As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Evidence, Remixed

So that's it then. The FBI has laid out what they've got, and they say Bruce Ivins was the anthrax killer, hand down. No question about it. It was him. Definitely. Case closed. You can read the documents yourself!

Except there's the whole massive amounts of holes in the evidence thing. Other than that, rock solid.

1. Ivins had just been immunized against anthrax. He was required to have yearly immunizations, and some anthrax scientists have chosen to be vaccinated every six months for safety, since the vaccine's efficacy is weak--and Ivins had proven its weakness in several animal models. In his career he had probably received about 33 separate anthrax vaccinations.

2. Earlier, we heard the envelopes came from the specific post office he frequented. Today the affidavit states it is "reasonable to conclude" they were purchased in Maryland or Virginia.

3. Choosing a strain that would direct suspicion at Ivins. The perpetrator(s) were tremendously careful to leave no clues vis a vis the envelopes. For example, block lettering was used, which is the hardest to identify with handwriting analysis. Second, stamped envelopes were chosen to avoid using saliva. Third, there were no fingerprints on anything.

Why would the person(s) who took such care select an anthrax strain that would focus suspicion on himself? In 2001, strain analysis was possible. It had been discussed many times as a forensic tool for biowarfare, including in a paper I wrote in 1992, which Ivins had read, and in which I thanked him for his contributions.

4. Ivins was the "sole custodian" of the strain. But the strain was grown in 1997, and many people had access to it over that four year period. Having received a sample, or obtained it surreptitiously, they would be "custodians" of it too.

And most important, being at the actual scene of the crime:

13. The anthrax attacker MUST be able to be placed at the scene of the mailboxes, at the times the letters were mailed. Surely the FBI sought information on these dates and places from everyone with anthrax access in the US and probably abroad, shortly after the letter attacks. Either Ivins had an alibi or he didn't. Put up or shut up: this is the most critical evidence in this case. If Ivins cannot be placed in New Jersey on those dates, he is not the attacker, or he did not act alone.

Furthermore, there were other letters. Some contained other powders. Some were said to contain some anthrax in contemporaneous news reports. Some were warnings. These were mailed from other places, on other dates. The FBI has sat on this collateral evidence. If these envelopes, ink or block print were the same, the attacker would have to be placed at the scene when those letters were mailed. What happened to this evidence? Pony up.

You can give me all the lurid tales to paint this guy as a wacko as you want. Until you place him at the scene, without the sleight of hand of saying "the mailbox was near a storage closet that housed materials from a sorority that he was obsessed with 30 years ago," the case is noticeably weak. You can pull out all the acquaintances of Ivins (which conflict with those who actually knew him well), but all they do is prove Ivins was a creep (which is believable), not necessarily a bioterrorist.

The evidence we do have is middling.

While what I've seen of their case so far makes a pretty compelling argument that Ivins was involved in creating the anthrax, they've got nothing that explains how it walked out of Ft. Detrick, got into envelopes, and got sent to a bunch of media figures and senators. Importantly, their "motive" for the selection of Leahy and Daschle is piss poor.

And, as I've said twice already, if they take their "motive" seriously: a desire to make sure anthrax vaccines were continued, a desire to pass the PATRIOT Act, and a reason to dislike Daschle and Leahy, Scooter Libby (who also lived in an area where he could have gotten those envelopes) and Dick Cheney had much stronger motives for sending the anthrax.

But don't worry, the FBI says. We've got Ivins 200 miles away and no real motive and no real evidence tying him to the emptying the flask, but since we used some really cool science to place Ivins with the flask, that should be good enough for you.

The science is thin; the circumstantial evidence (he hated the ACLU! An NBC reporter was on his case at one point! He wrote a variation of "death to America" in an email in September 2001!) is voluminous and not particularly compelling. I'm seeing the FBI link the anthrax to a particular flask, but Ivins had no residue on him, in his car, in his house, in his lab, or really anywhere he had access to. And Greenwald makes an important point:

It is critical to keep in mind that all they released is their own claims and summary about the evidence they have. The evidence itself continues to remain concealed, in their exclusive possession, examined by nobody.

What happened today with this selective document release is akin to a criminal trial where only the Prosecutor is allowed to see the relevant evidence, only the Prosecutor is allowed to select which evidence is presented, and only the Prosecutor speaks. Such a distorted, one-sided process doesn't even happen at Guantanamo, which should, by itself, indicate how much skepticism is warranted here until the FBI makes the actual evidence available so that its claims can be subjected to critical scrutiny.

Plus, even if you agree with the FBI's conclusions, you have to consider them criminally liable for allowing Ivins to continue to work inside a government lab years after they pinpointed the flask that contained the deadly anthrax and linked it to him. That's insane.

Even the victims and their families and friends, who you would think would be most willing to have closure on this, aren't all convinced.

Dena Briscoe, president of the American Postal Workers Union local for Washington and Southern Maryland, slipped into the news conference at the Justice Department to ask when postal employees would be informed about the investigation. "There are still too many unanswered questions. I still can't say that one person did all of this," Briscoe told a reporter just before an official asked her to leave the room [...]

Leroy Richmond, 64, who nearly died after contracting anthrax at Brentwood, was asked later about the briefing. "I'm okay with it," he said, holding aloft a ream of documents. He referred questions to his attorney, Gregory Lattimer, who said the Stafford resident is still considering a lawsuit.

"A plausible case could be made in terms of Mr. Ivins's guilt, but on the other hand, a case could be made that none of this constitutes a smoking gun," Lattimer said.

This demands a full investigation and a full release of all the data that the FBI is using to convict Ivins in the media. In addition, we need to know who leaked to Brian Ross of ABC News the disclosure that the anthrax contained bentonite, linking it to Iraq. TV Newser has a long interview with Ross where he insists that his sources, all government scientists involved in the initial analysis, were not intentionally lying to him but simply mistaken. The sources themselves need to answer those questions.

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