August 5, 2008

Anthrax Case Called ‘Circumstantial’ FBI Tries to Amass Evidence on Ivins

By Scott Shane

The evidence amassed by FBI investigators against Bruce Ivins, the army scientist who killed himself last week after learning that he would probably be charged in the anthrax letter attacks of 2001, was largely circumstantial, and a grand jury in Washington was planning to hear several more weeks of testimony before issuing an indictment, a person who has been briefed on the investigation said.

While genetic analysis had linked the anthrax letters to a supply of the deadly bacterium in Ivins's laboratory at Fort Detrick, Maryland, at least 10 people had access to the flask containing that anthrax, the source said Sunday. The source spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the investigation.

Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation also have no evidence proving that Ivins visited New Jersey on the dates in September and October 2001 when investigators believe the letters were sent from a mailbox in Princeton, the source said.

The source acknowledged that there might be some elements of the evidence of which he was unaware. And while he characterized what he did know about as "damning," he said that instead of irrefutable proof, investigators had an array of indirect evidence that they argue strongly implicates Ivins in the attacks, which killed 5 people and sickened 17.

That evidence includes tracing the pre-stamped envelopes used in the attacks to stock sold in three Maryland post offices, including one in Frederick, frequented by Ivins, who had long rented a post office box there under an assumed name, the source said. The evidence also includes records of the scientist's extensive after- hours use of his lab at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases around the time the letters were mailed, the source said.

In an indication that investigators were still trying to strengthen their case, FBI agents took two public computers from the downtown public library in Frederick last week, The Frederick News- Post reported.

One law enforcement official said Sunday that evidence against Ivins might be made public as early as Wednesday, if the bureau could persuade a U.S. judge to unseal the evidence and if agents could brief survivors of the anthrax attacks and family members of those who died.

Paul Kemp, a lawyer for Ivins who maintains his client's innocence, declined to comment for the record Sunday on the evidence mentioned.

The stakes for the beleaguered FBI and its troubled investigation, now in its seventh year, could hardly be higher.

The bureau, having recently paid off one researcher who was wrongly singled out, Steven Hatfill, now stands accused by Ivins's lawyer and some of his colleagues of hounding an innocent man to suicide.

Only by making public a powerful case that Ivins was behind the letters can the FBI begin to redeem itself, members of Congress say and some bureau officials admit privately.

Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the former Democratic leader of the Senate and one target of the deadly letters, said Sunday that he had long had grave doubts about the investigation.

"From the very beginning, I've had real concerns about the quality of the investigation," Daschle said Sunday.

"Given the fact that they already paid somebody else $5 million for the mistakes they must have made gives you some indication of the overall caliber and quality of the investigation," Daschle added. He was referring to the government's settlement with Hatfill, which pays him $2,825,000 plus $150,000 a year for life to compensate for what the FBI now acknowledges was a focus for years on the wrong man.

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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