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Little Chance Seen of U.S. Reopening Anthrax Mailings Case

A top Republican lawmaker said he sees little chance of the U.S. Justice Department reopening its probe into the 2001 anthrax mailings, despite persistent concerns about the conclusion that deceased Army microbiologist Bruce Ivins carried out the attacks, three news organizations reported on Friday (see GSN, Oct. 11).

Senator Charles Grassley (Iowa) said either shocking new information or massive public calls for a new probe would be required to see a new investigation in the face of strong objections from Justice and FBI officials, PBS, ProPublica and McClatchy Newspapers jointly reported.

Grassley, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said it is likely beyond the capability of even the head of the panel to produce "enough heat (to reopen the case) when you're up against the FBI. And I've been up against the FBI."

The mailings killed five people and injured 17. The FBI ultimately identified Ivins, a scientist at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md., as the sole perpetrator. He committed suicide in July 2008 before charges were filed.

Some lawmakers and colleagues of Ivins have for years questioned the allegation. Recent news and scientific reports have pointed to a number of potential weaknesses in the case, including a high quantity of tin in the mailed spores that might point to production techniques that were outside of the scientist's capabilities.

Representative Rush Holt (D-N.J.), a longtime critic of the FBI probe, said he could launch a third attempt to secure passage of a bill that would establish a special body to probe the mailings.

"There are so many reasons to want to get to the bottom of it," said the lawmaker, who represents the area from which the anthrax letters were sent. "I hate to think of what lines of investigation have been shut off."

Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who backs Holt's calls for a special investigatory commission, is also "frustrated that the FBI has failed to answer all of his questions," according to his spokesman, Ilan Kayatsky.

Still, "it does seem unlikely at this time that they will reopen their investigation," the spokesman said.

The FBI spent eight years and $100 million investigating the anthrax case. However, virtually all of the information that pointed to Ivins' guilt was circumstantial, including accusations the Army microbiologist deliberately provided authorities with doctored anthrax samples, hoped to save his anthrax vaccine research from the cutting block by sparking a massive public scare, and that scientific analysis proved that the microbiologist's flask of anthrax was "effectively the murder weapon."

A review by the ProPublica/PBS/McClatchy team found issues with those assertions. Among the findings: The anthrax vaccine program on which Ivins was working was completely financed and a National Academy of Sciences team and two researchers who participated in the FBI probe found fault with the "murder weapon" and other scientific determinations.

Justice Department attorney Rachel Lieber, chief prosecutor on the case, said criticism of components of the investigation do not take away from the "big picture," which is comprised of an enormous "mosaic of evidence" that points to Ivins' guilt.

Added former FBI profiler Brad Garrett: Ivins was "a really super angry guy ... and dangerous on some levels. He clearly had grudges with people" (PBS/ProPublica/McClatchy Newspapers, Oct. 16).

NTI Analysis