FBI to reveal evidence in anthrax case
After nearly seven years of investigating, FBI officials plan to present evidence today to the surviving victims of the 2001 anthrax attacks that they believe proves a Maryland scientist launched the deadly mailings that gripped the nation in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“The details of the FBI’s scientific research and accomplishments will validate the government’s decision regarding the origin of the anthrax mailings,” said one federal law enforcement official familiar with the evidence.
It is to be presented this morning to the families of the five victims who died and nearly two dozen survivors, who have been brought to Washington for a closed-door briefing at FBI headquarters. Later, Senate officials who were among the targets and reporters will also be briefed.
“The unsealed documents should answer the outstanding questions regarding the findings in this case,” the official said.
An FBI agent’s affidavit seeking a search warrant for Bruce E. Ivins’ personal property that is nearly 100 pages long and summarizes much of the information that the bureau had gathered against him for more than a year is expected to be released.
But some survivors, relatives and lawyers representing Ivins said they had a slew of questions.
Among them: Why did the FBI focus for years on another scientist, Steven J. Hatfill, before shifting gears and fingering Ivins, a Frederick, Md., husband and father of two? And if the FBI and the Justice Department had the evidence to prove Ivins did it, then why didn’t they charge him before he apparently killed himself last week?
“What troubles me is that Mr. Ivins wasn’t indicted, and if he wasn’t indicted, how confidant are they that they had the evidence and the information that they needed?” said former Sen. Tom Daschle, whose office received one of the letters containing the deadly spores when he was Senate Democratic leader. “The only thing that has changed is that he has committed suicide.”
Daschle, who has been critical of the FBI investigation, said he welcomed the release of the investigative documents.
“I think it’s important to give all of us [victims] and the American people information that they can share and some appreciation of the overall state of the investigation,” Daschle said. “But I also think it’s important, given the mistakes made in the past, that they are not jumping to premature conclusions.”
Even as the FBI lays out its case against Ivins, family members and colleagues at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Ft. Detrick, where Ivins worked for 28 years, will be gathering for a morning memorial service.
Dr. W. Russell Byrne, a friend and former supervisor of Ivins at Ft. Detrick, said that Ivins’ colleagues were highly skeptical of the FBI’s allegations but as scientists wanted to see what the agency had before making up their minds.
“All of us don’t think he had anything to do with it,” Byrne said. But he added: “I just have to see what they’ve got. You work mostly with scientists, and they say, ‘Show me the data.’ You look at what you’ve got, make a decision and then act on it.”
Byrne said he was angry about what he described as overly aggressive FBI tactics.
Ivins “was being pushed to a breaking point. And it was attributed to the investigation, to the two searches of his house, taking his computer out,” Byrne said. “I would hope that such actions by the FBI would be included in the reports” to be released today.
One of the nation’s leading military anthrax researchers, Ivins, 62, died July 29 after taking an overdose of over-the-counter medication.
He had been told by authorities that they were preparing to seek his indictment on capital murder charges.
The federal law enforcement official said that even though no indictment was obtained, a federal grand jury had been hearing final testimony in the case and authorities had expected that Ivins would be charged within several weeks.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III plans to participate in the briefing of survivors and family members, the official and others said Tuesday.
After that, they said, the FBI and some Justice Department officials will participate in the congressional and media briefings.
All of them spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to discuss the case.
FBI Assistant Director John Miller and Brian Roehrkasse, chief spokesman for the Justice Department, would not comment on the briefing plans or what kind of evidence authorities would present.
But both of them said that much of the media coverage since Ivins’ death had been overly speculative and, at times, misinformed.
“What we have seen over the past few days has been a mix of improper disclosures of partial information mixed with inaccurate information and then drawn into unfounded conclusions,” Roehrkasse said. “None of that serves the victims, their families or the public.”
He did not specify which reports were inaccurate or misleading.
Much of the evidence that the FBI believes ties Ivins to the mailings is scientific, including advanced DNA fingerprinting techniques the FBI helped develop that matched unique sections of genetic code from Ivins’ lab to the anthrax spores inhaled by the victims at a Florida tabloid newspaper, two TV networks and elsewhere in the fall of 2001.
“That will play prominently,” a second federal law enforcement official said of the DNA evidence. That official said the evidence does not put the anthrax directly in Ivins’ hands but traces it to a small circle of people with access to the same lab; he said other investigative information connects Ivins to the case even more strongly.
“Most people would find it compelling. That is the best word to describe it,” said the second law enforcement official. Asked if the information would have been enough to convict Ivins, the official said: “It’s hard to say.”
The FBI also believes that Ivins borrowed freeze-drying equipment from a bioweapons lab that would have allowed him to take moist anthrax cultures and rapidly convert them into the kind of dry spores capable of being inhaled by humans, one source familiar with the investigation said.