FBI Faulted For Overstating Science In Anthrax Case The FBI and Justice Department overstated the certainty of the scientific evidence used to prove that Bruce Ivins carried out the anthrax mailings that killed five people in 2001, according to an independent panel of scientists. The panel limited its findings to the science and did not "assess the guilt or innocence of anyone" tied to the case.
NPR logo

FBI Faulted For Overstating Science In Anthrax Case

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/133775495/133785360" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
FBI Faulted For Overstating Science In Anthrax Case

FBI Faulted For Overstating Science In Anthrax Case

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/133775495/133785360" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Now, new questions about the 10-year-old case of the anthrax attacks. Today, a panel convened by the National Academies of Science released a critique of the science the FBI used in its investigation. The panel was asked by the FBI to review its methods. And while the panel did not reject the FBI's science, it said it wasn't as definitive as the bureau had claimed.

This story gives us the opportunity to talk with two of our reporters, NPR's Joe Palca on the science, and NPR's Dina Temple-Raston on the investigation. Welcome to both of you.


JOE PALCA: Thanks.

NORRIS: Dina, I'm going to start with you. Can you remind us again about the broad outlines of this case?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Sure. Well, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, there were a number of envelopes filled with anthrax that were mailed to lawmakers and to members of the media. In all told, there were five people who died and another 17 who got sick when they opened these envelops that were filled with this white powder. And the investigation, as you recall, went on for years. Initially, the FBI zeroed in on a government scientist that wasn't Bruce Ivins. And eventually they ended having to pay him millions of dollars in damages.

And then the suspect that they decided on, Bruce Ivins, they started investigating him in 2007. And the FBI says that just as agents were preparing to indict him, Ivins killed himself. And that was in July of 2008.

NORRIS: Joe, I'm going to get you in just a minute. But just tell us a bit about Bruce Ivins.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Bruce Ivins was a scientist who actually worked with anthrax at Fort Detrick. And he had access to this and that was one of the reasons they started zeroing in on him. And then there were other sort of circumstantial evidence that came in.

NORRIS: So, Joe, what did this review panel say?

PALCA: Well, the review panel was trying to answer the question: How definitively could you say that the anthrax that was in Bruce Ivins' lab was the same as the one that was found in the letters? Because that would be a key connection between Ivins and the letters. All the other evidence in this case, or most of it, has been circumstantial. So that would be a pretty strong piece evidence. And the FBI concluded that that was the same strain. But the academy panel says, well, yes, but.

And the reason they're saying yes, but, is that this is a very new branch of science being able to type a strain of bacteria. And the question is: Was it really for certain? And the academy panel said not necessarily for certain, probably, could be consistent with, but not certain.

NORRIS: Probably consistent with, not certain. So does it possibly mean that the FBI might have had the wrong guy?

PALCA: The scientific evidence doesn't speak to that exactly. What the scientific evidence says is - or what the science says is, if you're going to base your entire case on the science, it's not airtight. Right? You need to have other pieces of evidence. And, of course, the FBI says, well, sure, we have other piece of evidence.


TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, that's exactly right. I mean the FBI is saying that it wasn't science alone that led them to believe that Bruce Ivins was behind the attacks. And the FBI says it has lots of old-fashioned, gumshoe investigations that narrowed it down to Ivins. You know, they interviewed literally hundreds of people to account for the anthrax. They asked questions about how much did they use, and when did they use it, and what did you use it for.

And there's all this circumstantial evidence. For example, Ivins had a history of mailing things under false names and addresses. And he had mailed things to both lawmakers and media outlets under these false names and addresses. And these are the two groups, of course, that got these anthrax letters.

And he also had this obsession with the Kappa Kappa Gamma Sorority. And it turns out that the mailbox from which some these anthrax letters were posted was about 60 feet away from the Princeton Chapter of Kappa Kappa Gamma. Now, that doesn't exactly put him there at the mailbox mailing things, but it adds to this whole narrative.

NORRIS: It sounds that it was hoped that this panel would provide definitive answers. Is this over now?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the FBI people that I spoke to said they have absolutely no intention of reopening the case. So in that respect, yes, it's over. But because Bruce Ivins took his life before they could actually indict him, there's always going to be some controversy and conspiracy theories around this case.

NORRIS: And, Joe, Congressman Rush Holt is still planning something with this.

PALCA: That's right. He represents the district where the letters were mailed from. His office was one of the ones that was contaminated by the letters that were sent to Capitol Hill. And he says, look, these are questions, scientific questions that are still open, maybe not proving that Ivins wasn't guilty, but still open scientific questions. And he thinks that neither the FBI or the academy want to say this publically, but they're still significant questions about this case and he wants a national commission to investigate.

NORRIS: Joe Palca, Dina Temple-Raston, thanks to both of you.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

PALCA: You're welcome.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.