FBI Reveals Case Against Ivins

The FBI has revealed details of the science that led it to believe Army scientist Bruce Ivins was behind the 2001 anthrax mailings. Ivins committed suicide last month. At a news conference, the FBI connected the dots in the case against Ivins.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

New information today in the FBI's case against Bruce Ivins. The FBI revealed details about the science that led them to believe that Dr. Ivins was responsible for the 2001 anthrax mailings. Five people were killed. Bruce Ivins committed suicide last month. His colleagues and friends have been asking the FBI to put the scientific evidence on the table.

NPR's David Kestenbaum was at the press briefing today. David, thanks for being with us.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: Sure.

SCOTT: What did they lay out?

KESTENBAUM: I would say they connected a lot of dots. If you think of the spores as the murder weapon here, right? One of the things they were trying to do initially was figure out, trace the murder weapon back - where did it come from? And they noticed fairly early on that some of the spores actually looked different, which is strange because the one thing anthrax does really well is it reproduces perfectly. So they looked at these, and some of them actually looked different.

One of the scientists said it was like you have a big bowl of blue M&Ms and somewhere in there, there's a brown one and a yellow one and then maybe a green one. So they had to develop genetic tests to identify those different kinds in a concrete way. And using that, they're able to match it to eight - just eight out of a thousand samples. And the parent of those eight samples, by looking at lab books and stuff, the people who gave those people those samples, it all came pointed back to Dr. Bruce Ivins at the lab, the USAMRIID biodefense lab where he worked.

SIMON: Why did it take so long, several years, to focus on the Ivins lab?

KESTENBAUM: Well, the genetic test actually took a - this was happening just as genetics was really, you know, beginning to gallop. And they didn't actually have the genetic test until 2006. Bruce Ivins had submitted a sample that did not match the anthrax used in the letters. And they later - they now believe that he submitted a false sample. But they don't think that that threw them off too much because they are already focusing on those other matches they had in the lab where he worked.

SIMON: Of course, there's not going to be a court case, at least, against Bruce Ivins because of the suicide. But what's your feeling as to whether this genetic evidence would hold up in a court of law?

KESTENBAUM: I think, you know, the genetic match is fine as far as it goes. I think the complication for the FBI is that while Bruce Ivins had custody of the parent sample these were all taken from, the truth is that the anthrax in the letters matched eight different samples. And they told us today, for the first time, that those samples were two institutions - so the biodefense lab and some other place, which they wouldn't name. And they said there are around a hundred people who would have had access, could have had access to those. So that's a large number of people who might have had, you know, might have been able to get their hands on these spores.

SIMON: There are some people who have raised questions as to whether or not Bruce Ivins had all of the tools he would have needed to make the powdered spores. Did the FBI address that?

KESTENBAUM: Yes. So the spores were very - they flowed like a liquid, you know? They were very - they stayed in the air. And there are some question, well, you know, would you need a special milling machine in order to get the spores into that fine powder? And the FBI's answer, they wouldn't say how they did it, but they said they were basically able to duplicate the sort of spores that were in the letters using very simple tools. They wouldn't talk about what - they didn't want to give terrorists any help - but they said he wouldn't have needed anything beyond what he would have had in his lab.

SIMON: Okay. David, thanks very much.

KESTENBAUM: You're welcome.

SIMON: NPR's David Kestenbaum.

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