By Dan Vergano and Steve Sternberg
The FBI never examined anthrax samples from the 2001 contamination of a biodefense lab that was covered up by their lead suspect in the anthrax mailings — a decision that one of the FBI's leading anthrax experts calls "weird."
Researcher Bruce Ivins in 2002 confessed to cleaning up the office contamination without telling anyone during an Army investigation at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md. Ivins became a suspect in 2005 in the mailings that killed five and sickened 17.
FBI investigators have not yet analyzed the genetic fingerprints of 25 anthrax samples supplied from the lab contamination investigation, says Vahid Majidi of the FBI's Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate.
"They're still in my lab," says Paul Keim, a microbiologist at Northern Arizona University. Keim called the FBI's decision not to examine the contamination samples "weird" given the intensity of investigators' focus on biodefense researchers, which included polygraphs of Army institute researchers.
Keim, until June, retained duplicates of the FBI's repository of 1,070 anthrax samples collected from researchers worldwide after the mailbox attacks. Genetic fingerprints of those repository samples eliminated suspects other than Ivins by 2007, says FBI lab director Chris Hassell.
The investigation into the 2001 anthrax mailings has drawn harsh reviews from critics in recent Senate and House hearings, such as Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who questioned whether one person could have carried out the attacks. The Justice Department publicly named Ivins, 62, as their lead suspect in the attacks in August, days after his suicide.
Ivins' attorney, Paul Kemp, says his client was innocent and suggested many researchers had access to the anthrax identified by genetic fingerprints.
Before landing on the FBI's radar, Ivins emerged as the central figure in the separate investigation of anthrax contamination at Fort Detrick, where he confessed to cleaning up spilled anthrax in his office without telling superiors. "I had no desire to cry wolf," Ivins told an Army investigator at the time. The Army's investigation found samples of the type of anthrax used in the letter attacks on Ivins' desk and elsewhere in his office, according to a report May 9, 2002.
"Why didn't (the FBI) analyze it? One presumes this was pretty relevant evidence," says biodefense analyst Michael Stebbins of the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C., who was not part of the investigation. "It raises questions about systematic errors in the FBI investigation."
Majidi, an FBI scientist involved in the investigation, says the bureau viewed the 2002 contamination investigation as an Army matter. As a result, he says, the FBI never submitted samples from Ivins' office for the detailed genetic analysis that later tied a flask in his laboratory to the anthrax used in the attacks.
"I don't know" why the FBI never analyzed the 2002 anthrax in Ivins' office, says Debbie Weierman of the FBI's Washington Field Office. "Suspicion on him was immense, if you look at this in hindsight."
For Keim, the revelation in August that the FBI had shifted its focus to Ivins cast the omission in a new light. In 2002, he says, "I got the samples and thought, 'What a sloppy place.' But I'm starting to think Bruce was taking anthrax out of his lab and then covering his tracks."
Saturday, September 27, 2008
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