-page document by the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences praised the FBI's energetic pursuit of emerging science in the investigation. But it offered another possible explanation for the apparent link between the letters and the Ivins flask: that some of the mutations identified in the letters could have arisen independently, through a process known as "parallel evolution."
The report said this possibility "was not rigorously explored" by the FBI.
In a joint statement, the FBI and Justice Department said, "The FBI has long maintained that while science played a significant role, it was the totality of the investigative process that determined the outcome of the anthrax case . . . rarely does science alone solve an investigation.''
And a federal official involved in the investigation said the government was satisfied that its science would have met the standard of proof in federal court, which is to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty. "The standard is not beyond all doubt," the official said.
The report reignited a debate that has simmered among some scientists and others who have questioned the strength of the FBI's evidence against Ivins.
"This shows what we've been saying all along: that it was all supposition based on conjecture based on guesswork, without any proof whatsoever," said Paul Kemp, an attorney for Ivins.
Paul S. Keim, director of the Center for Microbial Genetics and Genomics at Northern Arizona University, who worked with the FBI on the investigation, called the report "a qualified endorsement of the FBI's approach.''
The report endorsed a key FBI conclusion: that the anthrax spores used in the mailings had not been altered, genetically or chemically. That appeared to rule out the possibility that the spores were "weaponized" or manipulated to make them more deadly. Some scientists have pointed to oddly elevated levels of silicon in the spores as an indication that the deadly powder was enhanced by someone with knowledge of advanced bioweapons techniques.
And the report reveals that the FBI and intelligence officers collected samples from an overseas site "because of information about efforts by al-Qaeda to develop an anthrax program.''
The report said that the tests turned out to be negative but that the evidence was inconsistent, and it called for further review. Federal law enforcement officials said they thoroughly investigated the possibility of terrorist involvement in the anthrax atttacks and are certain there was none.
Staff writer Joby Warrick and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.