Friday, August 15, 2008

FBI = Fall-Guy Bruce Ivins?

The New York Times has been much more leery of the FBI's case against Dr. Bruce Ivins than has the rest of the mainstream news media. Here are some quotes from a NYT article yesterday (F.B.I. Will Present Scientific Evidence in Anthrax Case to Counter Doubts) that reported the less-than-convinced reactions of Congressional officials and a GAO technologist who were briefed by the FBI on its forensic evidence:

Growing doubts from scientists about the strength of the government’s case against the late Bruce E. Ivins, the military researcher named as the anthrax killer, are forcing the Justice Department to begin disclosing more fully the scientific evidence it used to implicate him.

In the face of the questions, Federal Bureau of Investigation officials have decided to make their first detailed public presentation next week on the forensic science used to trace the anthrax used in the 2001 attacks to a flask kept in a refrigerator in Dr. Ivins’s laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md. Many scientists are awaiting those details because so far, they say, the F.B.I. has failed to make a conclusive case.

The bureau presented forensics information to Congressional and government officials this week in a closed-door briefing, but a number of listeners said the briefing left them less convinced that the F.B.I. had the right man, and they said some of the government’s public statements appeared incomplete or misleading.

For instance, the Justice Department said earlier this month in unsealing court records against Dr. Ivins that he had tried to mislead investigators in 2002 by giving them an anthrax sample that did not appear to have come from his laboratory.

But F.B.I. officials acknowledged at the closed-door briefing, according to people who were there, that the sample Dr. Ivins gave them in 2002 did in fact come from the same strain used in the attacks, but, because of limitations in the bureau’s testing methods and Dr. Ivins’s failure to provide the sample in the format requested, the F.B.I. did not realize that it was a correct match until three years later.

In addition, people who were briefed by the F.B.I. said a batch of misprinted envelopes used in the anthrax attacks — another piece of evidence used to link Dr. Ivins to the attacks — could have been much more widely available than bureau officials had initially led them to believe.

Naba Barkakati, an engineer who is the chief technologist for the Government Accountability Office and who also attended this week’s briefing, said of the F.B.I.’s forensics case against Dr. Ivins: “It’s very hard to get the sense of whether this was scientifically good or bad. We didn’t really get the question settled, other than taking their word for it.”

But had Dr. Ivins lived and faced trial for the anthrax killings, Thomas M. DeGonia II, one of his lawyers, said his legal team would have quickly tried to have the genetic testing of the anthrax strains thrown out of court as unreliable. The type of testing the F.B.I. developed, he said “has never been proven or tested by the courts.”

Maybe the Mad Scientist really did it. That's plausible. But the evidence presented to the public so far strikes me as the sort of thing that sounds much more convincing in a press release than it would from a witness subject to cross-examination.

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