Investigators: Anthrax Indictment Was Not Imminent

Government investigators have said they may have been weeks away from indicting Bruce Ivins, the army scientist who committed suicide last week. NPR's FBI correspondent Dina Temple-Raston talks to host Andrea Seabrook about the latest developments in the anthrax investigation.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

Government investigators say they were still several major legal steps away from indicting Dr. Bruce Ivins as a suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks. Ivins is the army scientist who committed suicide last week.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston covers the FBI for NPR, and she joins me now in the studio. Dina, we've heard for days now that Ivins was just about to be indicted before he died. What have you learned?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the case is a little more nuanced than that. While the FBI felt it had enough to press charges against Ivins, they still had all these legal hoops that they still had to go through.

They'd written up the case, but they hadn't received a nod yet from the Department of Justice basically saying that they could go forward, and that could've taken days or even weeks, and then on top of that, there's this whole separate question of the grand jury.

They'd been approving subpoenas all the way along, during the investigation of the case, but jurors had yet to hear the evidence in its entirety about the case, and they had not been asked to vote yet on whether or not they were actually going to bring an indictment. That, too, could've taken weeks. So this idea that the indictment that the indictment was imminent just isn't true.

SEABROOK: What do you know about how strong the case actually is against Ivins.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well again, we're not quite sure. Because of grand jury secrecy requirements, the FBI can't release all the evidence quite yet. I mean, sources close to the investigation say the real smoking gun that they have consists of the science that they specifically developed for this case, and basically as I understand it - and I'm not a scientist - it allowed them to uncover the DNA code of a specific strain of anthrax.

It was like a type of genetic fingerprinting, and once they'd narrowed things down, they just had to look at who had access to this kind of anthrax, and that narrowed the field dramatically.

Sources I talked to at the FBI said that they started zeroing on Fort Detrick virtually from the start, and then they brought in an FBI profiling, trying to narrow that down a little further.

SEABROOK: Yeah, and that led to Steven Hatfield initially being a person of interest. Let me ask you, does Ivins' suicide mean that the case is now closed?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, there's still a process that the FBI has to go through to close the case. Usually, they present evidence they have to a U.S. attorney, and then that U.S. attorney signs off on closing the case.

In this case, I think this might get kicked all the way up to the attorney general, Michael Mukasey.

SEABROOK: And if the case is closed then, will we learn what the FBI actually had on the guy?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, that's a good question. Again, there are a couple of steps to go through. If Mukasey closes the case, FBI Director Mueller promised the victims and their families that the FBI would brief them on the investigation, and they wouldn't have to read about all of this in the paper or see it on TV, and the FBI can't brief them until the case is closed and the grand jury secrecy rules are lifted.

All these things will probably take a couple of days to complete. What we're hearing is that there's going to be an FBI press conference, presumably where some of the evidence going to be revealed, toward the middle of the week.

SEABROOK: NPR's FBI correspondent Dina Temple-Raston. Dina, thanks very much for coming in.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

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Anthrax Indictment May Have Been Weeks Away

Government investigators tell NPR that they were still several major legal steps away from indicting army researcher Dr. Bruce Ivins for the 2001 anthrax attacks when he killed himself this past week.

While they had written up the case and told officials at the Department of Justice they were prepared to go forward, the department had not yet approved the case. What is more, the evidence against Ivins had not yet been presented in its entirety to a grand jury and jurors had not yet been asked to vote on an indictment. That process could have taken weeks.

There had been some media reports saying that Ivins killed himself on Tuesday because he had been told that he was going to be indicted imminently. People close to the case told NPR that the FBI had a discussion with Ivins' lawyer and had presented him with some of the evidence in the case.

But the idea at the time was to convince Ivins' lawyer that it was in his client's best interest to admit to mailing envelopes with anthrax in the fall of 2001. People close to the investigation said it wasn't so much a plea discussion as the FBI making clear that they were steaming toward an indictment of Ivins.

The FBI is expected to provide a briefing on the evidence as early as midweek. The timing depends on a number of factors.

The case has to be formally closed before the FBI is no longer bound by grand jury secrecy requirements.

The bureau also has a blanket rule about not discussing pending cases. Normally, a case is closed by presenting evidence to the appropriate U.S. attorney and getting him or her to sign off on the case. Because the anthrax case is so high profile, officials said it is likely that Attorney General Michael Mukasey will have to sign off on closing it.

Once that happens, the FBI is expected to brief the anthrax victims who survived the attack and the families of the five people who died in the spate of anthrax mailings that took place in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

FBI Director Robert Mueller had promised the families that they would be briefed on the case and would not have to read about it in the papers. He is trying to make good on that promise, but can't do so until the case is closed and the grand jury restrictions are lifted.

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