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Voicing doubts, Congress presses FBI on anthrax case

Despite scientist's death, Democrats say matter is open

In July, Bruce E. Ivins, whom the FBI named the anthrax killer, committed suicide. In July, Bruce E. Ivins, whom the FBI named the anthrax killer, committed suicide.
By Scott Shane and Eric Lichtblau
New York Times News Service / September 7, 2008
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WASHINGTON - A month after the FBI declared that an Army scientist was the anthrax killer, leading members of Congress are demanding more information about the seven-year investigation, saying they do not think the bureau has proved its case.

In a letter sent Friday to Robert S. Mueller III, FBI director, Democratic leaders of the House Judiciary Committee said "important and lingering questions remain that are crucial for you to address, especially since there will never be a trial to examine the facts of the case."

The scientist, Bruce E. Ivins, committed suicide in July, and Mueller is likely to face demands for additional answers about the anthrax case when he appears before the House and Senate Judiciary committees on Sept. 16 and 17.

"My conclusion at this point is that it's very much an open matter," Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the top Republican on the Senate committee, said of the strength of the case against Ivins, a microbiologist at the Army's biodefense laboratory who worked on anthrax vaccines. "There are some very serious questions that have yet to be answered and need to be made public."

Bureau officials say they are certain they have solved the nation's first major bioterrorism attack, in which anthrax-laced letters killed five people, after a long and troubled investigation that by several measures was the most complex in the bureau's history.

But in interviews last week, two dozen bioterrorism specialists, veteran investigators, and members of Congress expressed doubts about the bureau's conclusions. Some called for an independent review of the case to reassure the public and to assess policies on the handling of dangerous pathogens like anthrax.

Meanwhile, new details of the investigation, revealed in recent interviews, raised questions about when the bureau focused on Ivins as the likely perpetrator and how solid its evidence was.

In April 2007, after the mailed anthrax was genetically linked to Ivins's laboratory and after he was questioned about late-night work in the laboratory before the letters were mailed, prosecutors sent Ivins a formal letter saying he was "not a target" of the investigation. And only a week before Ivins died did agents first take a mouth swab to collect a DNA sample, officials said.

Justice Department officials, who said in early August that the investigation was likely to be closed formally within days or weeks, now say it is likely to remain open for three to six more months. In the meantime, agents are continuing to conduct interviews with acquaintances of Ivins and are examining computers he used, seeking information that could strengthen the case.

But bureau and Justice Department officials insist that the delay, which they say is necessary to tie up loose ends in a complex investigation, reflects no doubts about their ultimate verdict. "People feel just as strongly as they did a month ago that this was the guy," said a department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Even the strongest skeptics acknowledged that the bureau had raised troubling questions about Ivins's mental health and had made a strong scientific case linking the mailed anthrax to a supply in his laboratory.

But they said the bureau's piecemeal release of information, in search warrant affidavits and in briefings for reporters and Congress, had left significant gaps in the trail that led to Ivins and had failed to explain how investigators ruled out at least 100 other people who the bureau acknowledged had access to the same flasks of anthrax.

In interviews, FBI officials said they knew their findings would face intense scrutiny after the bureau admitted that for years it had pursued the wrong man, Steven J. Hatfill, whom the government paid $4.6 million in June to settle a lawsuit that accused the government of leaking information about him to the news media.

Officials also acknowledged that they did not have a single, definitive piece of evidence indisputably proving that Ivins mailed the letters - no confession, no trace of his DNA on the letters, no security camera recording the mailings in Princeton, N.J.

But they said the case consisted of a powerfully persuasive accumulation of incriminating details.

"Who had the means, motive, and opportunity?" said John Miller, assistant FBI director for public affairs. "Some potential suspects may have had one, some had two, but on the cumulative scale, Ivins had many more of these elements than any other potential suspect."

Miller said the bureau ultimately planned to release much more information from its investigative files. But those disclosures, requiring a detailed review to remove private and classified information, are likely months away.

Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, a frequent critic of the bureau, said he was frustrated by the delay in closing the case and answering questions. "It's all very suspicious, and you wonder whether or not the FBI doesn't have something to cover up."

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